“What’s next?” we asked as we closed in on the Esthell Resort near Mahabalipuram. After a remarkable tour of the Indian subcontinent, one would expect a little time for rest and relaxation. But, as we all had learned in the previous two weeks, throw your expectations out the window in India; they won’t do you any good.
To tackle the mountain of potential hurdles to health and wealth generation we’d witnessed, the group hoarded up in one of the property’s board rooms for a few hours during our first day. We created a sort of think tank in which discussion overwhelmed and ideas flowed like the Ganges. Here are a few of our initial consensus observations: 1.) The cold supply chain is totally nonexistent in India, 2.) The amount of available cow dung produced in the country is astonishing, 3.) Confirmation bias is a problem when tackling water safety, and 4.) Far too many hours are wasted per week by laborers looking for work. All of these topics are addressed in the blog.
With all the ceremony of a recess kickball game, we divided into four teams and began organizing ourselves to best handle our respective subjects. This marked the beginning of the portion of the trip I like to call “Reverse Innovation Boot Camp.” We would wake up at around 8:00 AM each day, eat, embark on an excursion, return around 2:00 PM, eat again, nap, construct a presentation, present this presentation to the whole group, receive feedback, eat once more, then either make a trip to the city or fall asleep early. Online MBA coursework was also squeezed in for the senior members of the group (myself included).
I had the opportunity to join the group focused on renewable energy from dung. We were affectionately called the “Poop Group” by our comrades, both for convenience and more so for humor’s sake. Other members included Ryan Hazel, Evan Rogers and Caylee O’Connor. As the week progressed, we began to get a feel for the problem points of the local villagers and how our solutions could provide feasible improvements to their lifestyles. This led to a pivot of the group’s direction into another equally interesting topic, which will be discussed further later in this post.
Our first excursion into the village was quite exciting. After a lunch with the village matriarchs at Esthell, we loaded up and travelled about twenty minutes from the resort in our psychedelic, florally patterned bus, which I titled “The Mystery Machine.” Upon our arrival, we were greeted by traditional music blaring on a PA system. We had come at the right time; the locals were observing a festival. At the town common area, there were beautiful altar and a large bowl of community porridge for the poor. We were treated to a heavily rhythmic performance of percussion and reed instruments, amplified by a microphone. The music felt distinct; it lacked virtually any Western influence and was basically without melody or harmony. While we sat and listened, children giggled and played. A man strolled by us casually with a sack of flour the size of an American college student balanced on his head. The children observed us outsiders without much subtlety. As I thought to myself how my Southern upbringing had taught me “manners” and how not to stare, I was advised to remove my outstretched bare feet from one of the smaller aspects of the altar. Serves me right, I guess. As some Eastern philosophy teaches, “Observe, don’t judge.”
The Poop Group’s first visit to a farm was extremely informative. We observed a smaller plot with a mixture of cows and water buffalo. The animals were beautiful; each had a distinct color that contrasted greatly with my usual image of the Chick-fil-a variety cow. Their behavior was precisely what one would expect of their American cousins; standing still and eating straw, grass and paddy leaves. The buffalo weren’t much different. The logic behind the mix of animals is that the buffalo are used more for milk production while the cows are more for agricultural uses. One of these is the addition of cow waste into a type of fertilizer known as Pancha Gavya: a fermented concoction of milk, butter, curd, urine and cow dung. This will be discussed further later in the post.
The utility of the cows made sense when we noticed both a gargantuan pile of cow dung on the perimeter of the property and the massive amount of urine produced by each cow every hour, or so. Farmers will store dung for six months and use it for a number of purposes. To convey this, the ruggedly hospitable lady with whom we were speaking grabbed both a pile of dung and a handful of straw and combined them so that the straw formed a structural matrix for the poop. She then gracefully slapped the creation onto a tree, where it stuck. There it would sun dry into a product known as saani. These saani are the primary fuel for heating and cooking in villages. Surprisingly, they burn with no smoke, as was demonstrated to us. Thus, they can be used inside homes. Saani are collected from the trees each day, morning and night. A typical family uses about five or six patties per day. That’s not their only use, though. Saani provide the family a much-needed source of side income. When sold, saani are known as verati. Six to ten kilograms of verati are sold by the family every day to local tea shops and hotels for 20 rupees each, which adds up quickly. This episode conveyed the importance of the cow in Indian culture to me more than any other.
After touring the farm, we were shown the inside of the house, which proved equally informative. We were told that this was a middle-class family, which made more sense once we arrived inside. Though the house wouldn’t be considered luxurious by any Western standard, it provided most necessities an American would expect. The floor was dirt, but there were light bulbs in every room, a stove, fans and even a TV in the main room. An important observation the group made was the presence of a large cylinder of liquid petroleum gas in the kitchen. This is used primarily to light the stove, but can be utilized for other tasks. This Hindustan Petroleum lasts the four members of the family 45 days. It typically costs 700 rupees, but the government subsidizes 240 rupees of the cost, so in reality it only costs 460 rupees to the family. This subsidy is a highly political issue in India, so it was fascinating to see its effects in person. The family also purchases kerosene for 40 rupees per liter to cook cow food. For perspective, the family makes 600 rupees per day selling milk. We began to realize that energy may not be as pressing a need as we’d originally thought. As we mulled this over, we were treated to a delicious fresh coconut from one of the trees on the property. Only after we’d finished the coconut did someone mention that the homeowner hadn’t washed her hands between handling the dung and the coconut. Whoops.
