My motivations for development work have changed greatly since before I came out to India. I remember at the pre departure-training course hosted by EWB-UK, the Chief Executive sat us all down on a lawn and asked us to write down our motivations for our placement.
I wrote down
I never mentioned, ‘I want to save the world’ but if I’m honest, that’s what I wanted to do.
Then the CEO listened to everyones’ motivations and immediately told us how they couldn’t be relied on, and how they might change. The exercise was to make us really think about why we were passionate about what we were about to do. While in India, I thought about my motivations a lot, and looking back, it’s clear that my main motivation all along has been to do interesting design work and to overcome massive challenges created by a vastly different culture. I don’t want to save the world, I just don’t want to wreck it!
My motivation for interesting stories was certainly satisfied in India, and I’ve tried to give a taste of some of the calamity I have created and endured. If my motivation had been, ‘interesting stories that my friends can relate to’, maybe I wouldn’t have gone to the ‘third world’.
I think the reverse culture shock is the realisation that you can’t answer the question, ‘so Roger, how was India?’ Words can’t describe what you’ve seen, what you’ve put up with, what’s made you laugh, and what’s kept you going. My answer to the unanswerable question is, ‘amazing and frustrating in equal measures’, which is a phrase I’ve poached off a good friend who is a seasonal traveller. The next question is, ‘why was it frustrating?’ to which I’m still trying to word a diplomatic answer.
The famous last words from India were from my friend Headley who said, ‘and remember, your last memory of India will be the crap airline food!’ And although that is indeed my last meal in India, it’s not my last memory. My last memory was the humbling goodbye rickshaw ride that I had while still in the small town of Ujire. It almost seems like an insult to try to explain the level of generosity I experienced that night, by words.
I want this last blog entry to also be a thanks to the great deal of people responsible for making my time in India what it has been. Selco, ICP, and Engineers Without Borders UK have provided more help than I could ever explain. The rigour that EWB-UK work to when organising their placements, and choosing their placement partners ensures that, although the work will be tough, it will also have the greatest possible chance of providing a real benefit to the people in need of engineering solutions all over the world.
One thing’s for sure, I will continue to help to create massive small change – who knows where it will take me next…
‘What is engineering?’ Some non engineers will probably say, ‘the person who mends my washing machine’, while most current engineering students – like myself a year ago – will say, rather worryingly, ‘I don’t know’.
I have been asked recently, ‘is an EWB-UK placement really engineering?’ So this blog entry will try to answer that, but first I must start at the beginning.
Engineers solve problems for people. The reason some non-engineers believe the washing machine repairperson is an engineer, is because they are solving a problem by fixing the washing machine – when in actual fact, they are repairing an engineers work. And the reason most engineering students don’t know how to answer the question, is because they spend at least 3 years learning information that usually doesn’t tally up with what an engineer actually is. And the reason engineering students don’t say that the washing machine repairperson is an engineer, is because they want to believe that the mountain of debt they are collecting was for a purpose. Well, it’s certainly for a purpose but I only gained this insight after becoming an engineer in India.
An engineer should never ask the question at university, ‘why am I learning this stuff?’ Unfortunately this question is being asked at universities throughout the country because “today engineering is too often pursuing technology for technology’s sake – investing the time and talent of engineers in advancing advanced technologies that exacerbate inequality. Or which make marginal improvements for profit, rather than massive improvements for people.” EWB-UK
Whether working in the Indian countryside or in the City Slums, my work has centered round people’s problems. I have provided solutions to problems faced by the farmers suffering from a labour shortage, created by the higher wages promised in the City Slums. And I have provided solutions to the problems faced by the slum dwellers, who, years before were working the fields in the countryside. So in answer to the question, ‘is an EWB-UK Placement engineering’, I ask the question, ‘how could it possibly not be?’
There are 4 phases of culture shock. The honeymoon period; where everything is new and exciting. Where a truck falling through the road is just hilarious. Negotiation; where you realise actually, you’ve got to live with trucks falling through the road. You start to get frustrated and angry that things have been allowed to get so bad, and wonder why people just put up with it. The Adjustment stage; where you understand why trucks fall through the road, and how people can just get on with it, and how you can work around such situations. Finally, you get the Mastery phase; where you make friends, get into routines, and call the place your home.
These culture shock phases change almost overnight, and if you look through my past blog entries the first few are dominated by me feeling completely out of my comfort zone and searching for refuges in which I can still see the new and exciting scenes of India. Next, I realised I had to work with all these difficulties, and started to have a negative outlook of India – although I tried to conceal this in my blog entries. Then I began to have fun, and started to be very effective at work. I began to see the quirkiness of India, and figured out how to get things done, but still got frustrated with how India was. Finally, I became settled (6 weeks before I have to leave).
I’m now back in Ujire with Sam – where I’ll see out my remaining time in India. Sam’s done a great job with the apartment, and even has a room plant for the plce! We really have it sorted here and even have a hot shower – no buckets!!
I’ve given myself an ambitious set of targets for my projects before I leave.
I’m continuing the work Tommy did with the anemometer. Tommy was working on a very cheap, affordable anemometer for testing locations for small scale off grid wind power. We’ve got all the electrics done, and the other day, we manufactured the housing for the cups – which are fully adjustable prototypes. We’ve just got to make the mast, and troubleshoot.
