Ideas that bear fruitHow Covestro products help people in underserved markets
An “integrative business” approach by Covestro is aimed at forcing the pace of social progress made by people at the lower end of the income pyramid. The company seeks to provide ten million people in underserved markets such as Indonesia, Thailand and India with sustainable products and solutions by 2025.
Mallappan grasps the handles of his plow tightly. Thirty years of farm work have strengthened his grip and general physique. He looks up at the burning sun shining brightly above his home village of Kathappa Nagar in the south of India and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand to prevent the sweat from pouring into his eyes. The farmer has been hard at work all day long – he knows no other way of life. The 1.2 hectares of land left to him by his father need to be tended to. Not only does this land feed Mallappan, his wife and his two children, but it represents his only source of income – if the weather is kind. “Droughts make our life difficult,” he says, briefly stopping his work. He leans on the handles of the plow; the years of back-breaking work have taken their toll. “Because water is in short supply, I often have to grow crops that don’t need much, such as maize, millet and peanuts.” Although these are sturdy enough, they bring in less money. He can just about make ends meet – but a future away from the fields is still a pipe dream for his kids.
Crops such as papaya and mango would be much more profitable – not just in terms of his current existence, but perhaps for the future too. Mallappan recently sowed mangoes on two-thirds of his land to provide for the future. His day-to-day expenses are covered by the papayas that he is growing on the remainder of his plot. At least, that’s the plan. The reality, however, is often different. The local weekly market that has always been his only point of sale has often proved a disappointment: “After long hours of work in the fields and at the market, one-third of my yield went to waste, either because it decayed in transit or because there were no takers. What’s more, a chunk of my takings was passed on to a middle man,” he says.
Create new markets
To date, Covestro has provided the materials for over 1,200 small solar dryers, over 200 parabolic solar dryers and more than 80 solar-powered refrigerators in India. The latter are also insulated with rigid polyurethane foam. In the Indian region of Krishnagiri, where Mallappan lives, Covestro has brought together local polycarbonate manufacturer Vivunes, dried fruit manufacturer MCI Agro Technologies and the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) with a view to supporting farmers. With their help, 70 small and marginal farmers can now benefit from solar dryers and get the most out of their crops.
MCI engineer H.M. Sathyamurthy and his company aim to support farmers by showing them new or alternative harvesting methods: “We want to join forces with the farmers to help them produce local foodstuffs at a fair price and boost their crop yield as well as energy- and cost-efficiency. The ultimate aim is to provide healthy food that benefits society as a whole.”
It was while researching new drying technologies that Sathyamurthy got to know a team from Covestro. This team subsequently created a prototype of the solar dryer made from polycarbonate for him to test using the crops produced by the local community’s cluster of farmers. “We started off with one solar dryer with an output of roughly 100 kg of dried fruit per day,” he says, with a glance at his facility surrounded by green fields in this extremely arid and mountainous region of India. “We could tell almost immediately that it was going to work, and went on to set up six large dryers here in Krishnagiri with a capacity of five metric tons of fruit per day. We’ll be looking to expand further soon.”
Higher quality, higher output
The main advantage of the Covestro solution is its efficiency. The small amount of energy required for the ventilation system, among other things, is provided exclusively by solar power. Most important of all, the polycarbonate makes for highly efficient insulation. The sun’s rays are able to penetrate the unique structure of the material, allowing the dryer to heat up quickly. If the sun shines down from dawn till dusk, temperatures inside the dryer can climb to 60 degrees Celsius, thus halving the drying time. At the same time, the material filters ultra-violet rays. This allows the products’ natural color to be retained for the most part – a major advantage when selling the dried snacks. “We can now produce better-quality products in half the time,” says Sathyamurthy. Other solar dryers are heated with diesel or other fossil fuels, using so much energy as to account for 25 percent of the operating costs.
Among the 70 farmers selling their crops to MCI is Mallappan, who heard about the dryers from a friend. His curiosity aroused, he visited the facility and met Sathyamurthy, and everything else just fell into place. MCI pays between 12 and 15 rupees for a papaya such as those harvested by Mallappan, amounting to up to 20 cents per kilo. On the weekly market he would get between eight and ten rupees per fruit, while 30% of his crop would become unsellable either en route to the market or in the course of the day. That makes the solar drying facility an absolutely sound and reliable source of income for Mallappan and the other local farmers.
Collaboration to make the world a brighter place
Once Mallappan spotted the opportunity, he didn’t hesitate. “I knew at once that it was the best solution for my produce; I didn’t need any time to consider it.” And he was quickly proved right: “There are no quantity restrictions and I can sell my entire crop. There’s absolutely no waste as I can deliver and sell both ripe and unripe fruit.” Not only does he save the costs of transport to the market, but he earns more and is paid directly, not via a middle man. “The solar dryers have improved my life and that of my family significantly.”
When we meet Mallappan again on his land, he is smiling broadly. Thanks to the efforts of a German materials provider, his life has taken a massive turn for the better after years in the doldrums. He will continue to take his crop to MCI’s solar dryers, and has told friends and neighbors about this new means of doing business, so that they can improve their lives too. This hasn’t reduced his workload in the fields, however, and so the farmer from southern India gets back to his plow without further ado.