Wednesday, December 21, 2011


SELCO has traditionally almost exclusively sold personal photovoltaic systems: they have come up with various innovative ways to help people afford the systems and acquire loans, but the product has always been the same. SELCO Labs, the division I’m a part of, is only a couple of years old and is essentially the ‘innovations’ department, developing new products and services. Last week I visited Chitradurga, a district renowned for its high wind speeds, to scope out locations for SELCO to trial wind turbine systems and some of the other projects we’re working on, so this is probably a good point to fill you in on some of the our other work...

In the past, SELCO have been highly praised for our ability to provide for people in slums, but slums are still a notoriously difficult market to reach and there are many locations where the standard SELCO model just can’t work. The dwellers generally don’t own the land and can be moved on at any time, so they are unwilling to invest in anything which cannot be easily transported if needed. On top of this, if the landlords see that the people are establishing themselves (and investing in things like electricity), they will often kick the people off to stop them getting too settled. Banks are also unwilling to lend money to people without a fixed address. The biggest electricity need of these people is lighting, to replace their dim and unhealthy kerosene lamps and so one new model from SELCO Labs, which has been pretty successful so far, is to rent out electric lanterns. SELCO find a local entrepreneur who is willing to manage a central charging station and then the people pay a certain amount each day to rent their lighting. The guys from this unelectrified roadside slum seemed interested in the program so hopefully they’ll have lighting soon if everything works out.

Another project we’re investigating is how to implement mini-grid systems to power a cluster of houses from a central power station. Large photovoltaic systems are cheaper per watt of power and so these systems can offer reasonable cost reductions, however they come with a whole host of social issues to overcome, such as how do you decide who pays what and who covers maintenance, how much electricity can each person use, how do you prevent people bypassing their meter etc. We are yet to set up any mini-grids, but this rural slum could be a great location for our first trial. The guys don’t currently have legal rights to the land, but apparently they have been granted ownership and will be looking to upgrade their dwellings once the paperwork comes through. Being in such a windy location, this may also be a great site to put a wind turbine further down the line as these guys’ electricity requirements increase.

This remote village only got a (dirt) road to it a few years ago and is still very underdeveloped. The villagers are subsistence farmers and only receive an income twice a year, when they take particular harvests to market, and so banks are unwilling to lend them money even though they own their land. We managed to arrange for some of them to get our systems a couple of years ago and we’re now trying to find some way the others can manage to afford them.

Whilst driving around Chitradurga, we also stopped off at this example of some of SELCO’s standard systems which have allowed street sellers to operate at night and increase their income (you can see the little solar panels sticking up from the carts). The guy nearest is obviously such a big fan of SELCO that he’s painted our logo on his cart!

And here’s one final project I visited whilst in Chitradurga: a (probably) one off project to kit a school bus out with laptops and solar panels, which will then be carted around a cluster of schools running IT classes for the students. This seems like a great project and the computer skills taught should open up a load of opportunities for the kids, but unfortunately it’s difficult to do these kinds of projects without donor funding, like we had for this one, as there is no revenue to make it self-sufficient.

I got a chance to visit the famous Chitradurga Fort whilst there, an impressive structure with seven concentric rings of fortification. This is also home to 'the human monkey', who was originally thought mad when he made his home in the walls but has now become a media sensation for his impressive climbing skills. This is him abseiling down one of the walls without any ropes; leaving the wall entirely as he drops several feet at a time between hand-holds.

Unsurprisingly, he's developed a bit of a following and this is one of his 'students' who clearly still has a bit to learn as he hangs on only with the help of some others.

