Q&A: Vivek Kabra empowers people to cook food using Sun’s Energy
Vivek Kabra SuryaKumbha

Q&A: Vivek Kabra empowers people to cook food using Sun’s Energy

Vivek is not an ordinary 28 year old. His quest in life is to empower kids and adults to eat food cooked in solar ovens and apart from teaching over 4500+ kids, this IITian has now entered the record books. A rare feat of assembling 2250 kids to make their very own solar ovens has taken him to the Indian book of Records, and hopefully, to the Guinness World Records too.

Ek Titli.Org catches up with Vivek Kabra, a bright young lad (scientist precisely) with tremendous promise and an undying spirit.

Everyone knows that solar power is the need of the day, but very few conservationists have had the good mind of implementing the kind of mass workshop like you. Please tell us about your initiative.

Suryakumbha, literally, a festive gathering celebrating the power of Sun, is a series of workshops to be conducted across the country, focused exclusively on hands on experience with solar energy.

Taking solar cooking as a means, it aims at inculcating the values of simplicity, learning by doing and challenging assumptions, in the young minds who will build a Greener tomorrow.

Suryakumbha is not some one on one workshop. It is a large-scale event- something that generates noise and forces people to take notice and enquire. And when children participate in such numbers, the whole context changes from ‘yet another event’ to a festival and an experience that will be cherished for a lifetime.

After 3 years of exhaustive R&D, the solar oven design has been simplified to such an extent that even a child can intuitively understand the functions of the different components, and easily assemble the oven himself/herself in a matter of minutes. If needed he/she can easily build one from locally available scrap.

Once assembled, every participant cooks some food (preferably different dishes) in his/her oven. This has dual effect:

  1. The child never forgets the first day she/he cooked using the sun’s energy and willingly spreads the recently gained expertise to others.
  2. The parents, who otherwise would ignore something this simple, are thrilled that their child built something from scratch and that it worked so well.

All along, the child is exposed to fundamental principles of solar energy, our relation with it and the various ways in which it has been and can be harnessed. This, we believe helps in laying the foundation, inspired by which at least some will take up the field of renewable energy and create something meaningful.

What inspired you to take up the challenge of solarising every Indian city by 2020?

Three things:

  1. My mom has been cooking using solar energy for the past 23 years. Often helped by her children, she cooked dal, rice, vegetables, roasted nuts, saunf, rava, aata, etc. She even boiled milk, extracted ghee from butter, dried grains, prepared mango candies and amla supari. It was just amazing how much she made in that 1×1.5 ft solar oven!
    Owing to this, our cylinder would easily last for 2.5-3 months while for other families in our society, it barely lasted a month. And this came with better taste, higher nutrients and virtually no effort!
  2. With that background, I thought solar cooker must be a norm everywhere. But it turned out the other way. As I completed my B.E and then M.Tech, I did not meet a single person having used solar oven. It was quite a shocking revelation when I found that even my Profs from IIT never used it, even though they taught us all about its advantages and need.
    It was then that I wondered what good my degree would do, if such simple technologies weren’t brought to practical use.
  3. In 2008, as I passed from IIT, I read a report by the WHO on the impact of indoor cooking on the world’s poor. It stated that 70% of them do not have access to modern fuels (LPG, electricity) and depend on solid fuels for daily cooking. On an average, a family spends 3-4 hours daily, walking 4-6 km, searching and collecting fuel wood for cooking. As they burn it, the emitted smoke, which is as dangerous as inhaling 10 packs of cigarettes per day, damages their lungs and eyes. Who suffers the most? It is the mother as she does the cooking and small children below the age of two who often stay with their mother. The result, it stated, was reduced life span in women by around 20 years and an annual death toll of 4.5 million.
    That was the final nail in the coffin. I couldn’t believe that despite being such an old technology, solar cooking was conveniently ignored when it could make such a huge impact in the homes of millions.
    My past came face to face with my present and led me on the journey that is now Suryakumbha.
A Suryakumbha Workshop

A Suryakumbha Workshop

In a country where illiteracy and complacence is rampant, what challenges did you face?

There is a saying,

‘You can always awake the one in sleep, no matter how deep it is…but you can never awake the one pretending to sleep.’

It is easy to deal with ignorance and innocence, but not with passive appreciation.

When we started reaching out to people (Adults of course) three years back, we received warm welcomes, lots of appreciation, and media coverage. There were women organisations inviting us to organize workshops. People acknowledged the fact that technology was the need of the hour. But they were all empty words that never got converted into sales.

Some went to the point of asking us to drop the product to their doorstep and get paid. And when we took the product to their homes, they kept it for a week or so and without opening the package returned it.

The irony lies in the fact that it is the so called educated class that is the most complacent and lazy. You won’t believe that the majority of those who see solar cooking for the first time wonder if there is any electricity connection at the bottom. To them it seems impossible that you can use the sun to cook. And eventually when they do digest this fact, their first concerns are, ‘will it cook during night?’