The thresher is also close to being finished. I’m currently working on an innovative power source for it, which I’m hoping is a new invention. It will be a very elegant solution if I can perfect it, and will allow rural farmers all over the country to power their machines with only a very small investment.
I’m also working on the re-design of a small scale rice de-husker, which is quite a complex problem. The difficulty is designing it with the local workshops’ ability in mind. It would be so much easier if we had our own workshop, to make things in.
If there’s time, I’ve also got a biomass food dehydrator to redesign and possibly make. I’ve certainly got my work cut out, but that’s how I like it!
I dabbled with learning Hindi and Gujarati while in Ahmedabad, but only really learnt some basic sayings to get by. In Karnataka, the language is Kannada, so Sam and I decided to get some lessons. We’ve had 2 lessons so far, and we’ve learnt so much already. My theory for learning languages is to learn sayings that I will then use in the day. If you pronounce the sayings right, and get a response, the great feeling you get will reinforce your learning.
Sam and I are also quite competitive, so learning together is a great help. We have homework twice a week, and always try to learn more sayings than the other. We have sayings stuck to the walls of our apartment, and our progress has been very quick so far. The other day I offered Sam my pen (in Kannada), and when he accepted, I proceeded to explain that it had run out of ink. Well I was impressed…
The look on peoples’ faces out here, when you try to speak their language is heart warming. You’re always met with a massive smile and an enthusiastic response. It made me think of how we, in the UK view foreigners who are struggling with the language. I felt shamed to think that if an Indian went to the UK without the ability to speak English, they might be met with abuse and contempt for not bothering to learn the language. I couldn’t be sure that the Indian would be met with a patient and cheerful response. They certainly wouldn’t be offered a cup of tea for sputtering out the phrase. ‘had lunch?’
Finally, I‘ll end this blog entry with a typical Indian calamity. Recently, Sam and I have been getting small electric shocks from our laptops, and the toaster. It’s at the point now, where we almost expect an electric shock from appliances, so, being engineers, we decided to find the source of the problem and solve it (don’t worry, we didn’t die).
My laptop has an aluminium case, which regularly gave me a shock when charging. From our multimeter, we measured a potential difference of 20V DC coming off it – which packed a bit of a punch. Occasionally I also get an alternating current coming through my laptop case, which is pretty serious! Sam has also been shocked from the toaster, so it was clear that it wasn’t just my laptop. We needed a systematic approach to identifying the problem…
We figured that the issue was probably the earth, or at least the earthing system, so we tested it against ourselves as the reference. It measured 60V AC! When it should always be 0V – no exceptions. I dread to think about the chancey wiring that runs through the overly reinforced concrete walls surrounding us.
We decided to systematically turn off fuses from our fuse box. It appears that some of the appliances bypass the fuse box – which doesn’t surprise me. After all, if a fuse is constantly blowing, and causing power cuts, why even bother with it? Ironically, the fuse box gave Sam a shock when closing it – it does more harm than good!
Unfortunately, the cause for a non-earthed earth is still a conundrum. Our ‘solution’ is to just have a multimeter near our laptops for whenever we want to use them. We do have a lead to go on though (all puns intended). Soon after we first moved into our flat, our electricity suddenly shut off. We told the Warden, and he asked ‘the chucklebrothers’ to ‘fix it’. Suddenly everything worked. My suspicion is that the earth was replaced by a nail…
Since my last blog entry, a lot has happened. I finished off another 3 projects at ICP, have received feedback on them, and have moved back down south to my rural setting of Ujire.
First things first, lets give you a decent update on the rest of my projects that I helped to complete while working for ICP in Ahmedabad. For the fish sellers, we got a local workshop to make an insulated fish bowl for the fish vendors. The fish vendors currently use tin bowls and ice to display their fish on. My theory was, that the fish and ice, gain a lot of heat from their surroundings from conduction through the fish bowl. My theory was that if we insulated the bowl, we would reduce the heat transfer and reduce the expenditure on ice for the fish sellers. The workshop did a great job and we had a quality product to try out.
The beauty of the insulated fish bowl is that it’s so similar to the one already in use, no social change will be needed to implement it – or so I thought…
My other 2 projects were for the headloader community. Headloaders are workers who carry heavy packages on their heads and shoulders. The headloaders I was working with, carried and delivered packages for garment shops located in a 4 storey cramped building. 3 generations of one particular family worked there, and it’s fair to say that these guys had it tough. The men carried packages on their shoulder or back, and the women carried packages on their heads. The women really got the raw deal, and invariably carried the heavier packages – which can weigh up to 70kg!
Needless to say, I tried my hand at headloading, and it was hard work. I enjoyed it though, and there was a real friendly sense of community among the workers. After a few visits, we had nicknames for each other, and when language became a problem, laughter and a big smile always removed the need to talk, and usually ended up in understanding between us. They used to call me ‘The Rock’ because I was strong enough to keep up with them, and I was bald at the time.
There was certainly a feeling at the beginning that the headloaders weren’t too happy about me being around. It was obvious that they’d seen many white people: observing, carrying packages, and then leaving, never to be seen again. I made it my mission to show them that this wasn’t always the case, and made a promise to myself to give these guys hope and a solution – in the end I gave them 2. Unfortunately, I was never there to show them the solutions myself, so they may just remember me as another white person who: came, had a laugh, and left.
