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      Cultivating Crops, Community, and a Sustainable Economy

      Every morning at 5 a.m., Dr. S. Renganathan travels 45 kilometers to his farm to check his crops and cattle, speak to his farm workers, and do other barnyard chores. About two hours later, Dr. Renganathan, scrubbed and sanitized, may be performing complicated obstetric surgery or delivering babies at his hospital in Dharmapuri, India. Afterwards, it’s over to his solar drying facility to begin dehydrating fresh, local produce to use in fruit bars and candies.

      “My day usually ends around midnight. I only get five hours of sleep,” said Dr. Renganathan. “But I’m happy because I’m producing something for my community.”

      When Dr. Renganathan first ventured from the medical sphere into the world of farming, his goal was to provide his community with healthy, organic produce. Today, Dr. Renganathan provides his region with much more than quality fruits and vegetables. With the recent addition of his solar drying facility, Dr. Renganathan gives his community an improved quality of life. Dr. Renganathan’s solar dryers, developed with high-tech polycarbonates from Covestro, significantly reduce post-harvest loss and provide a stable income for approximately 1,000 farmers in southern India.

      As part of our interview series “You Can’t Feel Comfortable Leaving Your Comfort Zone. Why Not?”, Baratunde Thurston spoke to Dr. Renganathan to learn how his agricultural endeavors challenge his comfort zone, build new comfort zones for his community, and generate hope for technology to create a more comfortable world for us all.

      “When you want to improve the comfort zone of your community, you have to leave your own comfort zone. You have to work in the risk zone.”

      Cultivating crops

      In 2002, Dr. Renganathan launched a radical experiment: Leaving the comfort zone of his hospital to open an all-organic farm. At that time, many farmers in India relied on pesticides and fertilizers to boost the production of their crops, but with this indiscriminate use of chemicals, Dr. Renganathan saw a spike in cancer rates across his region. He also saw rivers becoming polluted and soil turning infertile.

      Interested in protecting his environment and his community from harmful pesticides, Dr. Renganathan established Om Sakathi, the eco-friendly farm he still operates today. In the first part of our interview, Dr. Renganathan describes his decision to open his organic farm, his experience leaving his comfort zone, and why he believes failure is the key to success.

      Can you tell us about your history with the farm?
      This region [Tamil Nadu] has a long agricultural history, and I was born into a farming family. After I graduated from medical school, I became an obstetrician gynecologist, but my father had always told me, “Whatever you do, don’t forget about the farming.” He was part of [my inspiration] to open my farm.

      Why was it important for you to add this extra job? For many people, being a doctor is one job enough.
      For me, farming feels like a way to give back to society. When I began to see how [fertilizers and pesticides were harming our people and our land], I wanted to do something about it. So, I started an organic farm. Today, many people say I helped inspire change in this region.

      How do you define your own comfort zone?
      From day one, I have been out of my comfort zone. I was the first graduate of my family. After I graduated, I began working on solutions for the three main human needs: food, education, and healthcare. It is not possible to be in a comfort zone when you are doing so many things, but the challenges make me happy. Comfort zones make you too content.

      Too content?
      Yes. When everything is available to you, you’re not going to work for anything. The wealthier people are, the lazier they become. [laughter]

      [Laughter] Tell me more about how lazy rich people are. This is great.
      A smooth road never makes a good driver. A smooth sea never makes a good sailor. And a clear sky never makes a good pilot. Your life will not always be a success story, but failures help you become stronger and go farther.

      So, failures are really successes yet to be?
      Yes, your failures are stepping stones. When you want to improve the comfort zone of your community, you have to [leave your own comfort zone]. You have to work in the risk zone.

      As a farmer, you’re definitely in a risk zone.
      Farming was a risk I willingly took. I spent my extra money on this because I wanted to create something better [for the community]. It’s not only how you create wealth, but also how you share it. 


      “With the solar dryer, we can preserve our food, and we can preserve our economy.”

      Cultivating community

      After opening Om Sakthi, Dr. Renganathan began to see firsthand the challenges Indian agriculture faces. Farmers are confronted with high price volatility, overproduction losses, and strict aesthetic standards. Since the majority of Indian farmers – 85 percent – are marginal with declining landholdings, these uncertainties make them even more vulnerable and risk prone.

