Today’s blog post is an interview with Sumit Tated, a friend, and alumnus of Institute of Chemical Technology Mumbai, who runs SoFood Private Limited. He is an Entrepreneur at heart and a Green Technologist by qualification. Loves to travel and explore. He thinks he can contribute his 2 cents to make this world a better place. He is a chilled out person, with wit & sarcasm. As a pastime, he teaches kids. SoFood Pvt. Ltd., a students’ social start-up venture initiated by three young and enterprising entrepreneurs, Amita Shah, Rishabh Chaudhary, and Sumit Tated. It aims to work with farmers to provide sustainable solutions to India’s agricultural & food industry. It attempts to bridge the gap between technological shortfalls in the rural areas associated with on-field production and the busy lives in cities. Their Solar Conduction Dryers dehydrate fruits & vegetables thereby imparting longer shelf life and ease of consumability. 2016 is the International Year of Pulses and this interview comes in at the right time. The technology they use has been featured in Fast Co-Exist, Eco-business, Radical News, Eco-Ideaz, Innovate Development, and Times of India.
This is my first time interviewing a friend as well as an alumnus of the institute I studied at. This is very exciting for me and we share this moment of pride. Tell us about your journey at SoFood and how it came to be.
Sumit: Well, we always wanted to do something different. We were hunting for an opportunity and we came across this fruits & vegetables dehydration business. The idea was brought to reality and we started working with farmers. The journey has been nothing less than a roller coaster ride. Working with farmers in India is very challenging as the sector is highly unorganized. Presently, we are working with around 100 farmers across 4 different locations. Two years from the start and we already feel the thrill. This is just a start and a lot has to be achieved.
What’s your role in your company and who’s on your team?
Sumit: We are a team of three people. Rishabh, a friend, is into strategies and the technical side of it. Amita Shah, an entrepreneur & exporter handles finances & export operations. I take care of the back-end productions. Apart from this, the team of Science for Society, the innovation company helps us from time to time.
SoFood uses solar drying technology developed by Science for Society. What is solar drying, why do we need it and how do Solar Conduction Dryers exactly work?
Sumit: Solar drying is an ancient science that uses solar thermal energy for dehydration of different products in order to increase its shelf life. Although, the concept of sun-dried food items is known in India since centuries, such products have not realized their true potential especially in the organised sector. There exist many different drying technologies such as electrical drying. However, considering India where there is yet a lack of electricity supply in rural areas and considering the cost associated, solar energy is promising. In the case of solar conduction dryers, for the first time in solar drying, all 3 modes of heating have been used including conduction. This increases the efficiency.
Speaking of ancient science, I remember my neighbour laying out chillies and papads out in the sun on a sheet for drying. What can solar conduction dryers dry? How big these dryers are and what is an ideal place for them?
Sumit: Yes, this is similar, but is a more hygienic and efficient way of drying. It can dry almost all fruits, vegetables, spices, flowers, meat, etc. Our farmers are very innovative and have tried products like “pan masala, kuldai cha chik, dal etc.” The product range also extends widely: Naturally flavoured Amla candies, apple, jackfruit, jamun, musk melon, pineapple and banana are some of the fruits which are promising. Among vegetables, capsicum, onions, lady finger, green peas, tomatoes, cabbage and many others have produced good results. Even spices like coriander, curry leaves, mint powder and kokam form a range of high-value products which show high flavour retention. Different forms of sprouts, corn and cassava have also been successfully dried to retain their market acceptability. Being dry, these are also protected from microbial spoilage and occupy less space. With lower cooking time and pre-cut nature, these products seem to be just the need of the hour with increasing number of working women and singles. For office going people and travellers, the ready to drink fruit milkshakes is a wonderful product. We have launched Chikoo Milkshake Powder which one needs to just mix in a glass of cold water and your milkshake is ready to drink. What is more promising is that it is free from any sort of artificial flavour or chemical preservative. Sooner, we will be launching other milkshakes as well. The ready puran-poli’s puran mix was another innovative product which many ladies liked due the simplicity and comfort of using.
One dryer is 4X4 sq. ft. It has to be placed in an open place under the sun. The surrounding area should be free from dust. Therefore, terrace, farms with minimal prep (in order to prevent dust, either putting plastic carpet or cementing is done), and grounds are an ideal location.
How efficient are we talking about here? Can you give us some numbers?
Sumit: We can dry leafy vegetables in 2-3 hours. Onion in 7-8 hours and tomato in around 10-12 hours roughly depending on climate. Any Indian householder would know that the sprouts, an indispensable part of the routine and healthy diet, take about two days to soak and become a consumable. The sprouts from SoFood, on the other hand, require only 15mins to get soaked.
