Minushri Madhumita and Amrita Jagatdeo are childhood friends from Kalahandi, a western region of Odisha. After finishing school together, Minushri pursued post-graduation in Chemistry and a diploma in Management, while Amrita became an electrical engineer with a postgraduate management degree in Finance.
After completing their academic life, they pursued different career paths and worked in the IT sector in Delhi.
But building a successful career is not the only achievement Minushri wanted in her life. She felt the need to pursue a social cause. “I wanted to contribute towards the betterment of the society,” she tells The Better India.
Thus in 2008, she launched an NGO, Bihang, to bring computer literacy in government schools of Odisha.
However, little did she know that her initiative to help children would prompt her to establish a solar-powered technology startup with her childhood friend – putting their combined skills to work.
Giving solar boost for rural Odisha
Minushri explains that in the late 2000s, the government announced a scheme to set up computer labs in schools to impart computer literacy as a mandatory course in the school curriculum. “But the decision had practical limitations. Computer education was neglected in government schools as erratic power supply in remote parts deprived the children of accessing the computer labs. Moreover, many children could not afford to access computers at home or at cafes,” she says.
Minushri then initiated ‘Project Rainbow’ by collaborating with Asian Paints to start a solar-powered computer lab. “We had approached the company as they had expressed willingness to invest in the region for a social cause. The initiative would ensure an uninterrupted power supply to the computer labs. Moreover, it would reduce the electricity expenses incurred for running the machines for hours,” she adds.
She says the initiative began with BDRD Saraswati Vidyamandir Inter-College of Dankaur block in Gautam Budhnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. It was followed by Shivraj Sharma inter-college, Bilaspur and four others which worked well for the next few years. “The concept was to create the necessary infrastructure and handhold the school teachers and management for a year. Once the staff got trained, the infrastructure was handed over to the school for maintenance,” Minushri says.
The computer labs also served an extended purpose for children. The labs lay vacant after school hours, and the local teachers used the facility post hours to educate other children in their respective villages. It helped to earn an additional income for teachers.
Basking in the success, Minushri quit her job in 2013 to focus full time on the NGO. It was then that Minushri roped in her lifelong friend Amrita as an advisor for her NGO.
However, Minushri and Amrita soon spotted a problem. “The company that we outsourced the solar panels cheated us by providing low-grade devices and products. The infrastructure started demanding maintenance and repairs within six months of installations,” Amruta shares.
The duo realised this would be a recurring issue. So rather than keep trying to find good vendors, they decided to create their own devices in the future.
Using her expertise in electronics, Amrita took the lead and decided to craft products herself. She quit her job in 2015, and like Minuhri, decided to dedicate her time and energy entirely to the cause.
Thus in 2016, the duo established Think Raw Pvt Ltd startup to integrate the rural population of their native Odisha with solar power technologies. The startup was incubated at the Software Technology Parks of India (STPI), Bhubaneswar and guided under Sri Sri University. “We wanted to go beyond helping children and extend the support to village farmers and fishermen community,” she says.
Filling the gaps
Amrita shares that the farmers, especially in the Kalahandi, face a deep drudgery. “We identified gaps at multiple levels like the use of technology, lack of modern, efficient methods and even availability of water. Despite some fishermen or farmers having access to sufficient water, they lack the means to reduce their hardships, thereby affecting their ability to enhance the crop quality and production,” she says.
Amrita adds, “We learned about these gaps while working closely with farmer producer companies in providing them solar-based solutions for agriculture.”
To fill these gaps, the women conceived three innovations, Krishi Dhanu, Dhivara Mitra and Matsya Bandhu, to help farmers at various stages of farming.
Three devices invented
The first one, Krishi Dhanu, is a fertiliser and pesticide dispensing device powered by solar energy. “The agricultural labour workforce mainly comprises women in India. They often come in contact with harmful chemicals during the process. A woman carrying a big basket filled with chemical fertiliser or pesticide and dispensing it by hand is a common sight in our part of the region,” Amrita says.
She adds, “The irritation and harmful reaction those chemicals cause on the skins get conveniently ignored. Many women develop allergies or even prolonged skin illness. Moreover, the hand dispensing method is not uniform and involves excess and uneven distribution among crops.”
Amrita says to address the issue, their startup developed an IoT (Internet of Things) device that can be carried as a backpack and uses a solar-powered charged battery to dispense the chemical fertilisers. Unlike other devices in the market, which allow only liquid products, the Krishi Dhanu can be used with solid fertilisers also.
“Even pregnant women can operate it. The product is already under use by farmers on the field,” she adds.
Minushri says the second innovation they have introduced is the Dhivara Mitra, developed collaboratively with the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA). “Fish farming technology brings additional expenses and challenges to fishermen. The lack of an uninterrupted power supply demands diesel use for using devices for aeration and maintaining dissolved oxygen levels. The use of fossil fuel adds to the costs, and if the water parameters fail to maintain optimum levels, it leads to low production and diseases among the fish,” she says.
The startup has built a floating device with sensors to analyse water health and trigger the aeration process as required.
“It is powered by a 1.5 kW solar panel installed on the floating device itself. It is programmed to move around the water body and maintain the parameters that are best suited for fish,” she says, adding that the prototype of the product is ready and undergoing validation for market feasibility. The product will enter the commercial domain by March 2022.
Minushri says their third addition, also a solar-powered IoT innovation, Matsya Bandhu, is a seed and fish feed dispersal device. “It can be called as an extension of Dhivara Mitra. The conventional method involves a gunny bag filled with seeds or feed and tied with a bamboo stick. A few pores are made at the base of the bag, and it is hung touching the water surface allowing the seeds or feed to disperse,” she says.
However, such practice results in excess feed and seeds entering the water leading to contamination. “It leads to inefficacy and loss in revenue as well. Our innovation addresses these pain points with sensor-based seed dispersals. The device can carry 30 kilos of feed, and swims around the water body and disperses it uniformly,” she says.
She says that the device also monitors the pH levels of water integrated with IoT. “The device triggers basic and acidic salts installed on it and releases them accordingly to neutralise the pH value,” Minushri adds.
Minushri says that the devices are self-automated and do not require a labourer to operate or monitor their operations. “Using it on a commercial scale can help reduce the losses and increase yield by 30 per cent,” she says.
The entrepreneur says the prototype of the mentioned products are ready and on the way to getting commercialised. “We hope that our technological interventions enable us to reduce the hardships of fishermen and farmers and increase their productivity and allow them to take a step towards progressive farming,” she says.
Edited by Vinayak Hegde