Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Baobab: a Billion dollar tree to change the lives of rural India

In India, Mango tree is planted once and reap the fruits every year. Its tasty fruits are also very much nutritious. This is the reason, the whole world is looking for importing this fruit. I am talking about another tree which is planted once and you can reap its benefits forever. How is it possible?

During my childhood, in our school lessons, I learnt that every part of Coconut trees can be used one way or the other. Now what I believe is that next generation kids will learn a new tree named, African "Baobab tree" whose every part (fruits, seeds, leaves, bark, timber etc) are much more useful than any other tree you heard of.

Yes, Baobab is a multipurpose tree and known for its swollen, hollow trunk which is most commonly used for waterstorage. The hollow trunk is also reported to be used as a tomb in West Africa for griot and the leprous.  This baobab tree's exotic fruit (6 to 8 inches, or 15 cm to 20 cm long) contain the fresh pulp (tangy, sub-acid flavour) which has twice as much calcium as milk, is high in anti-oxidants, iron and potassium, and has 6 times the vitamin C of an orange. It tastes similar to Jack fruit and so, can be processed into jams, juices and wines. Pulp can also used as a substitute for cream of tartar and moreover to curdle milk. The leaves are rich in ß carotene, and contain a significant amount of amino acids and several trace elements. These leaves can be eaten as relish, while the fruit dissolved in milk or water can be used as a drink. The seeds can be eaten fresh, dried or roasted and can also be used as a coffee substitute. The seeds produce edible oil and has a light, golden colour with a nuttyaroma and a long shelf-life.  The oil can also be used in cosmetics (including bath oil, lotions and creams) taking advantage of its natural moisturising effects. Oil-cake can be used for feeding cattle. The dried bark is used for the manufacturing of packing paper. Strong inner fibre from the bark can also be used in rope making, cordage, harness straps, strings for musical instruments, baskets, nets, snares, fishing lines and cloth. Its timber can be used for making canoes and fishing floats.  In fact, all parts of the tree are having medicinal properties.

The Baobab tree averages 25 m in height and 6-10 m in diameter.  The root system of a mature tree penetratesthe soil to a depth of approximately 2 m. It is drought hardy, fire resistant and prefers areas with a high water table.  It grows in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid tropical climates. Most interesting part is that the lifespan of these trees is about 3000 years (yes, you read correctly).  The tree is easy and cheap to cultivate and free from any serious pests and diseases. The tree provides shade, cooling the soil beneath the canopy. Deciduous leaf drop acts as a soilconditioner by providing a humus-rich top layer, improving watermoisture content and protecting the soil against erosion. In general, the fruits abscise late in the rainy season, but may persist on thetree for several months. Ripe pods, however, can be stored unopened or uncracked for a number of months inhumid climates, without refrigeration. The trees will bear pods after 8-23 years. The tree can be planted for reduction of soil erosion and to provide a habitat for many native animals, birds and reptiles.

Now coming to business part,  Rajasthan or Indian government can promote this fruit as food security for our nation. It is expected to become a billion dollar industry and also recently European union has approved the extract of the baobab fruit as an ingredient in foods in the European market. 

Although it appears that Baobab is not grown commercially in large plantations and to be planted as an isolated tree, I think modern research would look into it in order to make imperative to whole human kind. What do you say?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas

PURA is an ambitious program advocated by my dream scientist Dr. A.P.J. Kalam. However this model is fundamentally flawed. Although APJ has good intentions, he needs to understand a little bit of economics before propagating such basically flawed approaches. A simple example to illustrate the same:
Milk delivery system
I live in a small & beautiful hill-top colony called "Bhawani Nagar" (located in Marol, Andheri East, Mumbai). Here there are around 2000 flats (perhaps, area could be of 500 meters by 500 meters). Consider the daily milk home-delivery system. Four delivery boys of a near-by milk-booth visit each home in the early morning and deliver the milk packet. What are the costs to the milk-booths? 

One-time cost: Because these delivery boys use cycle (of value Rs. 2000/- or less) as their transport, it is about 8000/- for the four boys.
Regular monthly cost to booth owner: Salary to the delivery boys is about Rs. 3000/- per month (their responsibilities are delivering the milk to approximately 500 flats on every morning, collecting the amounts, maintaining the accounts etc).