Yes, there are limitations to solar cooking like every piece of technology. But its advantages are immense and all we sought from people was to give it a try. The adult mind is trained not to be adventurous and resists change of any sort. There literally is no joy in experimenting. I often wonder how we lost that childish zeal to try and break anything new.

Well, to my relief some did try and after overcoming their own biases and hesitations, became full time Solar Chefs. They experimented with a variety of dishes and every time they discovered something new.

A lady, from a very well to do family, bought one of our models. She made the payment online, and I couriered the parcel to her. After 3 days, she gave me a call, thanking me profusely for making this product.

“Mere liye to pure paise aaj hi wasool ho gaye!” she exclaimed with such joy and delight.

I’ve never received such feedback in my life and my calculations clearly showed that the minimum payback couldn’t be less than a year, that too if it was used for 3-4 hours every day.

“Well you see, my children never touched green vegetables…all they’d eat is snacks and Maggi and stuff like that. Today I prepared some aalu-palak in the solar oven and guess what? They ate the whole thing! What more can I expect?”

It was revelations such as these that inspired us to continue on the path. Eventually I realised that it is foolish to blame people. They are free to make their own choices just as I am. So if I wanted to make my dream come true, I had to mature enough to convince them. Often, the greatest hindrance in such ventures is your own impatience and willingness to change. So, after plenty of unlearning and shedding my own perceptions, I found the light in children. They were eager to learn and open enough to spread the knowledge and that’s where the seed of Suryakumbha was sown.

We would like to know how you gathered the funds for this cause.

Funding till date has been from the wallets of the three founders: Me, the managing partner and Mr. Sunil Goyal & Mr. Sunil Raithatha, the mentoring partners. Ours is not an NGO, so grants there are none. My living depends on what I do, so the company needs to generate profits. We do this by selling our products and conducting school level workshops. However, we have just started out and the company is yet to register any significant profits.

Now we are set to expand and stretch our arms, with mass manufacturing and mass level workshops with support from corporate, crowd funding and Government.

What is the current situation when it comes to the use of solar in rural India? Are the cities better off?

As for Solar, there are only two sectors doing well: Govt led large scale Solar power plants (majority of which are installed in rural areas owing to cheaper land) and market driven Solar Water heater industry (primarily driven by urban buildings, as it is still unaffordable in village context where they need hot water only through winters).

While there is huge demand for solar air conditioning in urban population, rural sector is still waiting for the perfect solution for solar irrigation. So, demand wise there is equal potential; the game lies in economics matched with consumer specific solutions.

With conventional sources of energy rapidly depleting, do you think people will shift to the use of solar energy in the future as you desire?

We will have to shift. There is no choice. Global warming is a serious issue, even if we don’t take it as seriously today. I see some 20% of the population shift to renewable sources in the coming 5 years. These people will shift willingly, making an informed choice about their way of living. They’ll have solar water heaters, solar power generation and cooking units. 80% will continue to plunder the way they are doing now either because they have too much or too little. It’ll be the middle class that will lay the foundation for the shift.

Eventually, after 5 more years, with the growing market, more players will enter the game and technology will shift leaps and bounds making the transition from non-renewable to renewable smoother, affordable and a no brainer.

Once the market is set, many bright ideas will evolve.

Suryakumbha: creating history

Suryakumbha: creating history

What has been the immediate impact of Suryakumbha?

Honestly, it’s difficult to track the immediate impact. If, in the long run the city adapts to solar faster than any other, we’d say there was something that we did that helped this happen. Yet, all I can say is 2250 students experienced solar cooking for the first time. At a tender age, coming from a region that offers little opportunity, if any, they were connected physically and emotionally with the event that saw world recognition. The joy and satisfaction reflected on their faces was contagious and we know that at least a few of them left with the feeling that they can do something big irrespective of their location, class or caste.

Benefits:

Let’s say that by 2023 every Indian household starts cooking using solar ovens. So we have 250 million households using solar ovens to replace either gas or wood ones that have been traditionally used to cook food.

Assuming that there are only 300 clear days available for solar cooking and that every family cooks a mere 100 gm of rice daily in the solar oven, the potential savings can be calculated to Rs. 57.6 billion/year or USD 1 billion/year. Doing similar calculations for LPG results into yearly saving of Rs. 40 billion or about USD 0.8 billion.

 

No. of families (million) Rice cooked per family (kg) Total Rice cooked per day (million kg) Annual Rice consumed (billion kg) Fuel wood required (kg/kg of rice) wood required per year (Billion/kg) Wood Price (Rs./kg) Annual Savings (Billion Rs/year)
240 0.1 24 7.2 3.2 23.04 2.5 57.6

 

This is only with 0.1 kg of rice cooked per day per family. Surely the quantity of food cooked is much higher and hence, the economic potential is even higher.

