The remote town of Ujire is nestled in the chain of mountains that runs along India’s west coast. Step away from its tiny downtown, and you are surrounded by lush hills with dense forests and patches of farmland.
The region is also one of India’s wettest. Between June and November, the monsoons bring torrential rains to these parts. And it was a conversation about the monsoons that spurred engineer Harish Hande’s decision to open a rural engineering lab here.
A few years back, a local man told him about an embarrassing problem. He said during the rainy season women here can’t hang clothes out to dry, so the clothes remain damp.
“Because of which the clothes smell, and because of which there are marital problems,” says Hande. “There’s no physical relationship that happens in a marriage.”
To save Ujire’s marriages, the town needed an inexpensive clothes dryer that worked in the rainy season. Hande says this was not a problem that engineers at big institutes like MIT or Caltech would ever hear about.
“No labs in the world would have got this issue at all.”
Hande heard of the problem because his years of work in the area – selling solar lighting systems – had earned him the community’s respect and trust.
That realization gave Hande an idea: What if he opened a laboratory right here in Ujire? The lab would ask the community about its problems and then would try to solve those problems with new technologies.
The result is SELCO Labs. It is supported by foundations and housed at the local engineering college.
One of the first issues the lab chose to address was an economic problem faced by local banana farmers, says Anand Narayan,* the lab’s manager and co-founder.
“The typical story is as a farmer that I would go to the local retailer and would say, ‘Here is a bunch of bananas,’” explains Narayan. “He will start off with the story that, oh, there is too much bananas in the market, price is very low, I can offer you about five rupees per kilogram, and that really irritates you because that is barely going to recover the cost of your transport.”
So what if there were a way to preserve the bananas and create more demand for farmers’ crops year-round?
The lab devised a solution – an inexpensive fruit dryer. It is currently being tested by one of SELCO’s local partners, a regional non-profit called Sri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project that runs a small food packaging unit and employs poor women.
When it’s sunny, the dryer runs on solar energy. In the rainy season, it uses wood as a fuel.
The dryer is a big wooden box, covered in front by synthetic cloth. Inside, there are trays of wire mesh with thin slices of banana slowly drying in the heat of the fire underneath.
SELCO employee Sandeep Adyanthaya, who often stops by to check how the dryer is working, lets me try a couple slices. They are sweet, but with a hint of smokiness.
The executive director of the organization testing the dryer, L.H. Manjunath, says the dryer could be especially useful for poor women like those working in his food packaging unit.
“They (can) buy the bananas when it is available in the market, convert it into dried bananas, and then sell later,” he says. “So the shelf life increases, quality remains, and poor people get additional income.”
News about the lab’s work has spread, which has encouraged more local residents like M.N. Bhat to seek help for their problems.
Bhat is a retired school teacher with a small farm. He grows cashews, coconuts, and araca nuts, a type of nut that many South Asians chew like tobacco. He says in recent years his farm has received some unwelcome visitors: wild monkeys.
“They migrate from other place, they stay here for three or four days,” he says. “They eat tender coconuts and pluck the araca nut and throw it away. So totally they’re destroying my crop.”
Bhat showed me around the farm, pointing out the scores of broken coconuts strewn everywhere.
Several months ago, Bhat asked SELCO Labs: Could they build a device to scare the monkeys away?
The lab came up with an audio player hooked up to a megaphone that played sounds of fireworks, tigers, and lions. They put the device on a timer so that it would repeat the sounds every few hours, then sent it off to Bhat’s farm.
Bhat says the device worked, but only in the beginning.
“The monkeys, first they ran away, then they enjoyed,” says Bhat. “They came and saw where the sound comes. A small monkey came on the megaphone and looked into it.”
He was disappointed, but the monkey-scaring device remains a work in progress.
Lab manager Anand Narayan says his team plans to connect the device to a motion detector so it will go off only when the intruders are nearby. However, he admits that even that may not be a permanent solution to the monkey problem.
“Because they might continue to get smarter,” he says, “and we might have to keep fighting the arms race if you will.”
As for the problem that inspired the lab in the first place – the problem of drying clothes during monsoons – Narayan and his colleagues are still scratching their heads.
For one thing, the dryer needs to be inexpensive because people here can’t afford what most urban Indians can. And they can’t use electric dryers because most homes have no electricity.
Narayan says a wood-burning dryer may solve the problem, but he worries that, like the banana dryer, it might give the clothes a smoky smell.
“And so the problem is in our court, where we have to get it built and tested, and then, if it works, go to the next step,” he says.
Two years since the lab first opened, Narayan says he has come to appreciate that developing technological solutions for the rural poor is tougher than he anticipated.
“It’s not your fairy tale story that SELCO Lab made this beautiful product, it sold in millions, life’s transformed, smiles on people, beautiful ending, nice pictures on webpage,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
But over time, he hopes that the lab will make people’s lives here at least a little bit easier.