‘A man only has cause for regret when he sows and nobody reaps’ – James Goodyear. I just hope, the headloaders benefit from my solutions.
There were 2 products that I made for the headloaders: a backpack and a stair trolley. To explain how the backpack works, just imagine my boss is a 70kg package of clothes.
The backpack aims to transfer the weight to the workers’ hips and therefore reduce neck and backpain, whilst also allowing the user to have head mobility, and the use of their hands. Neck and back pain is an obvious problem for the headloaders, along with the need to see where you’re stepping. The need to have at least one hand free is because the women often get sexually harassed on the street, when they have to use both hands to steady their package on their heads
And to explain how the stair trolley works, follow the video link below.
Unfortunately, the trolley is so ‘India proof’ it probably weighs more than the package it’s trying to carry, and you can see Kishorbhai struggling to lift the trolley up the stairs.
Before we could test these products in the field, we had to pitch them to our funders. Our funders also have a great relationship with the headloaders and fish sellers, and essentially they are the people we need to persuade. It’s always a bit nerve wracking when pitching your ideas to people with real influence. These people had never seen solutions like the ones I had produced, because a couple of them were (I think) unique inventions, and the others were ideas taken well out of context. The products were pitched to the funders and received feedback after I left Ahmedabad. Here is part of the email revealing the result that surprised me.
They loved the trolley. They want to come see it in action at ICP. They think that people will buy them 4-5 at a time.’
My thoughts are that the stair trolley will be met with great resistance when tested in the field because it will be very difficult to manoeuvre on the busy streets. It is also bound to be very expensive… The other solutions will have to go through further design iterations before they can be brought to market, but they all show potential.
I have now left Ahmedabad, and ICP, and if someone were to ask me, ‘how was your time up there?’ I would answer by saying, ‘It felt like home, and it was difficult to leave’. I enjoyed everyday in the office and workshop at ICP. I made some great friends there, learnt a great deal about people and myself, and like to think I’ve achieved a lot.
I’ll miss: my surrogate Indian family and younger brothers, my neighbours who called me Kevin Pietersen, my favourite bakery – that often gave me free samples, my launderette who used to keep me well dressed, and the numerous tool shops that I used to frequently hang out in.
Ahemdabad, was the first place in India, where I really felt settled and could understand why people did the things they did. Ujire always felt like home, but partly because I could hide away from the Indian culture. Ahmedabad showed me what it was to be like a real Indian. I found out the best places to eat food, which the tourists never find; I enjoyed being part of the crowd of traffic that the traffic police couldn’t hold back at intersections; I enjoyed watching Indian comedy on the TV, and laughing with others. I enjoyed being adopted into the Indian culture.
No longer did I see a ridiculous situation, put it down to incompetence, and then immediately think, ‘hold on, I think I’ve got the wrong attitude here…’ I now see a ridiculous situation, laugh at the calamitousness of it, and then understand, at least partly, why it’s happening.
My last blog entry detailed the fish slum and some of the problems facing the women fish vendors. Since then I’ve moved house and have already made a couple of prototypes.
So let me tell you first about the cushy deal I’ve landed with my accommodation. I’m now living in an old traditional Indian town house. The building is built around a central column open to the sky. In the monsoon season, rain pours down the centre and acts as an air conditioning system for the house. A very elegant design, and something which is missing from these concrete monstrosities that are now being created in the the thousands! The central courtyard also doubles as a small 2 a-side football pitch and a miniature wicket for cricket in the evenings when I get home from work.
I’m staying with a family and 2 spanish building engineers; and already I feel like I’m part of their family. There are two young boys aged 9 and 14 who are already like little brothers to me. They burst into my room unannounced and ask to play on the games on my phone. As we speak, the youngest is playing on a sniper game – I’m not sure their mother would approve. I was amused when yesterday they were playing beerpong on my phone. The game is basically based on a guy getting progressively more drunk whilst trying to flick a ping pong ball into cups of beer. Given that I’m currently in the dry state of Gujarat, I’ve tried to steer them away from this bad game!
I’m eating the most incredible meals and because I pretend I can handle the spice, I am respected among the family – I’m a ‘big man’. I have started having packed lunches which I take to the office, and they are delicious! There is so much variety in curries, that you’ll never find in a restaurant. I get 3 meals a day for 100Rupees, which is an absolute steal.
My Hindi is coming along nicely and I really feel like I have settled in India. I even have a favourite biscuit shop that I frequent, where I get free samples. And I have made friends with several tool shop owners. There are literally streets devoted to tools, pipes, steel, and plumbing equipment – I could waste years strolling up and down those roads.
I better tell you about some engineering before I tell a calamitous story.
I have made some stellar progress with my projects recently. I am well ahead of schedule and producing some quality products. I have started work on 3 products: a new design of backpack (which will be explained in my next blog entry), a vortex tube for creating ice, and some stands for securely holding fish bowls.