After discussion, we elected to next investigate the benefits of this mysterious Pancha Gavya to see if perhaps we could provide low-cost agricultural solutions rather than energy-related ones. We woke up bright and early the following day to visit a local farmer with a big operation who was facing a number of business problems. In his backyard sat a large shaded structure resembling a pagoda. Underneath this structure were 24 mounds composed of manure and green leaves, which I initially (perhaps morbidly) mistook as graves. They were inhabited by huge night crawlers. These mounds produce organic soil, which the farmer sells in 50 kg bags for 250 rupees each. A non-government organization (NGO) two hours from his home trained him to create this product, which he’s been mastering for eight years. In addition to this practice, he also grows watermelons and rice. He owns a few cows, as well. His business situation is very interesting. He makes about 5,000 rupees per month selling his soil. He could definitely sell more, but local farmers simply aren’t educated on the benefits of organic soil. As a result, he must sell wholesale often, which reduces his profits. His business is very labor intensive, so he pays local workers to perform services for him fairly regularly. There are machines that do the same type of work in hours, rather than days, but they are far too capital intensive to be feasible for such a small operation. For example, sifting is vitally important to creation of quality soil and requires about two days’ worth of paid labor. A mechanical sifter can do exactly the same job in two hours; its cost? 400,000 rupees. As a result of these challenges, this farmer has run into some financial headwinds.
When we asked him about Pancha Gavya (P.G.), he informed us that he knows how to create the product, but typically buys it instead. The cost is 120 rupees per liter and he only uses it during watermelon season. His reasoning was that he’d read that P.G. is more effective for watermelons than rice and that watermelons are higher yield. Many of these farmers have access to educational materials, which was encouraging to the group. He’s currently pursuing producing P.G. on his own. This makes sense; P.G. can be stored safely for two years and requires only two hours effort to begin producing a 200 liter barrel. The stuff is in high demand and could be a boon for many farmers if they began to use it. It has been demonstrated to outperform typical fertilizers. Fertilizers also ruin soil, according to our hard-working farmer. His vermic compost in conjunction with P.G., in comparison, is much healthier for the land and produces visibly taller and greener plants. It seemed clear at this point that there was definitely a market for agricultural improvements.
The man guided us over to an area where he had separate containers of milk, curd, urine, ghee, and water. He then unceremoniously grabbed a handful of fresh dung, dropped it in the vase of water, and stirred it by hand. The rest of the ingredients were then added and combined. This tasty blend would then be mixed twice daily for 15 days. At that point, the fermented mixture would be filtered and collected. This would then be added to water in a ratio of 1/10. Voila. Pancha Gavya. Ten liters of water and one liter of P.G. sprayed directly onto plants will improve yield and repel insects for an entire acre. “With such a simple procedure,” we thought, “why isn’t there more of this stuff available?” The answer was hidden in some basic fractions. The recipe the farmer used called for 250 grams of ghee, .5 liters of curd, .5 liters of milk, 1 kilogram of dung and 2 liters of urine. That’s four times as much urine as any other liquid component, besides water. Collecting ample urine is both an inconvenient and inelegant process: holding a bucket under a cow. The farmer already hands out plastic drums to ten of his neighbors and pays them to collect from their cattle. Buffalo urine won’t do, either. According to the farmer, cows eat more greens and produce “better” waste. Higher-tech collection systems exist, but they, as expected, are capital intensive (50,000-100,000 rupees) and require several more cows to run effectively. Travelling urine vendors exist, as well, but they’re not readily available as desired. This urine shortage is clearly a bottleneck to an otherwise efficient, low-cost process for farmers. At this point the Poop Group switched its focus to pee.
The next home we visited reinforced our opinions about the viability of the expansion of P.G. production. The resident here is named Sekar. He’s a savvy farmer who’s also involved in local politics. He produces watermelon, rice and peanuts. He informed us that he’d just begun using P.G. and that he is pleased with it. Unfortunately, no one near his home makes it. Thus, availability is an issue, not cost. His family believes in P.G. so much that the eldest son was currently over 400 km away learning how to make the product at an NGO. Bigger-scale farmers like Sekar prefer to produce P.G., whereas smaller-scale farmers typically buy it. Currently, though, the family is forced to use fertilizers and pesticides, which present further issues than those communicated to us earlier. Some residents are allergic to the fertilizer. Also, cows won’t drink water from fertilized fields. More, fish cannot survive in flooded fields with pesticides present. Finally, plants from fertilized fields taste noticeably worse than organics. The case against fertilizers and pesticides was pretty strong. Sekar insisted that word of mouth works in the region and that the transition to organics is taking place gradually. The problem is the time frame of P.G. implementation: the switch from fertilizers to organics decreases yield to about 60% in the first year but gradually increases by about 20% each year afterwards. Impatience is an issue to many wary of the transition, according to Sekar. Our group’s next step was to see how a high-end, fully organic farm operates.