Before I got to Ujire, the lab took on a project with a university economics professor who had designed a vertical axis wind turbine and wanted us to help him test it. At the time we agreed to it, there was unfortunately no-one around in the lab who knew enough about wind turbines to realise that the guys didn't know what they were doing and the turbine is pretty much a piece of junk. It's been something of a dark shadow in the lab ever since. Tommy and I have finally got round to getting a stand made for it, found potentially the windiest site in the area (which still isn’t saying much and it's pretty difficult to get away from trees here!) and put it all together and installed it. After a few modifications, it now turns, but we’re yet to see if it will generate any worthwhile power and it certainly won’t reach the 108% efficiency which the designers have somehow predicted in their calculations!

We were visited by a group of 25 entrepreneurs who all own solar companies in various different parts of Africa. Our lab hosted them for the last day of their five day, NGO funded, trip to India to learn more about how SELCO works and get advice for how they can run things in their own countries. In the evening we organised a meal followed by a traditional local dance/play. The play was quite good fun and involved some impressive costumes, although with everything spoken in Kannada and without much actual movement onstage, even the two and a half hour shortened version was a bit much for me and Tommy (the original is supposed to take over eight hours!) and we left early. Apparently by the end there were no Africans around either...

This will probably be my last blog post before Christmas so I wish you all a very merry and significant Christmas! In India, Christmas is celebrated, but it’s just one more occasion in a multitude of different festivals that happen throughout the year. There are some plastic stars for sale in some of the shops at the moment and I saw a van driving around the other day playing loud Indian music with some guys dressed as Father Christmas with green facepaint standing in the back, but apart from these odd things there's nothing to let you know it’s only a few days away. And it’s difficult to feel Christmassy when the temperature is still reaching 35 degrees most days! For someone who’s always felt so disillusioned by the superficial and commercial Christmases of the West, I’m amazed at how much I miss all the festivities and the lights and the buzz. Tommy, Roger and I are planning to take a few days off work and head to the beach for our Christmas. We’ve booked our train tickets, although all the lodges we've called seems to be either fully booked or just tell us to turn up on the day so we’ll just have to try the latter and see what happens.

That pretty much concludes the blog but here are a few other photos:

                         There were also some real monkeys at the fort

             They hadn't quite finished loading the roof of our nightbus when I took this
             photo. I was assured that the roofs are designed to take this kind of weight,
             but the constant swaying/shearing motion on the way back was a bit
             disconcerting. And we did get two punctures...

             Some wind turbines around Chitradurga

             And some slum puppies

Thursday, December 8, 2011


It seems like there aren’t many weeks that go by without some kind of festival or celebration here in India, but last week held Lakshadeepa, one of the larger ones in this region. It’s another festival of light and is famously celebrated in Dharmasthala, the next town along, with a four day carnival which thousands flock to from the surrounding area. The streets become filled with various stalls and entertainments (including a rather perilous looking funfair) and the whole town is covered in tiny lightbulbs. I ended up spending a reasonable bit of time there helping to man the SELCO stall, which was mainly advertising our solar lighting systems but we had a bit showing off some agricultural machines too in the hope of catching some farmers to talk to.

Tommy, Roger and I decided to partake in Movember this year. I would love to say that we did our bit in raising awareness for men’s health issues but unfortunately, with about 90% of the blokes here sporting a tash, I think our efforts were slightly lost in translation. Before finally shaving it off, I thought it would be sensible to get my moustache professionally trimmed. And I figured there were probably few places in the world more experienced at doing it than a South Indian barber’s. I was indeed very impressed with my 25 rupee cut (about 35p), which left my tash in top shape and came with a free (very vigorous) head massage, about 6 different face ointments, and no cuts!

The design for the next prototype of the thresher is now finished and it’s ready to be built. As of yet we’ve always used workshops in Ujire to do the fabrication for prototypes but they can be quite slow and aren’t great at more detailed parts so as the designs start to get more advanced we need to investigate new options. Mangalore is a much larger city and holds lots of workshops which are ideal for the kind of work we need but many of these larger places are only interested in big orders so it can be tough to find workshops willing to make one-off prototypes. I needed to get some bearings and pulleys from Mangalore last Wednesday so I took the opportunity to search out somewhere to get our thresher made and through a suggestion from one of SELCO's contacts managed to find a workshop willing. It's run by a qualified mechanical engineer who seems very interested in our projects and keen to be involved (and also speaks good English which simplifies things a lot) so if it all works out this could make manufacturing a lot easier in the future.