The vortex tube has been the most exciting product, although I can’t see much future in it where I’m working. A vortex tube turns compressed air into hot air and cold air with no moving parts. The simple explanation of how this works is witchcraft (if you’re happy with this explanation, skip to the next paragraph). A more detailed explanation follows although no theory is entirely agreed upon yet. The compressed air enters the tube through the clear pipes. It spins very fast due to the opposing misaligned jets of air. The air travels along the length of the tube, and the hot air goes to the perimeter, while the cold air goes to the centre. The theory is that the hot air molecules have more inertia and are harder to accelerate, and hence they get pressed against the outside of the tube. At the end of the tube, a ball valve allows only the hot air to escape by creating an opening near the edge of the outside of the pipe, thus forcing the cold air back along the centre, where it is tapped off through a small central hole. This cold air can be as cold as -40C! And hence able to make ice.
Manufacturing the vortex tube was harder than I thought, mainly because the polymer I was using was made by hand, and therefore didn’t have any flat edges – something we take for granted in the UK. Forming airtight seals and aligning holes are therefore nearly impossible and have made testing less impressive than I imagined. Nevertheless, a kind garage owner allowed us to borrow his air-line and the vortex tube worked. The cold air output was clearly not enough to produce the many kilos of ice required to run a fish market, so I think this project will have to go down to experience. The valuable lesson I’ve learnt about design in development is that materials will never be perfect, so factor this in.
The vortex tube was therefore a great learning experience and a product that ICP can proudly show off albeit not an appropriate technology!
Now onto one of my low technical solutions to an unhygienic fish market. I noticed, while walking around the market that every fish vendor had the same aluminium bowls and none of them had a suitable way to prop the bowls up. Most vendors put polystyrene slabs (from broken cool boxes) under their bowls and angled the bowl towards themselves. More progressive sellers used bricks, but both of these solutions meant that waste-water could not drain easily, and added to the stench of the place. My solution is very simple. To have a steel tripod stand that securely holds the bowl. Simplicity is best, and it will be interesting to see how the stand is received.
I thought I’d round off this blog entry with a story that will hopefully at least make you chuckle.
My only complaint with my new house and adoptive family is that I can hear the slightest sound coming from the street outside my window. At night it ranges from a bit of shouting, to dogs barking – which is nothing I can’t cope with. The morning is a different story! Every morning at 5am, I get woken by a kid kicking a football. I’ve been puzzled by this everyday, and I wonder, firstly why the kid is deadly silent and never shouts, and how he can see the ball at that time. The fact that he’s playing football has never worried me – in India, you learn to view the extraordinary as the norm.
This morning I was riled and was in two minds about leaning out of the window to tell this kid that it was 5am! But if India has taught me anything so far, it’s tolerance, so I ignored it, and actually managed to get some sleep.
Over breakfast I was discussing with a Spanish housemate about this annoying kid, and she proceeded to explain that, that kid was actually a woman, and that football was in actual fact an item of clothing. It turns out that clothes are cleaned by smacking them with a piece of wood – which sounds like a football bouncing off a wall. Good job I was tolerant!
My new strategy for development work is this, ‘immerse yourself in the lives of the people you want to help. If you can get by, and enjoy the life, then there is no need to change the situation. If however, you physically cannot continue, then design your way out of the situation’. This idea sounds very noble and I surprised myself with the wise words I’d put together – but the idea wasn’t so great when I had to practice what I preached, and spend my time at the local fish market. The idea of this blog entry is to show you what I see in the fish market and to describe some of the problems they face.
Preparation for a day of fish selling starts at 7am, when the sun just begins to shine. It’s very cold in the mornings and the air is filled with acrid smoke from people burning rubbish on the side of the road to keep warm. I watched an old woman carefully light a fire outside the covered fish market, and watched her grand children gather round to keep warm. While I envied the heat the fire was giving out, I watched 2 women running backwards and forwards filling up tins with water from the outside tap, and rushing inside the market with them. The tap was only on for 2 hours in the morning, and it provided just enough water for the day of fish selling. The 2 women were chewing on sticks as they rushed around, which were to brush their teeth.
At around 8:00am the fish vendors started to make their way in. The first jobs were to clean and arrange the fish that had been stored overnight in the polystyrene boxes. I should have been surprised, but I wasn’t – most of the fish ended up on the floor, which is essentially an open sewer. The fish was vaguely cleaned and put in bowls, ready to be position on the slanting counter. Occasionally a fish would fall off, and as long as it looked clean, it was simply put back in the bowl. If a lot of fish had been sold the previous day, a fresh batch had to be bought in via rickshaw.
The stalls were all laid out by 10 o’clock and the market was suddenly transformed into a bustling business platform. I desperately tried to not get in the way of all the business, and the position I chose to stand in was free for a reason – it was where the wastewater was thrown. There is no other way to describe the walkway between the stalls, other than an open sewer. There are two gutters either side of the ‘walkway’, which divert wastewater to the front of the market. However the drains are not sufficient, and often get blocked by fish guts, hence backing up and overflowing into the walkway. Needless to say I only ever wore sandals to the fish market once – no bloody fish water would be getting through my steel toecaps!
The fish were resting on big blocks of ice, and the customers all handled the fish, to check for freshness and weight. Once the fish had been selected the vendors, cut the fish into big chunks on a vertical knife mounted to a board of wood – their seat. Once the big cuts were made, the fins and guts were removed. The fish cuts are then weighed, bagged up, and sold. And most importantly, after every sale, the vendors all washed their hands! In a bucket of dirty water, that was never changed for the whole day. I would have loved to know how someone persuaded the fish sellers to do such a counterintuitive task. It does show that with hygiene, there is hope.
