Solar Technology and Community Engagement Tea


image: From left, Innus researcher Khan with a chili farmer (who requested anonymity) and researchers Michael Machala and Andrey Poletayev after discussing the challenges of air-drying chili peppers in 2017.
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Credit: Courtesy of Michael Machala

Engaging the people who will directly benefit from technological research is key to sustainable development, as researchers have experienced working with chilli growers in India for more than four years.

A Stanford University-led team has developed solar-powered technology to improve the quality and quantity of dried agricultural produce and potentially boost the incomes of smallholder farmers in India, which average about $5 per day. Due to better quality, equipment-dried chilies were sold at prices 14-22% higher than traditionally air-dried chilies, according to a recent study in Energy for sustainable development. Depending on the farmer’s underlying costs, such an increase in income could double profits, but the cost of purchasing the equipment, learning how to use it, and the uncertainty of the financial results are barriers to adoption.

The operational and technical design is not trivial. For example, the pilot greenhouse has demanding technical requirements, such as reaching temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for drying and staying below 89 degrees for seedling growth. Additionally, the study explores how third-party organizations or companies could purchase the equipment and provide seedling growth and drying at a cost to farmers, who would avoid the upfront equipment costs while seeing the financial benefits of the plant. use of equipment.

Research suggests that creditworthy entities, such as collective groups of farmers, traders or exporters, should be the investors in the greenhouse. With government grants and private loans for the purchase of equipment, the owning entity could collect fees for two services from multiple operations over seven months of the year. In this scenario, the study concludes that the cost of the equipment would be recovered in a single year, instead of the 6.5 years for a single farm using the equipment for drying only.


“Most of the projects [at Deshpande Foundation] are based on community demand and needs,” Khan explained. “Because we know this problem well, we started with Michael and Andrey, co-creating this technology to solve the problem of dried chilies.”

Back at Stanford, the Suryodaya project — named after the Hindi word for “sunrise” — overcame technical challenges with the help of undergraduate students majoring in mechanical engineering in the Design in mechanical engineering: integration of context with engineering. Every year since 2018, course students have helped solve key design challenges.

To address these issues, the study also examines alternative financing available to farmers and potential additional benefits, such as avoiding the common wastage of at least 10% of a crop due to outdoor rains and sun-drying and using equipment for growing seedlings when not in use. drying. Although still in development, the technology could improve the livelihoods of many millions of farmers around the world who grow and dry crops such as grapes, spices and beans.

“Technological energy innovation is only part of the answer to poverty reduction in agriculture. Systems-level understanding and approaches are needed to ensure that we adequately and ethically meet the needs of farmers while designing for scalability,” said co-author Sally Benson, lead author of the study and Professor in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford.

Following a presentation at Stanford by the Deshpande Foundation in 2017, lead author and postdoctoral researcher Michael Machala, PhD ’17, and co-author Andrey Poletayev, PhD ’20, traveled to Karnataka, India to meet Innus Khan, the foundation’s senior director. of agricultural initiatives and co-author of the study. The organization, based in the United States and India, develops sustainable and scalable businesses that have significant social and economic impacts. Chilli growers told researchers during field visits that traditional open-air drying can take weeks and cause total degradation or spoilage due to sun bleaching, pests, rain and rain. mushrooms. The Deshpande Foundation was working with more than 2,000 chilli growers at the time, Khan said. The team found that the damage caused by sun-drying chili peppers in the open air on Indian farms reduced income by a third on average.

The team believed that sustainable social entrepreneurship could unlock scalable solutions for India’s 125 million small family farms, a quarter of the global total. India is a world leader in dried chilli production with 1.7 million tons per year, and many of the country’s other products are also air-dried.

Systems-wide solution

Switching from outdoor sun-drying to greenhouse-drying is not a new idea, but past research has rarely examined adoption. “People focused on the technical questions, but they missed the user-facing questions that really determine whether or not a solution is implemented,” Poletayev said.

The team found that using the equipment only for drying produce was a huge barrier to adopting improved drying technology. According to the new study, farmers, who have little disposable income, would take three to seven years to repay the purchase of the equipment from their increased profits.

“Since solar dryers sit idle for much of the year, we adapted our system design to meet another agricultural need of growing seedlings, which are more robust and productive when started in a greenhouse. Machala said. “Farmers report that seedlings grown initially in our greenhouse and then transplanted to a field produce up to twice as many peppers as those sown in the field.”

“More than seventy students from six departments and three schools have contributed to this project. It really was a cross-disciplinary effort,” Benson explained.

One such student, Frederick Tan, BS ’18, traveled to India to learn more about the design challenge from his student team and eventually joined the research team full-time. “This project connects academia with real-world issues. We were able to tap into the resources that we are so fortunate to have at Stanford to help others around the world,” said Tan, now a master’s student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

To date, the international research team has begun piloting the published concept, working with smallholder farmers to dry 24,000 kilograms of chili peppers and grow 160,000 chili, tomato and eggplant plants. They hope to conduct a test study of the fully implemented and funded system. And the team started growing and testing other dried products like turmeric, onion, mung beans, grapes and figs. Complementary production seasons could increase the use of equipment from seven months of the year to 12.

“We have a lot of promising results, but more R&D is needed to prepare for confirmation and adoption toward large-scale impact,” Machala said.

This work was funded by Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, Woods Institute for the Environment, TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, and Haas Center for Public Service, as well as the Deshpande Foundation. For more information on the Suryodaya Project, contact Michael Machala at mmachala at stanford dot edu.

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