At the weekend I had to make another trip to Bangalore to open a bank account and got to spend a nice bit of time with David and Kevin again. The bank I was recommended is everything you expect and Indian bank should be: a chaotic, stuffy room with barricades of women at desks which you need to navigate before you can get anything done, endless forms and run on an archaic system of paper and floppy disks (that's not actually a joke: there were stacks of paper and genuine floppy disks all over the clerks' desks). In order to open a bank account, you need to be proposed by someone already holding an account with that bank (as well as provide all the letters and other pieces of paperwork of course), but the bank manager had kindly agreed to propose me when I visited on a previous trip to Bangalore so that wasn't too much of a problem in the end. What was more of an issue was that due to a technical fault, a large number of people could't withdraw any money from the ATMs that day and so were coming into the bank to get their cash. And the protocol seems to be that it is the bank managers job to deal with withdrawals so I ended up stuck in his office for over two hours while he tried to complete my paperwork amid dishing out payments of anything from £10 upwards to disgruntled customers and running the bank. Anyway, I now have my very own Indian bank account which feels quite cool; let's hope the bank doesn't lose all my money!

-Oh, and I've made it into my first Indian paper (click here), which is published all over Karnataka. I'll try to get in one that's written in English next time though...

             Now that we've kitted the kitchen out, we've been cooking a bit more for
             ourselves. This is an attempt at pasta sauce: difficult without any herbs but
             it just about works.

And some other photos...

             One of the thresher tests rained off

             A farmer's kids collecting tender coconuts for us to drink

                           An ox

             And a little chick

Thursday, November 24, 2011

More on what I'm doing here

Hey again guys,

Sorry it's been a while. I've found myself pretty busy and it's been difficult to steal away enough time to write this properly. There's quite a lot that's happened since the last update but I'll to my best to fill you in...

Roger, the other Engineers Without Borders volunteer, has arrived now and we've also been joined by Headley, an American who's working on a lot of the electronics for SELCO's solar projects. Headley worked for SELCO in Bangalore for several months before this relocation to Ujire, and he'll probably be here for a similar length of time to me. It's nice to know I won't be the only westerner in this town once Tommy and Roger leave. The four of us are staying in two, two bedroom apartments in the staff accommodation block for the college. The rooms are actually pretty nice although the college is being rather disorganised about equipping my and Tommy's room so we're currently without hot water or any cupboards (The college administration is actually frustratingly disorganised and pretty incompetent with most things). To make up for the discomfort, I've bought some new sofas and a fridge and kitchen equipment and we have a decent dining table and chairs on places to sit out on the balconies. Headley's brought with him a 32 inch TV and an X-Box too so we're not doing too badly overall.

This is probably a good time to give you more of the background to the work I'm doing too. The majority of the farmers in Karnataka are small scale subsistence farmers. They have a pretty hard existence and are incredibly vulnerable to adversities: one bad harvest could put them under, and the hardship is only going to get worse as climate change becomes more severe. There is also (unbelievably for a country of over a billion people) a labour shortage in rural areas so farmers find it hard and expensive to recruit workers for the jobs that would traditionally require them such as transplanting, harvesting and threshing rice. Because of this, the mechanisation of farming processes is incredibly important, but despite the benefits there has so far been very little uptake of new technologies by these farmers.

Since SELCO Labs' creation just over two years ago, they have mainly focused on designing new products appropriate for these farmers in order to address this problem. As 'principal mechanical engineer' and the first engineering employee at SELCO Labs, I've been given charge these projects which have till now mainly been worked on (sporadically) by interns. The main two projects which seem to show promise are the small scale paddy dehusker which removes the husks from grains of rice (the project I worked on last year) and a paddy thresher which strips the grains from the harvested paddy grass, although there are various others which we may pick up on at a later date. I've been doing quite a lot of research to try to find out what's already been designed for small farmers and there's a couple of machines which we're getting hold of to test out at the moment.