I remember asking one of the vendors (via my translator), why don’t you prepare the fish at the start of the day? Then you won’t be in so much of a rush. They replied with the fact that, firstly, customers like to pick up the fish, and secondly, they would appear to increase their prices, and would therefore lose business. Fish is sold per unit weight, with all the waste products (guts, head, tail) included. I found it hard to believe that customers wouldn’t be able to see that the price would increase because they weren’t paying for things they didn’t eat. I also realised that development work required a lot of patience and empathy.
At about 2pm, business died down for a couple of hours, and this was where I asked most of my questions. The women usually spent this time eating lunch and gossiping. I was always a source of amusement to the women at this time. I usually laughed along because their laughs were so infectious. And by this time in the day, the smell of the market was impossible to sense; I was always taken away with how much fun people could have in such a grotty place. The women were also always immaculately dressed, and to this day I don’t know how they do it.
I noticed that the stalls at the far end were never used. I asked several people why this was the case. The manager of the market assured me that it was because those people just happened to be ill that day. Local fish vendors claimed that due to the design of the market, customers never ventured down to the end, and therefore vendors had no reason to set up there. And from my direct observation, the reason no-one worked there was because it provided an incredibly useful area to store all the cool boxes of fish. This problem shows you how difficult it is to get an accurate answer out of anyone here. It’s fascinating to see how people’s minds work…
There were some clear problems with this market, which I categorised in to 3 areas: Hygiene, Efficiency, and Refrigeration. Hygiene was an issue from the start of the day, to the end. There seemed to be a lack of basic knowledge; however if you have no choice but to work there, acceptance could be perceived to an outsider as ignorance.
You could look at any part of the market and see poor efficiency. From the first job in the day of collecting water from the tap outside, to the ongoing waste disposal (or lack of it), to the fact that the money pot was always in a different place; efficiency is never optimised. This is a great area for an engineer to work on, however, to improve efficiency, a lot of social change needs to happen, which I’m discovering, is no trivial task. I do have some simple but effective ideas to help…
Refrigeration, as a mechanical engineer is the most exciting problem to try to solve. If you crack cheap refrigeration, you can improve the lives of fish vendors in open fish markets throughout the world. Can you tell I’m a dreamer? And as an incentive for you to follow up on my designs, I think I’ve found a way to make ice for free. It uses ‘free’ compressed air from a local petrol station, and a vortex tube.
Am I really helping the whole situation by putting the ice sellers out of business?
I was in Ahmadabad for a month from the middle of November to the middle of December. I left the little town of Ujire where I had been working, and left for the bright lights of the City in the North to work with some slum workers.
Ahmadabad was in the news in 2002 for riots between the Hindus and Muslims that lived there. Today however, they seem to live quite happily alongside one another. The whole situation there made me think of the relationship between Pakistan and India, and incidentally, when India was split up into: Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (formerly known as east Pakistan), Ahmadabad was the last city that Muslims were allowed to stay. If you were Muslim and lived to the west of the city, you would move to Pakistan, and hence, there is a large Muslim community in Ahmadabad. Personally, I loved the Muslim influence because it meant I could eat meat!
The office of ICP is situated in the new part of the city by a busy road – which occasionally requires the use of a cow to act as a shield. The office itself is crammed full of prototypes, desks, efficient cook-stoves and computers. Parag, who is leading the operations there, used to work in Silicon Valley and like me believes in many quotes to guide him through life, so naturally we got on well. One of his ideas is that the key to success is the ability to change. He applies this to his organisation and is not afraid to drop a product if it isn’t working after testing. This vision as well as the belief that extensive research needs to be done before prototyping, ensures that ICP is always looking at new solutions to age-old problems facing the urban Indian population. There are many products on the go, and a real sense of energy in the place.
ICP works in cooperation with an organisation called SEWA, which stands for ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’. This meant that all the projects ICP worked on were mainly around women, and in my opinion, empowerment of women is the most powerful tool against poverty.
My first job was to have a tour of the projects in the ICP office. There were several shelves of efficient cook-stoves, and every week, Zaid in the office, runs an afternoon class teaching local women how to maintain and use the stoves. There is a replacement roof panel for a slum dwellers’ roof, which is made from fibreglass – the idea is that the fibreglass allows light to fill the room, and there is a specially designed angled hole in the roof to allow smoke out. There is a new design for an incense-rolling table, with the intention to reduce repetitive strain. Incense sticks are usually made by hand in India, and for every 1000 rolled, the worker gets 10Rupees, which is about 12p. The women usually roll between 6000-8000 per day. The children can also make these incense sticks much quicker than the older women because their hands are much quicker. I was shocked to witness this poverty trap and equally frustrated that if you intervened with a machine, you’d be putting so many people out of work.
