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Solar Milling Pilot Highlights Important Consumer Voices

In February 2019, members of the LEIA programme team traveled to India to meet with Shivamurthy and Shevamma, a married couple working with the SELCO Foundation to operate a solar milling pilot in the Male Mahadeshwara foothills outside of Bengaluru.

In February 2019, the Low Energy Inclusive Appliances Programme (LEIA) traveled with the SELCO Foundation to the rural areas surrounding Bengaluru, India to meet with solar customers currently field testing a range of off-grid appliances, including solar mills. Solar-powered agricultural processing has significant potential to improve the lives of smallholder farmers in India. In 2005-06, India produced roughly 210 million tons of grain. CLASP Senior Associates, Elisa Lai and Makena Ireri visited subsistence farmers producing small quantities of millet in the Male Mahadeshwara (MM) foothills. For these farmers, solar-powered agro-processing has the potential to reduce manual labor and increase efficiency and household earnings. To better understand customers’ needs, they met Shivamurthy and Shevamma, a married couple operating and caring for a solar mill.

Shevamma and Shivamurthy are working with SELCO foundation to pilot a solar milling machine in the MM foothills outside of Bengaluru, India. They operate a small millet farm and the only mechanized mill in the area that serves approximately 100 households. SELCO Foundation is using the mill to understand the potential of such appliances for small holder farmers in the region. SELCO Foundation provided and installed the mill. Shevamma and Shivamurthy co-invested in the project by building the surrounding infrastructure (mill house), paid for through a loan from a local microfinance institution. A millet sorter, a series of mechanized screens to help farmers sort impurities like stones from the millet before grinding, was also installed.

The mill, which has a total capacity of 125 kg/day, provides an income for the family. They charge other millet farmer 7 rupees for each 5 kg milled. On average, 8 kg are milled daily. Shevamma and Shivamurthy‘s family is using the revenue generated from the mill to pay off the loan for the mill house and another loan used to build their new family home. Shivamurthy says that the mill has freed up his family’s time evenings. Shevamma recalls a time when she would spend 2 hours manually grinding 5 kg of millet, a task that takes just 10 minutes with the new mill.

The mechanized millet sorter has had mixed results. Most of the farmers in the region are home based and have family available to sort the millet at home by hand. The mechanized sorter is rarely preferred for small quantities. As a result, few farmers use the appliance.

Data and insights on customer usage are critical in matching off-grid technologies to their ideal markets and use cases. In this case, the millet sorter maybe be more appropriate in regions with different farmer dynamics, including higher production and larger farms.

To learn more about use cases for agro-processing, The Efficiency for Access Coalition is undertaking research on solar milling including customer centered pilots in East Africa. We hope that the learnings from this work will help the nascent off-grid solar appliance industry develop better, more efficient appliances that meet customer needs and expectations. In addition, the SELCO Foundation conducts R&D to assess appropriateness and efficiency of technologies across various livelihood applications and these findings are shared in its recent publication: Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods: A Collection of 50 Livelihood Applications.