I'm also really keen to get to the bottom of exactly what the barriers are which prevent the uptake of technology; whether it is lack of appropriate products or whether there are other parts missing in the chain. SELCO have lots of links with other organisation and NGOs so I've been trying to talk with various people to gain a better understanding of the current situation, and I've also commissioned a few surveys of local farmers.

As a fun project on the side, the lab has been looking into the potential for a SELCO wind power project and I think it shows a lot of promise but we're still waiting for some of our funding to come through before we can really work on this.

Last week I made a five day trip to Bangalore to visit a large agricultural show called Krishi Mela. It's supposedly one of the largest of its kind in India and draws crowds from all over Karnataka and the neighbouring states. I went to find out more about what experiences other companies have had with selling machinery to small scale farmers and to learn more about the general sector. There was actually no-one there who'd had any great success with it but it was really useful to hear the differing opinions on selling to small farmers and to hear various theories as to what the barriers are. And I had a lot of fun playing with all the machines! I also organised to meet with a professor of agricultural engineering at the show which proved very fruitful. His department have come up with some great little machines for small scale farmers (the best I've seen from any institution yet) and have actually sold some of them. They were interested in our work and their products should hopefully be useful to us as we experiment with different marketing methods later down the line so we're looking to keep some kind of partnership.

It was really great to stay with David again too (although he spent the weekend out of town on work), and his new flatmate Kevin, a retired detective from the States. He's here for nine months devising training programs for the International Justice Mission, a Christian organisation who basically investigate illegal slavery and then work with local police to organise raids and rescue captives. I actually met a few of the younger guys from IJM on my last visit and they invited me round for a great evening with them on Saturday: a full house; home-cooked Korean food and games of Mafia. I went to church with Henry, one of the IJMers, on Sunday. There are no English-speaking churches in my area so it was so good to be back in one after such a long time without.

             The view from the lab window. The stairs may be a pain but having an
             office on the fourth floor has its perks.

             Diwali turned out to be a much smaller festival than I had expected but
             Tommy, Roger and I made the most of it with stupid amounts of fireworks.
             To keep them cheap, it seems the manufacturers save money on fuse wire
             and systems to make them go straight.

                             Some local farmers testing our thresher

                             The weekend before last I went to my first South
                             Indian wedding. The groom, Anil, is one of the
                             teachers at the college who I've shared quite a
                             few drinks with.

             Santosh, one of the guys who works in the office. He likes to catch
             dragonflies on farm visits.

             Some fruit bats coming out as the sun sets

             A farmworker carrying paddy in the rain

Monday, October 17, 2011

Settling in

Sorry it’s been such a long time since my last update. –Expect the next one a bit sooner!

I have learnt a lot about Indian bureaucracy since my last post. Despite the many thrills and excitements of being back in India, my first week was largely overshadowed by a gradual realisation that registering with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office isn’t very straightforward. I optimistically turned up for my first visit with each of the 5 articles requested on their website neatly prepared and after 3 hours of waiting in line, I was casually sent away with a much longer and rather different checklist. I didn’t have a clue what most of the things on the list where so it was an absolute miracle (like actually) when I met Nickson, a friend of David’s (the one I miraculously ended up staying with) who works for an organisation which specialises in helping foreigners get through this process. He’s an absolute legend and helped me over the following week or so to put together a 41 page booklet with everything I needed, including one form printed on “non-judicial stamp paper” and another which needed to be taken to a separate department to get officiated. Anyway, everything came together in the end and I managed to officially register on the final day of the two week deadline!