How this is transferred as a cost to the milk-consumers of these flats? Assume 50 Paise (about a US cent) for each day's delivery is charged to the flat owners. Now what is the revenue of the milk-booth on this home-delivery service? Monthly it is about Rs. 30000 (2000*0.50*30). 

Expenses on this service: Booth owner would spend about Rs. 15,000 monthly (including salaries to delivery boys, maintenance of cycles, defaults, etc). So this is a 50% profit business.
Consider that similar service is offered in rural India for 2000 houses as was in our previous case. Assuming that 200 houses for a village, 2000 houses would be available in 10 villages. Now our model of milk delivery would slightly be modified due to the sparsely populated rural India. Milk is kept at a central location which has physical proximity to each of those 10 villages (hub and spokes model). Now the booth owner need to employ 10 people for delivery of the milk in the early morning. Now coming to the costs & profits to the booth owner.

One-time cost: Because these delivery boys use cycle (of value Rs. 2000/- or less) as their transport, it is about 20000/- for the ten boys. It is difficult to get the trained talent and so initial training costs equate to 2000/- for each delivery boy.
Regular monthly cost to booth owner: Salary to the delivery boys: Rs. 1200/- per month (their responsibilities are delivering the milk to approximately 200 individual houses on every morning, collecting the amounts, maintaining the accounts etc).

How this is transferred as a cost to the milk-consumers of these houses? Consider the fact that rural people are relatively poor and so, 5 Paise (about a US cent) is the amount can be charged for every single day of the delivery. What is the revenue of the milk-booth on this home-delivery service? Monthly it is about Rs. 3000 (2000*0.05*30). 

Expenses on this service: Booth owner would spend about 15,000/-(including salaries to delivery boys, maintenance of cycles, defaults, etc). Ideally to make this a 50% profit business he needs 30 thousand rupees revenue, however he actually makes of about 3 thousand rupees only. This makes it 10X disconnect.

Conclusion: Rural India needs all those service which are present in urban India. However,  this is not economically feasible.  Rural India is sparsely populated. And so, distribution costs of services are obviously high. At the same time income of rural people is fairly low. And so, they can afford only a small part of service charges. 

Solution to this issue is by urbanizing few of the rural areas. Say, for example, create the infrastructure for 6000 urban locations. Those urban locations would in turn will provide services to neighboring rural areas. This is what exactly advocated by Atanu Dey in his RISC paper.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Rollable water container : an innovation for fun and need!

During my journeys to tribal locations (or broadly, rural), many times I fall into tears whenever I see many small children/ women carrying 2-3 water pots (one on top of another).  

Looking back at my childhood, rolling a cycle tube with a stick was a great fun. I used to run all over the village while rolling the tube whenever I find little time for playing. 

It appears that these two ideas are considered in inventing the following water container Q-Drum (patented) in order to fetch water. Of course, it is apparent that this is a natural invention considering that "Wheel" was the human's first scientific invention in transporting goods. Cost of this container is unknown.

Coming to its design or technical aspects:
The Q-drum is user friendly and the uniquue longitudinal shaft permits the drum to be pulled using a rope run through the hole. There are no removable or breakable handles or axles. And it is manufactured from Linear Low Density Polyethylene through either rotational or blow moulding and has a high compatibility with foodstuffs and water. It's durability has been proven by Kaymac Rotomoulders via a 3 metre drop-test filled with water as well as extensive actual use in rural areas of South Africa and Angola.With the Q-drum, even a child can pull 50 litres of water over flat terrain for several kilometres without undue strain, and could shift the burden of water collection away from adult women to children and reduce the existing burden on the children at the same time.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Square watermelon : interesting lesson on innovation!

This blog promotes certain values. The following post from Dave perfectly fits here. 
Japanese grocery stores had a problem. They are much smaller than their US counterparts and therefore don’t have room to waste. Watermelons, big and round, wasted a lot of space. Most people would simply tell the grocery stores that watermelons grow round and there is nothing that can be done about it. But some Japanese farmers took a different approach. ”If the supermarkets want a space efficient watermelon,” they asked themselves, “How can we provide one?” It wasn’t long before they invented the square watermelon.

