Servals, a social enterprise from Chennai, is helping villagers in the devastated Sunderbans area of West Bengal use an innovative cooking stove to save on firewood and earn extra income.
It was in 2009 when the severe Aila cyclone swept through the Sunderbans, West Bengal. It made the entire land area uncultivable and killed 70 percent of the cattle population. The sea water destroyed an entire paddy crop and forced the villagers to migrate to cities to look for alternative jobs.
The men who stayed back in the villages opted for risky livelihood options like poaching and deforestation for honey farming. Women and children were also affected because due to the scarcity of firewood in nearby locations they had to go deep into the forest to collect wood, which exposed them to tiger attacks and other threats.
This is when Servals Automation Pvt Ltd, a social enterprise based out of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, came into the picture. The organization provides sustainable energy efficient cooking solutions to consumers at the bottom of the social pyramid.
“The cook stoves that they used earlier had just five percent thermal efficiency, which means that 95 percent of the energy generated by these stoves would get wasted. This required more firewood too. So we thought of coming up with a solution that not only reduces the amount of fuel used but also helps the villagers earn extra income,” says Moulindu Banerjee, the man behind the project.
The team helped the villagers install The Top Lit Updraft Gasifier (TLUD) stove. It is a stove with a double walled canister, which, when fed with any kind of biomass during the course of cooking (usually 30 min), would generate a by-product of precious biochar with huge commercial potential.
How does it work?
The canister is filled with the fuel material, which can be anything – firewood twigs, coconut shells, certain husks, dry grass, etc. A small quantity of starter material is put on top of this fuel bed and set on fire.
“Primary air for combustion comes from below through the fuel bed. The heat from the fire pyrolysis the biomass immediately below to form pyrolysis gases. These gases move up and get combusted with the pre-heated secondary air,” explains Moulindu.
Once the pyrolysis is over, a small quantity of charcoal is left behind at the bottom of the canister. This charcoal can then be collected and sold in the market to get some extra income.
The TLUD stove uses around 75 percent of the energy generated from the heat, which is far more than from regular mud stoves.
The firewood used in TLUD cook stoves is first chopped into small sizes and then filled in the container, which provides heat for at least 45 minutes. The stove works like an LPG stove and does not generate any smoke.
“The chores of getting the wood from the forest would fall on children and women. The process was a complete waste of time; they had to carry such heavy loads…these stoves have eliminated that as the amount of fuel required in these stoves is very less,” says Moulindu.
As compared to regular mud stoves, which required 15 kgs of firewood to cook one day’s meal, TLUD requires just 4 kgs of wood. Plus, the stove also produces charcoal that can be further sold in the market.
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Earn while you cook
After every cooking session, the families store the charcoal and in a month’s time they can easily collect around 15-20 kgs of charcoal. This charcoal is picked up by a charcoal entrepreneur every month and the families get paid for it.
Servals has tied up with various charcoal users like restaurants, which use charcoal for their tandoors.
“We had to come up with a sustainable model where every month charcoal can be picked up and sold in the market. Since the villagers didn’t have much knowledge and connection with the charcoal market, we took up the responsibility of collection and selling of charcoal every month at the rate of Rs. 8 per month. We have employed around 25 rural youth who go door to door for charcoal collection,” Moulindu says.
Through this innovation, every family has been able to save around Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 monthly. This way they can recover the entire cost of the stove within a few months and then the stove becomes an income-generating asset for the family.
The stove, which costs Rs. 2,500, is subsidised for the farmers and is available for Rs.1,000.
“We have asked the villagers to put the entire money earned or saved from the cook stove into a mud piggybank, which they can break monthly and save enough money to pay back the price of the stove. We don’t want to provide them the facility for free because then it will not be a sustainable model,” he says.
Reaching 9,000 families and more
Servals has distributed over 9,000 stoves so far and is looking to reach out to more people now. The life span of each stove is seven years and it requires no major maintenance.
“Servals is the first carbon project registered under gasification technology and the first to successfully implement charcoal buyback. The women have been successful in reducing their time spent to cook food and have become part-time earners by selling charcoal generated from the TLUD stove cooking to traditional charcoal users who were till now dependent on the charcoal from conventional kilns,” says the Servals team.
Additionally, over 150 women have become entrepreneurs using this model. Servals is also following an interesting model where one TLUD stove gives them four carbon credits in a year, which will fetch the team more money and enable them to provide more such stoves at cheaper rates.
In the future, Servals wants to distribute over 30,000 stoves and empower more villagers to become entrepreneurs, using charcoal as an additional source of income.
“Our model has resulted in millions of rupees worth of activities, which include buying of chulhas, employing the rural youth, selling the charcoal, etc. So we have improved the economic status of a rural area and we are aiming to engage more people,” says Moulindu.
This interesting and simple idea has solved more than just one problem for the villagers in Sunderbans.
Check out the Servals website for more information.