Adam, who became a good friend, studied at MIT and was working at ICP on a fellowship. He was researching waste management and a new design for a hand pushed waste cart. Adam had a well adapted approach to development work, he had the ability to immerse himself in another culture and had the patience and determination to really understand why a person does something a certain way. He learnt to speak almost fluent Hindi and was a great guy to talk to when I was frustrated at the way things were in India. The highlight of working with him was when he was trying to think of every step of the waste disposal cycle. I noticed that it followed a similar cycle to farming, so we both drew a mind map on the white board. I detailed farming down to the spraying of crops, to the fact that you never forget your packed lunch when you have to spend the day in a tractor. It turns out, nearly all the processes were equivalent – for example the harvest is equivalent to the collection of waste. The more detailed I went into a description, the more areas for possible solutions we could add to the waste management model. I’m not sure what we’re going to call this new method of systems analysis, but I’m sure we’ll both be using it again.
My projects centred around 2 communities, the Head Loader community, who transport packages of clothes around on their heads and shoulders; and the Fish Sellers at a particular covered fish market in one of the slums. The Head Loaders were complaining of back pains and miscarriages due to the strain exerted on their bodies. And the Fish Sellers were complaining about the price of ice, and the need for proper refrigeration, however another real issue they faced was the lack of basic hygiene.
While in the office one night, toiling away, I started thinking about the most effective way to understand a problem. It’s always been clear to me, that to be an innovator and an inventor, you need to think about a problem differently, and this requires you to understand a problem better than anyone else. My theory is that to truly understand a problem, you need to be completely immersed in it. If you literally can’t continue the way you are, you’ll be forced to think of a solution. If on the other hand you can get by, then why change it? It may even be a better way to do something. The example I like to use is the fact that outside every small shop in the slums of India there is a chair outside. The chair is used for the shop owners’ friend to come and sit, and although they won’t do much work, they’ll certainly have a laugh and a good catch up. The contrast is when I went to a generic coffee shop, the workers looked like zombies – sound familiar?
It’s a common idea in the west that monopolies are bad, and that workers don’t feel valued because they can’t see the fruits of their labour – they are simply a tiny cog in a huge machine. In the UK especially, small local shops, are often favoured by the conscientious shopper; however there is an alternative way to think about it. In the book, ‘Small is Beautiful’, E.F. Schaumacher, talks about the theory of economics as if humans happiness mattered, and takes into account human emotions as a driving force for economies. The book prefers the idea of small businesses and processes because it allows the worker to see what they are producing and be happy in what they are doing.
In India, the predominant form of business is small scale, where the owner gets to oversee the whole process they are involved in. They spend the day doing enough to get by, hang out with friends, and watch the world go by – so according to Schaumacher they would be happy. So why would government jobs and endless bureaucracy be so popular here? Why would someone want to be a small cog in a machine and never get to see the fruits of their labour? Why would people move away from the beautiful countryside and want to work in big companies? One possible answer is that they don’t want the stress and risk of being a self-employed business owner. They like the job security a big company gives them, and if they’re earning a good wage, why worry about what you’re doing?
So maybe small isn’t beautiful? Maybe big is beautiful? Or maybe the neutrino was wrong and in fact Einstein was right, everything is relative?
I could talk about the universe here, or I could let you know that my next blog entry is all about the Fish Vendors. Don’t worry, it smells worse than it looks.
My last blog entry taught you about rural rice farming, so this one’s going to start by explaining how to relax on an EWB-UK placement.
Tommy had been here for a few months before I arrived and had been eyeing up a river to do his favourite hobby of all time – tubing. The plan was to get a few lorry inner-tubes and set off down the river from Ujire, to the next town which was about 6miles away. After extensive research on google earth and after asking the advice of the locals, we picked a Sunday to go tubing.
Headley, Tommy and myself managed to get ourselves some inner-tubes and got them pumped up on Saturday night. By the next morning, it was clear that one had a puncture, so after some rigorous calculations we decided, it would make it.
We loaded up the auto rickshaw with our usual driver Hussain, and we headed for the river
Needless to say, the inner-tubes were hanging off the side of the auto by the time we reached the river.
The river wasn’t very fast flowing because the rains had finished and we set out down the river. The locals washing their vehicles in the river couldn’t believe their eyes when we silently floated past. It was one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done and the idyllic scenes floated by with the occasional interruption from monkeys swinging from the trees, and birds.
Half way down, Headleys punctured inner-tube was beginning to let him down (all puns intended). Luckily we realised things were going pear shaped just as we went past some sand miners in the river. They were using buckets to shovel sand from the riverbed into a truck. While one of them went with Headley to pump up his tyre, I had a go at shovelling the sand. I got talking to the guy about fishing and he said his favourite technique was called ‘blasting’, which meant using dynamite. He promised to show me how to do it if I ever came floating down the river.
Headley was gone a while so Tommy and I went to the guys house where he gave us some tender coconuts. They were the nicest I’d ever had, probably because I was so hungry!
Soon enough Headley returned, so we said our goodbyes, and left to finish our trip (we were about half way through). We only just made it to the next town but we made great time – there was almost enough sunlight to do it again. What a great day!!
I was soon to head up to the north of India to a city called Ahmedabad where I’d be working as a research and design engineer in an NGO called ICP (innovation Centre for Poor). My flights were booked and I was excited to experience internal flights in India. I managed to avoid Kingfisher airlines, which at the time was going into administration, and I chose air India.