The solution to the problem of round watermelons wasn’t nearly as difficult to solve for those who didn’t assume the problem was impossible to begin with and simply asked how it could be done. It turns out that all you need to do is place them into a square box when they are growing and the watermelon will take on the shape of the box.
This made the grocery stores happy and had the added benefit that it was much easier and cost effective to ship the watermelons. Consumers also loved them because they took less space in their refrigerators which are much smaller than those in the US - which resulted in the growers being able to charge a premium price for them. 
What does this have do with anything besides square watermelons? There are a five lessons that you can take away from this story which will help you in all parts of your life. Here are a few of them: 
1) Don’t Assume: 
The major problem was that most people had always seen round watermelons so they automatically assumed that square watermelons were impossible before even thinking about the question. Things that you have been doing a certain way your entire life have taken on the aura of the round watermelon and you likely don’t even take the time to consider if there is another way to do it. Breaking yourself from assuming this way can greatly improve your overall life as you are constantly looking for new and better ways to do things.
2) Question Habits:
The best way to tackle these assumptions is to question your habits. If you can make an effort to question the way you do things on a consistent basis, you will find that you can continually improve the way that you live your life. Forming habits when they have been well thought out is usually a positive thing, but most of us have adopted our habits from various people and places without even thinking about them.
3) Be Creative:
When faced with a problem, be creative in looking for a solution. This often requires thinking outside the box. Most people who viewed this question likely thought they were being asked how they could genetically alter water melons to grow square which would be a much more difficult process to accomplish. By looking at the question from an alternative perspective, however, the solution was quite simple. Being creative and looking at things in different ways in all portions of your live will help you find solutions to many problems where others can’t see them.
4) Look for a Better Way:
The square watermelon question was simply seeking a better and more convenient way to do something. The stores had flagged a problem they were having and asked if a solution was possible. It’s impossible to find a better way if you are never asking the question in the first place . Always ask if there is a better way of doing the things that you do and constantly write down the things you wish you could do (but currently can’t) since these are usually hints about steps you need to change. Get into the habit of asking yourself, “Is there a better way I could be doing this?” and you will find there often is. 
5) Impossibilities Often Aren’t:
If you begin with the notion that something is impossible, then it obviously will be for you. If, on the other hand, you decide to see if something is possible or not, you will find out through trial and error.

Friday, July 04, 2008

GreenMango : Listings of consultants whom we need frequently!

I have been thinking of reviewing (for-profit) social ventures for quite sometime. This is my first review. My observations are personal and usually in terms of scalability, accessibility, sustainability and of course usability. If your social project is to be reviewed, then please send me details (to my Gmail id: malapati) along with your contact numbers. Note that I would review them selectively.

GreenMango (currently in beta) appears at the first sight as if it is a collection of websites for our plumber or carpenter or electrician etc. It has listings of consultants whom we need daily or occasionally. You can search them based on pincode or based on an area.

Each listing of these small business owners has contact numbers and is integrated with Google Map in order to locate them easily. Users can review the listings in terms of service quality, similar to a listing on Amazon or EBay. It appears that GreenMango charges for listing of a business owner, if not, I am not clear of business model here.

I had few questions for the founders who failed to respond:
  1. How do these business owners enroll? Is there any verification process?
  2. Do you goto them or they come to you or users submit them?
  3. Here anyone can review a business owner. How do you avoid spammers, or the people who compete with a business owner writing negative things?
  4. If there are 100-200 reviews about each business owner, how can a customer make a decision? I mean, do you have anything better than just rating system?
  5. Is this service only web-based? or can a user make a call, similar to JustDial's service?
  6. What is the business-model here? Is it like one-time annual listing fee?
  7. Is your platform designed for mobiles?
It appears that word of mouth advertising is the only way to reach users here. There are many coding errors or usability issues present on website (currently is in beta stage and so they must ensure that those issues will not present when they bring it to live). GreenMango has been a recipent of EchoingGreen fellowship'08. I am not clear whether EchoingGreen critically examines on scalability or its just the social motivation that they look for. In any case, if GreenMango do not ensure that the reviews are trustworthy, then this website won't be worthy.