Ever heard of ‘Sabji Cooler’ or the zero-cooling chamber? It is a refrigeration unit built indigenously that runs without power and helps farmers preserve their vegetables for days. And this has been made possible in Odisha’s Sundargarh district which is known as mecca of Indian hockey and has produced many hockey legends.

Today, farmers of this tribal-dominated district have been able to reduce their losses drastically by using the ‘Sabji Cooler’ unit. They can now preserve their produces for prolonged days and don’t have to discard them.

Empowerment of women has been a priority for many governments and administrations across the country. The Sundargarh district administration launched this innovative project in December 2019.The Sabji Cooler program is not only empowering women but also has come as a huge boon to the small farmers in the district.

The implementation of the project is managed and looked after by local Self-Help Group (SHG) women members. It is they who identify the farmers who can properly utilize the unit. Then they persuade and motivate them to set up the unit at the back of their houses. The women members handle the setting up of the machine and its maintenance.

As part of the Odisha Livelihoods Mission (OLM), empowerment of women has been possible through the Sabji Cool program.

The ‘Sabji Cooler’ project is at present running in Balishankara, Kuarmunda, and Tangarpali blocks of the district. So far over 50 units of ‘Sabji Cooler’ units have been installed in the houses and another 50 will be completed soon. The only investment a beneficiary farmer has to do is to build a proper brick and cement chamber for the unit, the rest of the equipment is provided free of cost by the Sundargh district administration.

“Sabji Cooler project has become a game-changer in our district and has certainly improved the lifestyle and livelihood of small farmers. Moreover, the project is also supporting the economic growth of the rural women. Their skills are getting upgraded as they are handling the technical part of the project,” says Nikhil Pavan Kalyan, the Collector of Sundargarh district.

The Sundargarh district administration under OLM, the flagship initiative of the Department of Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water, Government of Odisha, has entered into a MoU with Maharashtra based technology firm RuKart Technologies Private Limited for knowledge sharing and technical handholding. The DeshPremi Producer Group, a progressive non-governmental organization under the SHG umbrella has been assigned for implementation of the project in three blocks of the district to start with.

RuKart extends affordable, efficient, robust, and scalable technologies for the sustainable livelihoods of small farmers in the district. The technical agency is also in charge of capacity building of the SHG members, in addition to material supply and quality control. RuKart, led by its CEO Vikash Jha, is a start-up founded by three IIT Bombay alumni members.

The farmers who have become beneficiaries of the ‘Sabji Cooler’ project are a contended lot. “Earlier we had no means to store vegetables plucked from the field or when it went unsold at the local market. They had to be thrown away as there were no means to preserve them. So, I had to face losses every day virtually. Now with the benefit of the ‘Sabji Cooler’, I can preserve my produces for 4-5 days. So, losses have been reduced to nil virtually,” says Digambar Rana. Rana is a small farmer and beneficiary of the project. He is the first to say that he is happy with his current financial situation.

Another farmer, Purnima Nayak also has a similar story to narrate. She grows a variety of vegetables in her fields. “Whatever I produce, I can now preserve it in the ‘Sabji Cooler’ for days. The vegetables remain fresh so I get a good price in the market. Moreover, the facility does not need any power to run so I don’t have to incur any additional cost which is good for me,” informs Purnima.

There were two reasons why the Sundargarh district administration was keen to implement the ‘Sabji Cooler’ project. First, it wanted to enhance the quality of life for small farmers of the region through technical innovations. Secondly, it wanted to encourage rural women entrepreneurs to improve their economic condition through SHGs.

Today, more and more women of the district are benefitting from the program. Earlier they were into producing traditional items like papad, agarbati, or making dresses. Now they are successfully handling technology-based activities and supporting the farmers’ community. In the process, women have become more economically independent. The quality of life of their families too has improved.

Under this project, RuKart provides integrated solutions to farmers that include three key aspects like irrigation, crop protection and refrigeration or preservation. Apart from ‘Sabji Cooler’, which takes care of refrigeration of their products, the farmers are now being provided with ‘Jalkund’, Drip Irrigation Kit, Treadle Pump and Peek Rakshak Light (an elephant and wild boar repellent) giving them a 360-degree solution to their problems and worries. It should be stated here that Sundargarh is the first district in Odisha to implement this low cost and green technology for the benefits of the rural folks.

“Our Women SHG members are skilled on how to handle the ‘Zero Cooling Chamber, Treadle Pump, and Peek Rakshak Light. The technical team of RuKart has given the women a two-week long training. It has taught us the basics like installation and maintenance of the machines. Now 15 members of our group are engaged in the ‘Sabji Cooler’ project,” says Ms. Jayanti Ekka, President, DeshPremi Producer Group of Balishankara Block, Sundargarh.

The district administration has sanctioned rupees 80 lakhs towards the implementation of the project through Periphery Development Fund which is sourced from District Mineral Foundation (DMF) and CSR funds of various corporate houses functioning in the region. The money is directly paid to the account of the partner WSHG towards installation, capacity building, and associated costs. The WSHG or producer group pays to RuKart for technology and the equipment being procured from them. In the process, the women members of the producers’ group receive the incentive towards their engagement.

Sundargarh is a mineral-rich district of Odisha and has a huge tribal population. The Odisha government has always been pro-active and keen to promote sustainable solutions not only in agriculture but other areas benefiting the livelihood of the majority of the population. Traditionally, good produce from agriculture has been a challenge due to the lack of proper irrigation facilities. The district administration is continuously striving to help the farming community across the region. The ‘Sabji Cooler’ is one such project which focuses on helping the small farmers and improving their livelihood.

Taking the success story forward of the three blocks, the administration is all set to extend the support to farmers in other areas also. A large number of WSHG members are being trained in skill development and technical aspects of the ‘Sabji Cooler’ project.

Plans are on the anvil to install ‘Sabji Coolers’ in blocks like Nuagaon, Hemgir, Bonai, and Lephripara where vegetables are grown in large quantities.  The government also aims to provide market linkage to the beneficiary farmers.

“We are implementing the ‘Sabji Cooler’ project under the OLM. It is entirely managed by members of women SHGs. We have had success with this project. It has certainly been encouraging and we are planning to extend the facility to all small farmers across the district,” informs Bhairab Singh Patel, Project Director, District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Sundargarh.

Sundargarh is the first district in Odisha to successfully implement ‘Sabji Cooler’ and the project integrated with it. The district officials of OLM monitor the progress of the project. They are in constant communication with other key stakeholders involved in the project.

(The author is a senior journalist and columnist based at Bhubaneswar, Odisha)


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