My last job in the office was to draw up the new designs for the electric thresher on SolidWorks, and after a few days, it was all done, and fully adjustable – I was proud of it. I had increased the size of the thresher, so 2 people could operate it, thus doubling the output. There was an area in front of the spinning drum to collect any tangled paddy, and a knife to cut any bit off so that it could be easily removed. The new design was much safer because it had an arm rest that would protect your hands from the spinning drum. There was also a centreless auger that takes the paddy to a bag, after it had been through a meche to filter it. The only issue was whether the local workshops would be able to make it. I had deliberately designed it to be made in a basic workshop but explaining the engineering drawings would be difficult.
By the Wednesday, I was ready to leave what felt like home, and head for the bright lights of Ahmedabad. I’d organised for an Auto to pick me up at 7am, and naturally, I ended up walking. To my luck, a bus had broken down 10minutes away from my accommodation. The accelerator cable had broken, and although I explained I was a mechanical engineer and knew a trick to fix the bus using a guitar string and an insulated plug (that my dad had mastered); the bus driver wouldn’t let me have a go. I was equally annoyed that I couldn’t fix this problem as I was, happy that I didn’t have to walk very far. The replacement bus was on its way. And the air bus (named so because you spend most of your time in the air) took me to the nearest town Mangalore, where I caught another bus to the airport.
The security was as inefficient as it was regular and notably on the first set of double doors, someone checked my passport and ticket printout, followed by someone 2 steps behind them doing the same. David Cameron, if you’re reading this, I think I’ve found a way to reduce our unemployment rates…
The flight was no frills, the curry was just about edible and the landing was as I expected – almost out of control. I had to change in Mumbai, so I took the opportunity to get a kfc and relax. I took my next flight to Ahmedabad and experienced the same flight quality as before.
The Auto ride to the Hotel was a standard airport auto ride. The guy was going to rip me off something chronic regardless of what precautions I took. When I got into the auto, he made a big point to set it to 0 and explained how it would probably cost 200Rs. I found it strange that if we were going by meter, he felt he had to make a big thing out of warning me how much it would cost – which surprise surprise, was a lot more expensive than I knew it should be.
It turned out the driver wanted about 500Rs for the ride! He was unfazed when I said, so you lied to me. The meter even read 500Rs, however after I kicked up a bit of a fuss, he produced a list of tables that revealed the correct price – what a cheeky sod!
The next jobs after a good nights sleep were: to find me some very cheap accommodation, introduce me to the ICP office, show me the projects, and teach the office employees how to use their brand new workshop.
I think it’s time I explained how to farm rice in rural India. I should point out now that you can get a bowl of rice here in a restaurant for about 7Rupees, which is about 9p. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was, and it left me with the uneasy question, ‘how does any farmer out here make any money at all?’ After I’ve explained all the processes, you’ll be asking the same question.
Another key point to note is that the big problem in the south with rice farmers is the shortage of labour. Because farm labourers can only be employed seasonally for the planting and harvesting, they can only work part of the year. Despite there being 3 harvests a year, many labourers leave for the big cities, where the streets are paved with gold and they can work all year round (maybe). The problem is that this causes a labour shortage in the farming community, which forces farmers to buy machinery, which: A) they can’t afford, and B) probably aren’t designed for such small farms. There’s a big market here for small scale agricultural machinery but manufacturers already exist, so is the problem an engineering one? I’ll let you know in April…
And while I’m digressing already, I was thinking about the effects of mechanisation on the farmers out here. If I design a great threshing machine that every farmer buys on the basis that it solves the labour shortage problem, surely I’m actually making it worse? By introducing my machine, I’m putting people out of work – this gives them an even more immediate need to move to the city. Does this mean that everything needs to be mechanised at once? …Or not at all? …Am I thinking too much?
When researching the first threshers, I found out that a Scottish engineer called Meikle claimed to invent the first thresher. This resulted in riots throughout the UK because it would put so many people out of work. Development work is a very complicated area of work; I would have to be very careful.
Anyway, it’s time to teach you how to farm!
We’ll start at the most exciting time for all farmers – the harvest. This is the time in the year when all the farmers efforts are realised. Ask any farmer around the world, the harvest is a time of: hard work, relief and satisfaction.
In southern India, many farmers cut their paddy (the grass that rice grows on) by hand. Some farmers have a strimmer that is powered by a small petrol engine. I’ve only seen one of these though. I also noticed, while on an 8 hour train journey, a few combine harvesters; they were working on big farms on flat land – something rare in the south.
The next thing to do is take the paddy back to the farm buildings
The paddy is bought back to the buildings and stored under plastic sheeting. The picture below shows a table which is used for threshing (explained next). The Rice needs to be separated from the grass (paddy) and a very traditional way to do it, is by thrashing it against a table with holes in it. The rice flies off and is then collected.
This threshing technique is very inefficient and utilises about 6 people at any given time. The ground needs to be meticulously swept before and after, which no doubt will still contaminate the grain.
It’s interesting to always compare Indian farming techniques with what we do back in the UK. All the jobs mentioned above: the reaping (cutting), collecting and threshing are done by 2 people; one person cuts and threshes using a combine harvester
This particular combine has a 24ft cut and can cut and thresh 4 acres of crop in an hour, which usually yields at 4 tons per acre. So in English, in the UK on this relatively small farm, 16tons of crop are collected and prepared in 1 hour. 16 tons is more crop than any small scale farmer would harvest in a year! It’s also interesting to note that in every combine there is a manual for all the settings for different crops, one of which is for rice. There are also specific mechanical parts in the combine designed for rice – it turns out they also do a pretty good job for all crops, and hence why they were kept in the combine.