Again there are other benefits that need to be taken into consideration. The Government of India spends billions of rupees every year under its employment guarantee schemes and to provide basic medical amenities. However, it’s a known fact that a huge chunk of this money finds its way into the pockets of bureaucrats and middle men, leaving the poor to suffer. With solar ovens, the time spent for collecting wood is shortened, thereby enabling young children to go to school and giving some leisure time to the women of the house. Also, as there is barely any monitoring required in solar cooking, the woman is free to participate in other income generating activities.

And the most important benefit of all is reduced exposure to indoor cooking smoke thereby reducing the damage to lungs and eyes. Also the same solar oven can pasteurise water, thereby further reducing the dangers of water borne diseases. Solar cooked food also retains more nutrients as compared to traditional cooking and hence is always considered healthy. All these factors result in improved health, longer life expectancy and reduced medical expenses, thereby playing a significant role in rural upliftment.

Solar energy is available for free across the country and there is no transportation cost involved. Thus, solar cooking helps the country in taking a step towards self sufficiency, by reducing its dependency on the fossils which are largely imported from the Gulf countries. Thus, it saves precious foreign exchange as well.

Lastly, the reduced burning of fossil fuels or wood not only reduces the impact of Global warming but also deforestation. This is the potential impact that drives Suryakumbha.

Where is Suryakumbha active in India and what are its future plans?
All the operations of Suryakumbha are run from Jalna district in Maharashtra, which lies 60 km from Aurangabad. Well the immediate plan is to reach one lac participants by March 2014 and the long term of course is transforming it into a national movement.

Tejas- a simple DIY solar cooker

Tejas- a simple DIY solar cooker

Are there any opportunities for citizens and organizations to assist you in your efforts? What are the opportunities available presently and how can they get involved?
Any help of whatsoever nature will be great. Because we are a small team with nothing but a dream to fulfil and a concept to spread, Suryakumbha works more on volunteer support. So, our fellow citizens can help in following ways:

  • Share the Suryakumbha story if they are touched and moved by it
  • Identify schools, children group, self help groups, etc where such a workshop can be conducted and introduce us with the concerned authorities
  • If possible, build/buy/rent a solar oven and cook for yourself so as to experience the magic first hand and share the solar cooked food with others, delighting them on the way. Trust me nothing is better than seeing first=hand how well the Sun can cook your food.
  • Those willing to help in the long run can become our representatives for a district and co-ordinate with our team to conduct series of Suryakumbha workshops across the district.

For organisations:

  • Organisations willing to promote green energy can partner us to organize such workshops under their banner for their employees, their children or schools associated with them.
  • Monetary contribution to sponsor a workshop for a village school
  • Our team can plan for a mega workshop (for as many as 10000 participants), taking care of everything from logistics to execution, and thereby make a Guinness World Record if any organization is willing to take up the project as part of CSR activity.

What have been your accomplishments so far?
Tricky question :) None if you look at the larger context, because not even a molecule of ice has been touched from the Everest that is to be scaled. But speaking in numbers, we’ve shared and transferred our solar cooking know how with over 4500 participants, 95% of which are school students. We assume (and have received some feedback as well) that these students have shared the concept with at least one more person.

For Suryakumbha that was held on 19th Jan, we have received the India Book of Records Certificate as the biggest solar cooking workshop and are awaiting a response from Guinness World Record by the mid July.

Finally, what did you learn from the whole experience?
Entrepreneurship is one strange river. You dive in with great hopes, plans and energy. Everything looks awesome initially. Some appreciate you for showing the courage that they themselves lack, while others try to stop you for they have tasted the waters and know it is deceptive. Yet, young and dreamer-like that you are, you jump in one day and begin to swim. At first the pace is good, but slowly you get tired. There are too few companions, many wild animals and slowly you realise that the river actually never flows with you. No matter where you turn, you’ll always have to swim upstream.

All your hopes and dreams are tested. Every passing day challenges your temper and patience. You think of retreating but you cannot escape as well, for once you’ve seen the river, living on the land is nothing short of torture. The freedom is precious, the waves contagious. So, you decide to keep sailing, waiting for the time when winds will blow your sail and fill you with enthusiasm and energy that’d help you reach your destination.

And miraculously the longer you hang in there, the better you understand the river. You begin to play, find some companions and enjoy its twists and turns, swirls and twirls. And one day, you are enlightened that it wasn’t the river that stopped you, it was your own self. You weren’t dressed to suit the river. Your shoes still carried the sands from the land.

So you get naked. And as you are exposed to the bare waters of the river with trust in your heart and gratitude towards life, the river dresses you anew and effortlessly takes you with her to your desired destination. That’s what I’ve learned till now. Work hard and have patience, all problems eventually turn into solutions.

A Suryakumbha workshop

About Ashna Goenka

If I were to describe myself in three words, I would say I am fun, indecisive and lazy! I am from Kolkata, and am currently pursuing Economics Honours from Hansraj College, Delhi University. I honestly have no idea what I want to be in life. But some day I wish to see all the places on my bucket list! I watch a lot of American sitcoms and live on chick lit novels. An avid writer and foodie at heart, I wish to find the nature lover in me through this internship at Ek Titli.