Since this runs on the sun, it cannot work during monsoon and cloudy days. This will affect the consistency of the project. What will the farmers do then?
Sumit: Yes, in monsoon, there are limitations. For centralized processes, we provide a backup electricity dryer. Also, efforts are going on to make a dual system which can work on biomass-based fuel as well. Till then, we train farmer on how to cope up with the limitation by matching the production cycle. For example, while calculating economic feasibility, we consider only 250 working days a year.
Speaking of feasibility, how feasible and scalable is this project? Do you intend to expand?
Sumit: The economic feasibility increases with the scale as there is huge B2B demand for dehydrated products which require large quantities. The critical factor of raw material sourcing if dealt properly, this business shows very good economic feasibility. We have are working with around 100 farmers. It has been challenging to understand their perspective and match technology with it. Initially, it was very difficult and we saw many ups and downs. But our efforts have started yielding fruits and it’s great. We are in talks with more farmer groups to expand.
You said you are currently working in 4 different locations. Where is this? Any reason for the choice of places?
Sumit: 4 places in Maharashtra where we are working with different groups of farmers and ladies are Ozar near Nasik, a village near Lonar, Akola in Vidarbha and one near Pune at Uralikanchan. The places were chosen demographically to study feasibility, considering the different economic background of farmers and locations.
You mention ‘ladies’ differently, why?
Sumit: Because at one place, the dryers are entirely operated by them.
Are you saying there are no lady farmers and that the drying operations are totally carried out by women?
Sumit: They are farmers. But the male counterparts look for their personal work and these women do this additional business.
Oh, so these women put in additional hours of work to support their families?
Sumit: Yes. It gives them extra income source. We focus on three things: post-harvest loss prevention, sustainability and women/farmer’s empowerment.
SoFood is helping a great deal to avoid food going to waste. But, do dehydrated products lose nutrition in the process?
Sumit: No, the dehydrated products do not lose nutrition. In fact, nutrients are concentrated. For instance, in the dehydrated sprouts, we have performed the nutritional analysis and observed that 99% of the nutrients are retained. So, we can safely assume that more than 95% nutrients will be available.
Food wastage is a huge concern in India. From what I know, almost half of what India produces is rotted away. A lot is wasted due to lack of proper storage, isn’t it?
Sumit: Yes, very true. Storage is the biggest issue.
What do you think about climate controlled warehouses?
Sumit: Climate controlled warehouses like cold-storage facilities are good ways. In fact, initially, GOI (Government of India) started giving subsidies to put these houses in order to promote them. However, the necessity of electricity and operating costs are high there. In dehydration, the volume also gets reduced.
What do you think about other methods of food conservation?
Sumit: Regarding other methods of food preservation, cold storage is a major thing. Blanching and few other technologies also exist. Each of these has few merits and demerits of its own such as operating cost, weather dependency, the addition of chemicals & preservatives, etc. At the same time, they are able to retain the original shape of the product which dehydration fails to do.
Speaking of the shape of food stuff, a lot of people throw away ‘ugly’ food stuff for e.g. a crooked carrot. What do you say about that?
Sumit: Spoiled food and ugly appearance are two different things. We train farmers to select appropriate food for drying. However, crooked vegetables are perfectly fine for drying. As they are cut into pieces first, physical appearance does not matter.
Where do farmers come in this picture? How does food waste affect them?
Sumit: Farmers are the centre of our business. It’s the farmers who are our producers. The food wastage leads to economic burden on them. The thing with agricultural business is that it’s periodic. During specific seasons, there will be huge production surplus, leading to wastage.
Speaking of causation and what affects what, have you conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) for your project?
Sumit: No. We haven’t yet.
Do you have any plans to do an LCA? Do you find a need to do that?
Sumit: As of now we have no plans to do so.
Sumit, you are also conducting research at ICT right now. Tell us more about it.
Sumit: I am working on Biobased materials for packaging.
Do you plan to use your research in SoFood?
Sumit: I will try to use bioplastic engineered products in SoFood in the future.
This year is the International Year of Pulses. What do you think this year should see?
Sumit: While the world is celebrating International Year of Pulses, I hope people and farmers get the benefits of all sort of technologies, which will help them reduce the post harvest losses and prosper their life.
I thank Sumit for taking some time out for the interview in spite of having met with a road accident. Fortunately, he is doing well now. You can read more about SoFood here and contact Sumit directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find him on Twitter.