In February 2011, the co-directors of the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Madhya Pradesh, India, were invited to Samdrup Jongkhar to give presentations to Jigme Namgyel Polytechnic staff and students, agriculture officers and farmer representatives on the potential of low-cost solar drying technologies to open new market opportunities for Bhutanese organic produce. Such solar vegetable and fruit drying methods, it was explained, can help extend shelf life, access new markets and fetch good prices. The demonstration generated an enthusiastic response, in particular from the JNP faculty who promptly proposed to develop locally appropriate solar drying units for Samdrup Jongkhar based on the Barli designs, and train local farmer representatives in their operation and maintenance. This initiative would thus directly support the transition to organic farming in the district, and would also become the first training project led by the newly established CAT. The first ‘made-in-Samdrup Jongkhar’ solar dryer was built in November-December 2011, with support from the IDRC.
Earlier in the same year, six women from the remote and non-electrified villages in the Lauri gewog had been selected and sent to participate in a six-month long training (March-September 2011) on solar engineering at Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan (funded by the Government of India). Jigme Namgyel Polytechnic faculty member and focal person, Denten Zangpo, subsequently joined and accompanied the women for a further two-week training in solar drying technologies at the Barli Development Institute in September 2011. Since their return, the six women have begun applying their newly acquired skills in preparation for the project to construct 22 solar drying units in Lauri, based on the prototype developed by the JNP. These women, along with three mechanical engineering students from JNP who were involved in the construction of the first solar dryer, have also agreed to train Lauri villagers in the construction, use, operation, maintenance and repair of the units, and the preparation of foods for drying.
In preparation for the implementation of the Solar-Dryer Project, a team of five, consisting of three JNP students involved in the construction of the prototype, the SJI farmer liaison and a member of the National Post Harvest Centre (NPHC), carried out a feasibility study in the villages of Lauri and Zangthey in December 2011, with the assistance of the newly trained solar engineers. The team successfully built and installed two dryers, and subsequently received positive feedback from both villages on their effectiveness.
Funds for the Solar-Dryer Project in Lauri have been obtained from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Gross National Happiness Commission-initiated Rural Economy Advancement Program (REAP). The project aims to contribute to equitable and balanced socio-economic development and poverty eradication by putting in place a framework that will enable the poor to secure sustainable livelihoods by increasing their productive capacity. Thus, it is expected that the installation of the 22 solar-dryers will further enhance the skills and capacity of the six women solar engineers and local carpenters to construct and maintain such solar dryers, and the high quality of the solar-dried fruit and vegetable products will open new market opportunities leading to further income generation for the people of Lauri. The SJI has applied for fund release and major components of the project are scheduled for completion by the end of 2012.