Nidhi Pant is committed to helping farmers make a decent living — and the Mumbai company she helped found is already making a difference for farmers in India, and beyond.
The cause is personal for the 23-year-old entrepreneur, who was born to a farming family in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, known for breathtaking Himalayan mountainscapes dotted with Hindu temples. The area is also known for natural calamities that test its inhabitants, including devastating floods in June 2013 that killed thousands. In Pant’s home village, farmland was made inarable. At least 10 farmers she knew in the area committed suicide, she says. “They tried very hard,” she says. “This was the last option for them.”
She has also been influenced by the struggles of farmers in her family to get decent prices for their crops. Farmers’ highly perishable goods must be sold quickly — especially since India’s rural areas often lack electricity and refrigeration equipment — and middlemen take the lion’s share of the profits. Moreover, about 30 percent of farmers’ products appear blemished. These “ugly” fruits and vegetables are considered undesirable by consumers and typically go to waste.
“From farm to fork, it’s a very challenging journey for the farmers,” Pant says.
She and the rest of founding team of DesiVDesi Foods — a half dozen young people, most of whom are linked as alumni of Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology — are working hard to make it easier. The group formed around the brainchild of one member, Vaibhav Tidke, to make and distribute low-cost solar-powered dryers that farmers could use to turn imperfect, but still nutritious, produce into saleable dehydrated goods.
Harnessing the Sun
“We had to devise something which is low-cost and which is electricity-free,” Pant says. “Sun drying is very prevalent in India. People dry chilis, people dry herbs, their fruits. If people want to make pickles, they dry their mangoes. So we got inspired from it.” Using drying equipment offers a process that’s more efficient than traditional methods and removes about 90 percent of the moisture from fruit and vegetables, resulting in products that have a one-year shelf life.
The team developed its solar dryer, patented it and began selling units to Indian farmers in 2013, thanks in part to $60,000 in grand-prize winnings in that year’s Dell Social Innovation Challenge. Today, farmers in a growing list of countries use the solar dryers, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya, Jamaica, France and the Philippines.
Farmers can and do buy the dryers on their own, but often farmer groups or villages buy them collectively. Some get help from microfinance institutions or government subsidies. The price tag depends on size — you can add trays for more capacity — but starts at about $100 and typically tops out at about $500. Pant says maintenance costs are low and that farmers typically make back their investment in about 200 days. A study that looked at users in Kenya and India showed farm profits rose 50 percent, she says.
That’s because more of a farmer’s harvest makes it to market. But there are other benefits, too. Dehydration allows farmers to preserve seasonal crops and get a better price later in the year when the fresh crop isn’t available, Pant says. The work of dehydration often goes to women and unemployed family members, allowing them to earn a daily income. And the preserved produce gives poor farm families, themselves, more food security and something to barter for other staples.
Food for All
Reducing food waste is good for the food security of India. Though the country grows enough to feed its burgeoning population of 1.2 billion, hunger is an endemic problem. It has one of the highest percentages of undernourished children in the world, according to the World Bank. Approximately 60 million Indian children are underweight. A larger goal of DesiVDesi is “to overcome malnutrition in children and in pregnant women,” Pant says.
But the company is looking to take its food to the more affluent, too. Since December, DesiVDesi has been pitching a new line of 10 consumer products — think dried pineapple snacks and savory instant dal — to the health conscious as fair-trade, sustainable and nutrient-dense. “We never add any chemicals or preservatives or any kind of additives,” Pant says. The company is already selling products through 80 Mumbai shops and on Amazon and has started looking for distributors to take its products outside India.
To increase its impact, DesiVDesi is also exploring opportunities to take on impact investors and to expand into more countries, including Dubai, Thailand and the United Kingdom and the United States, Pant says. She spoke to The Story Exchange from Austin, Texas, where she was working to close deals on the sidelines of Prize Day for the Food + City Challenge, an international startup competition to foster innovation in the urban food system that will announce its $50,000 winner this weekend.
DesiVDesi is focusing its sights on countries that have both strong farming industries and strong dehydrated-food markets. “If there’s a market for these products, we can go and pitch to the farmers,” she says.
Making the food system a more hospitable place for farmers and healthier one for people, wherever they are in the world, makes for good, satisfying work. Pant says, “The feeling of satisfaction and the sense of accomplishment that I get, even after making small difference to the lives of people, is immense.”