The following day the team loaded up in the Mystery Machine and headed to a beautiful and colorful two-story home owned by a jolly retired government employee who worked in atomic energy for the length of his career. He invested his life savings into a sprawling farm in the back of his property, which houses dozens of varieties of plants. This man does it all; he farms, sells, distributes and even educates on good practices. After a friendly introduction by our translators, we were given a tour of the facilities. The man’s grown son accompanied us and spoke to me in excellent English about the processes involved on the ranch. Families of migrant workers live in a house toward the front of the property. The owner can pay them less than locals and the migrants receive desperately needed housing. There is an upgraded version of every sort of farming technology we’d seen in our prior visits on the property, including an intricate urine collection system with a sloped concrete floor. The cows stand on the floor and urinate. The urine trickles down into grooves, which are gravity directed into two collection bins in series. It cost him about 250,000 rupees. Everything about the man’s technology is impressive. He has even won government awards for some of his intricate systems. In short, this is an organic farm done right and to scale. After our initial tour, we got down to business by questioning him about P.G. This is one of a number of agricultural products he creates, and he was glad to share with us his process.
After the new moon, which occurs about every 21 days, he begins a new batch. The usual ingredients (milk, curd, ghee, urine and cow dung) are mixed along with a few extras to create his “special recipe.” These extras include sugarcane juice, bananas, coconut water, coconut sap and honey. These ingredients are combined in a large barrel that is rigged with wooden blades designed for clockwise rotation. This contraption costs 4,000 rupees. Once the recipe is mixed, the barrel is to be rotated 100 times, three times a day, until the next new moon. As a result, he produces 200 liters each cycle. In what felt like a warped wine tasting, we were able to whiff the finished product. It possessed a surprisingly sweet odor; hints of the honey and banana were definitely present. Then came the most shocking moment of our trip: the man took a tablespoon of the brown blend in his hand and casually licked it up! We were taken aback, of course, but he assured us that a quarter-sized taste of the stuff per day protects from diabetes, tuberculosis and many other conditions. He learned all of this from his guru and he’s been making it for four years; we still weren’t quite convinced. Regardless, this man’s product is in high demand. He sells 100 liters per month during watermelon season and 50 otherwise. He sells to both big and small farmers in orders of anywhere from 1,000-20,000+ rupees. What’s particularly interesting is that he sells his P.G. more to encourage organic farming than for business purposes— he only makes about 20 rupees profit per liter sold.
People come from far and wide and spread word of his P.G. This confirmed what we’d been hearing about the power of word-of-mouth marketing in rural India. He also reaffirmed the wariness of some farmers to switch as a result of the initial drop in crop yield. The final results of the switch were convincing enough for us, though. We were able to eat some cucumber and a gourd fresh from the farm. They possessed a deliciously crunchy texture and were very juicy. As we ate he remarked that organic fruits are physically heavier than their fertilized counterparts. It was noticeable. As we closed our tour, feeling inspired about the future of an organic and green India, we noticed a huge burn pile of plastic. When we asked, he informed us that he burns all of his linings when he disposes of them. This lack of environmentally conscious consistency made us shake our heads, but as they say, “for every truth in India, there’s an untruth.”
Following this visit, we formulated an idea for a low-cost urine collection system that could be attached to a cow temporarily. After interviewing a few more local cow owners, it was evident that there is definitely a demand for urine. Some research informed us that a typical cow produces between 14 and 16 liters of urine per day. If we could collect even a fifth of that, we agreed, we’d have a winner. Interviews informed us that most cow owners would have no problem attaching something to their cows, as long as the cow was mobile and comfortable. Our main considerations as a result were durability, cow comfort and urine storage. We were also told that an owner would pay somewhere between 40-50 rupees (less than a U.S. dollar) for such a product. We believe that the benefits of the product will pay that off in a matter of weeks, if not days. If this is truly the case, and we can demonstrate this to the locals, we may have some flexibility with the price point. Still, this is the primary challenge in our design as we pursue prototypes.
We pitched our idea to a board of community leaders during our last night at Esthell Resort. The board was pleased with the idea and believes it has potential. This was crucial to the advancement of the project. Between the processes of gathering data, consolidating, translating and interpreting, it’s easy to forget that the ultimate goal of our product development is empathizing. It would have been very easy to formulate a solution that looks good on paper. This is a common approach to innovation in the Global South. Unfortunately, most of these never stick. The fact that our product could realistically solve a problem and improve the lives of others is extremely satisfying. To be effective, we’ll have to embrace local materials, businesses and distribution systems to not only keep costs down, but also to provide work to local community members to garner trust and build relationships. This is the only way to effect lasting, scalable improvements.