      While on the hunt for new ways to improve the conditions of his farming community, Dr. Renganathan was introduced to our polycarbonate materials. Using this high-tech plastic, he built six solar dryers that enable locally grown produce to be preserved and sold at a higher price. In the second part of our interview, Dr. Renganathan explains how his solar drying facility helps reduce food spoilage and waste, offers local farmers a stable income, and helps fight poverty and hunger in his home region.

      How would you describe the current situation of Indian farmers?
      Many of the farmers in India are overproducing. There is a lot of waste because cold storage is not available; it is too costly. Additionally, consumers expect produce to have uniform color, shape, and weight. When produce is selected like this, 30 to 50 percent of the farmers’ products become waste.

      Could you talk more about consumers’ behavior of rejecting ugly fruits and vegetables?
      People want to see attractive fruit, but agricultural produce is not produced in a factory. It’s produced by nature’s law. You cannot have uniform color, uniform shape, and uniform size. It’s not the color of the food that matters. It’s the nutritive value.

      I hear echoes of the United States civil rights movement. “We should not judge fruit by the color of its skin, but by the nutritional content of its character.” You’re the Martin Luther King of fruit.
      Yes! The consumer mindset has to change towards natural products. When that day comes, we will not waste anything, and the farmer will be phenomenally rich.

      What does a solar dryer do for the farmer’s current situation?
      Farmers sell us the produce they are not able to sell at the market. We want to help these farmers, so we give them market value for this food. We use our dryers to turn the produce into pulp, and this pulp is then used in fruit bars or chocolates. It’s a good situation for everyone.

      How does the solar drying process work?
      The dryers are made from polycarbonate sheets manufactured by Covestro, and these sheets protect produce from UV rays. These [solar dryers] have an optimum humidity, and within 36 hours, the drying is finished.

      How is drying in a solar dryer different than drying in open sunlight?
      The solar dryer is far, far superior to open drying. The sun’s ultraviolet rays destroy the nutrient value of produce, but the dryers filter the ultraviolet light. The temperature inside the dryers is also much higher than outside, which [speeds up] the drying process. Additionally, drying inside a closed chamber is much more hygienic.

      You could have this powered by diesel or petrol, but all of this is powered by the sun, right?
      Yes, the drying process is much more natural with the solar dryers. We’re not polluting the environment. The solar energy is also freely available and can be used by any farmer without a reoccurring cost. With the solar dryer, we can preserve our food, and we can preserve our economy.

      What is the impact of something like the solar dryer on poverty and hunger?
      The solar dryer allows the farmers to [profitably] produce more fruits and vegetables. This creates more employment, which helps eliminate poverty and hunger.

      “Innovation is necessary for the growth of any organization, but this innovation should not harm nature or society.”

      Cultivating a sustainable economy

      Dr. Renganathan understands farming’s importance in India’s economic and social fabric, and he believes finding new technologies to use in farming, like our polycarbonate material, is crucial to creating a competitive, sustainable agricultural sector. By offering local farmers the opportunity to create more value with solar dryers, Dr. Renganathan seamlessly aligns profitable business with sustainability.

      In the final part of our interview, Dr. Renganathan shares why innovations like the solar dryer are good for the farmers, good for the economy, and good our planet.

      Tell us about the impact of technology like solar drying in the big picture.
      The solar dryer has an immense role to play in the farmers’ market. Sixty percent of [rural] India depends on farming activities. Being an agriculturally based country, India has to be developed in an agricultural way. The solar dryer will help [develop our society] by improving the income of farmers without harming the air, water, or soil.

      I want to talk about the balance of pursuing a business profit but also not harming the natural environment. Is that possible?
      It is possible. Innovation is necessary for the growth of any organization, but this innovation should not harm nature or society. We should not pollute, and we also should not loot.

      “We should not pollute. We should not loot.” You sound like Jessie Jackson. He would say that.
      Yes, there are a lot of things to think about. The earth should be taken care of, but the farmers should be taken care of as well. We must stop cutting farmers’ profits. Traders in between production and processing take a lot of money without putting in effort. The solar dryer technology can put processing, production, and selling all in the hands of farmers.

      So, we should not just be ending pollution but the looting of very important people, like farmers, who help maintain the cycle of life.
      Exactly. Any government in the world should take care of farmers. If there is no farmer, there is no food in the world. The natural ecosystem should also be preserved so we can leave something for future generations.

      Talk about your role in achieving these big goals. How does it all come together?
      I want to be a role model. I cannot bring a flame, but I can bring a spark to other people’s minds. Everyone has potential, and we must bring together all of that energy for the benefit of society.

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