This guy is using a mechanical cultivator. These seem fairly common among farmers, so mechanisation is happening. Most farmers will all share these machines, to reduce the cost of buying one. Farmers will always work in teams, to combat the shortage of labour, and to even out the work load from the seasonal way that rice grows.
The paddy fields are then leveled by hand by dragging a pole through the pud
All the pictures of Indian farmers in this blog entry were taken on the same day. There must have been over 30 people all working in these fields, whereas in the UK, you’d get away with 2 people, and probably just 2 days! It raises an interesting idea about the ecology of farming and the amount of enjoyment people get when working, and drinking tea together. Farming in the UK can be one of the loneliest jobs you can do, is it worth sacrificing a bit of efficiency for a cup of tea and a good laugh?
The ground is now ready for replanting. The south Indian farmers I have met, all have the same technique. They intensely plant one area of a field with rice and let the other fields grow weeds.
When the paddy has grown out of the water, the other fields are cultivated, digging the nutrients of the weeds back into the ground.
The bundles of paddy are then transplanted individually into the field.
The idea is that the rice plants have an advantage over the weeds. I know what you’re asking – why don’t you just intensely plant the whole field? And why don’t you spray the crops? You’re probably not asking this, but I feel I should give you a thorough education. So, the intensely planted rice doesn’t grow very efficiently past it’s current stage, and you can’t spray the paddy because the fields are waterlogged and the chemicals just wash away.
And this ends the lesson for today. Also in this syllabus: mechanisation of rice farming, how to celebrate Diwali in style, and which inner-tube is best for floating down a river…
The overnight bus was something that was a little concern to me. I’d heard about this particular bus from Sam (a past volunteer) when I was chatting to him at the pre-departure training course, hosted by EWB-UK. He said that it was actually quite a luxurious bus and would be no problem. But my concern was that, in the day, you can tell by the sun if you’re going in the wrong direction; I had to trust that I had got on the right bus.
After speaking to a few people in SELCO Foundations’ office in Bangalore, I found out that the quality of bus depended entirely on the price you pay. Headley in the office assured me I was on the 2nd to bottom class and that it was going to be a bumpy ride, ‘you may get a couple of hours sleep’ he said. At least I was expecting the worst now; at least I could prepare myself.
I gave myself plenty of time to get to the bus station and wangled myself a good deal with the auto (rickshaw) driver. I got there with an hour to spare and settled down to read my book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ about a humanitarian worker in Pakistan (I recommend the book highly).
I waited at my bus stand and asked a few people if I was in the right place. They assured me I was, and I hopped aboard. The bus shortly left (on time) and I headed away from the city lights, towards my rural setting where I would be spending the next month.
I knew the university (SDMIT) where SELCO Labs is based, is in the hills and it came as a reassuring sign that my bus was soon winding round sharp corners. This meant I was making the assent and I fell asleep, safe in the knowledge I was well on my way.
When I woke, I was nearly there. I noticed some painful bites on my arm and tried not to think about what may have caused them, I was just happy to finally be at my destination. I asked the bus driver to stop outside the college, and naturally he drove too far. I had to walk about 1km in the opposite direction to get to the college. It was 5am and already it was boiling hot. I met Sam and Tommy who had kindly met me, and we walked to the apartment.
This was the first sighting I had of the college where I would be working – it’s quite impressive.
Between the 3 of us, we had: 2 bedrooms, 2 cots (bed frames), 3 mattresses, a kitchen with nothing in it, and a living room with a table and chairs. It seemed like enough, but I soon found out I was sleeping on the floor. I was assured that I would have a bed by the end of the week and because I didn’t know the Indian work culture, I believed them. I laid down on my mattress and got a few hours sleep before I checked out the lab.
I first saw the lab at about 11am. It was on the 4th floor of the university and by the time I reached the top, I needed another shower. The next couple of days, I spent being shown around the lab and seeing what projects were being done. It’s probably a good idea to explain what SELCO Labs actually is. SELCO Labs is the research and design department born out of and funded by SELCO Solar. The aim is for the lab to research new ways to help the rural poor – the possibilities are endless and the sky is the limit.
The first thing that caught my eye in the room was a massive wind turbine mounted on a bike tire and 3 flimsy legs. I asked what it was and found out that it was in fact a wind turbine but that it had been donated to us for testing. I gave the rickety structure a whirl and it span for a bit but this thing was so heavy and so badly designed it would never be a suitable product. Nevertheless, it looked impressive.
Other projects that were being developed was: a hand held Rice De-Husker, a cheap Anemometer, a small scale electrified Rice Thresher, efficient burning Cook stoves, briquette makers and an initiative in schools called light for light. Light for light involved school pupils each being given a solar light that was charged up while at school, that they could take home and us there. The idea is that the pupils could use the light for anything and hopefully to do homework.
My project was the Rice Thresher and I had to redesign it and potentially scale it up. The first jobs were to see it in use at local farms and to then use my agricultural and mechanical engineering backgrounds, to improve the design.
This was the first time I saw the Thresher. It worked but there were clear ways it could be improved. My work started immediately and I couldn’t wait to crack on!