My unexpected stay in Bangalore was frustrating at times but it was really nice to spend time with David and Nickson and get to know a load of their other friends. It feels like I’ve got something of a friendship and fellowship base there which is great to have for when end up visiting in the future. I also got to see a load of the sights, visit some nice bars and restaurants and even got to shop for a new acoustic guitar.

I caught the eight hour night-bus to Ujire as soon as my registration went through and I’ve been really enjoying its relative tranquillity. Ujire is the small town where I spent last summer, set in the middle of the jungle covered Western Ghats and about two hours from the coast. There have actually been quite a few changes since I was last here, the most noteworthy of which are that the college where my office is based now has a canteen which serves good food(!) and there are now two places which serve meat and alcohol (as opposed to one last year) and one of them isn’t dingy and unhygienic. My accommodation is also a big improvement on last year. I’m currently staying in the ‘staff quarters’ in a two bedroom apartment with Tommy. We have a kitchen, dining area, living room, two balconies and two bathrooms (although only one bathroom has hot water and a western style toilet..). I may move out to an actual house at some point but for now this place is ideal and very near to work. I’m gradually trying to build up some kind of routine and settle into things. Haven’t yet managed to join a cricket team but I’ve made it along to the local gym a couple of times (much to the apparent amusement of the others members) and I may try to start up Ujire's first rugby club sometime soon.

On my first morning here I went on a trek with Tommy up Gadaka, a nearby hill with a ruined fort at the top. The views of the surrounding landscape were a spectacular reminder of the beauty and remoteness of this place and an unbeatable introduction to my new home.

I got stuck into work quite quickly and already feel like things are moving. It’s the rice harvest season at the moment and we’re hoping to test out our mechanical thresher (removes the grains of paddy from the grassy stalks) against some of the traditional hand threshing methods and get some ideas for design improvements so we’re planning to visit several farms in the next couple of weeks and have already tried it out at one.

             Enjoying a burger (I was surprised to find a place that served real beef!) with
             David and Jason

             The view from Gadaka

             Trying out the thresher

                            One of the farm workers demonstrating a new harvesting
                            machine that I might be investigating more

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Back again

So after a year away, I'm finally back in India!

I'm planning to work for the next two years for SELCO, an amazing NGO which I spent last summer with (you can read about my time there in older blog entries). I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into the project and learning to live in such a different culture. It will surely be tough at times but I feel so fortunate to get this opportunity and I’m excited to see what this chapter has in store.

Operating as a social enterprise, SELCO's main activity is selling solar-power systems to people without electricity, although they've recently been looking into ways they can expand their work. I'll be part of "SELCO Labs", the R&D department where I was last summer, looking at ways to help poor rural farmers gain access to useful equipment and machinery. I'll also be spending some of my time working on small wind turbines and seeing how SELCO can include these in their solar systems. –Should be really interesting stuff and with the potential to help a vast number of people.

As the work involves lots of interaction with farmers, SELCO Labs is based out in rural Karnataka, in a town called Ujire. There are two other young engineers from the UK who I'll be working/living with for the first six months, volunteering through Engineers Without Borders. Tommy has been there since July and Roger arrives in October. I'll try to introduce the rest of the office to you later on.

I'm in Bangalore at the moment, the capital of Karnataka and home of SELCO Headquarters.  Before I can head on to Ujire I need to register with the Foreign Regional Registry Office which I'm trying to sort all my bits of paperwork for at the moment but it sounds like they can be even more difficult than the visa people! I'm hoping to have everything together by tomorrow so I'll head in for the first time and see what happens...

While in Bangalore, I'm staying with David Simpson. He’s working for Student Alpha here and contacted me when he ended up hearing on facebook (by some bizarre fluke!) that I was moving to India. It has been such a blessing to have a proper base and someone to stay with and I've got to meet a lot of his friends too which has been great.

There's so much more to say but I hope that gives you a reasonable idea of what up to. Again, please keep in touch and don't forget to subscribe on the right-hand side if you want to hear when I add future blog entries!