• Q|A Ranjit Chaliha

    Recirculating heated exhaust conserves energy and helps to eliminate inconsistencies in drying that lower tea quality. In this installment of Frugal Innovations, Ranjit Chaliha describes Varun, a device named after the Hindu God of Wind that continuously monitors ambient air conditions in real-time and electronically computes the ideal inlet air temperature to reduce energy costs enough to pay for itself.

     Hear the interview

    Ranjit Chaliha on improving the efficiency of tea dryers.
    Korangani Tea Estate
    Korangani Tea Estate, Assam, India

    Achieving Consistency and Efficiency in Drying Tea

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    In 1961, Ranjit Chaliha arrived at his family’s Korangani Tea Estate in Assam. And never left. He had trained as a mechanical engineer and worked briefly at the Assam Electricity Board. And now, the tea factory became a place of many experiments. He eagerly adopted new technologies and tinkered with new machines. Chaliha also became a member, and later, chairman, of the engineering subcommittee of India’s Tea Research Association, involved in machinery development and tea research. It was during his tenure that the Model Tea Factory in Tocklai was constructed. Chaliha began experimenting with methods of recirculating exhaust in the factory’s tea dryers. At an engineering symposium on tea machinery in 1998, he presented a paper describing the benefits of recirculating exhaust air. He based his findings on experiments and filed for a patent. A dozen years later he was finally awarded recognition for his innovation, Varun, a device that reduces inconsistencies in drying tea.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: Congratulations on the patents Mr. Chaliha! How long did the patent take?

    Ranjit Chaliha: For me, it took 12 years. And unfortunately, the patent examiner initially was not convinced. He was not impressed. He put all sorts of other irrelevant questions and things like that. Ultimately, it came out as a very pleasant surprise.

    Aravinda: So how did the idea for Varun come about? What does it do?

    Ranjit: In the tea dryer, ambient air is heated to a high temperature – about 200 degrees Fahrenheit and blown through tea leaves thinly spread on perforated trays. The air goes from below the trays through the tea and up.

    In Assam, weather changes from dry at the beginning of the year to very moist during the monsoons and again dry towards the end of the year. July, August, and September are moist months. The air is also heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and blown through the wet tea leaves until they get an acceptable result. But come November, when the atmosphere itself is dry, the air itself is dry, and this air is heated to the same 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, the ambient air would have a relative humidity of, let’s say, 50% to 60% or maybe more. In November, the relative humidity is maybe 30% to 40%, and it is heated at the same temperature. Instead of 4% to 5%, the relative humidity would go down to probably 2% to 3%, which you don’t need. Not only don’t you need it, it’s bad because the air becomes drier than before and you get a faster drying which is also not good. So, I thought to myself, why heat till 200 degrees?

    Why not till about 190 degrees, or 180 degrees, so the relative humidity goes down to nearly what it was in July. So that was the beginning of my thought process. Then, a lot of studying and a lot of maths and things are involved in implementing the idea of making a monitor, which would tell you that this is the temperature you should dry the air to get a relatively consistent drying. I teamed up with an electronics instrument equipment manufacturer in Kolkata. I gave them the know-how, and they built this instrument. It was very good. But except for two or three gardens, people didn’t accept it. The inlet temperature must be input manually, which they didn’t want to do. They wanted it automatic. At that time, I didn’t want to invest so much money or time; the patent had also not come. So, I left it at that, but those who took the instruments were reasonably happy. But now that the patent has come and my two sons said ‘dad, we have got to have another try.’

    “Tea quality is impacted by numerous things, including the drying rate. If the tea is drying too fast, some quality will be lost. And if it is dried too slow then also quality will be lost.”

    – Ranjit Chaliha

    Aravinda: How does monitoring the temperature and controlling the drying impact the tea itself?

    Ranjit: It would be best if you got more consistent drying. The quality of tea is impacted by numerous things, including the drying rate. A drying rate of 2.8% to 3.6% moisture loss per minute is preferred. If the tea is drying faster, some quality will be lost. And if it is dried slower than that, then also quality will be lost. So, there’s a range within which the leaf drying rate of the tea should take place. This is dependent on things such as the temperature it’s heated to and the relative humidity of the hot air. That is also dependent on the ambient conditions of the air to start. Since the ambient conditions vary, the hot air conditions will also vary if you heat to the same temperature. This instrument will tell you that to keep a reasonable consistency in the condition of the drying air, to what temperature the leaves should be heated.

    Aravinda: Who is this monitor most helpful for? Is it for CTC or Orthodox? Can anyone use it?

    Ranjit: Yes, yes, of course, it’s got to be calibrated differently for different ways of manufacturing, different machines, different sources of heat, and mainly different dryers. Also for situations, locations… It’s a psychrometric thing. So it’s got to be adjusted for height above sea level.

    Aravinda: And how difficult or easy is it to install and implement it?

    Ranjit: Very easy. There’s just a meter with leads. It’s nothing complicated.

    Aravinda: How quickly can a producer get a return on investment?

    Ranjit: Within one year.

    Aravinda: Well, that’s not a long time at all. Compared to, say, 12 years for the patent. What are your plans to go to market?

    Ranjit: Firstly, it’s an uphill task. People have tried to sell this instrument in the market earlier. As I said, only two or three were sold. Now that we have got the feedback that they are not interested in doing manually we know that we have to make it automatic. There are different ways gardens heat the air; gas in upper Assam with the rest of the regions using coal. With gas, it’s easier. You have a connection with the burner, and you can regulate it with the burner. With coal, some more work has to be done. But first, let me get this manually operated machine going. Also, I have to say this, it’s not a glamorous thing. It will give you savings in fuel, maybe up to 3%, and consistency in drying. A 3% savings for a big factory making 1 million kilos is INRs6-7 per kilo. Even a savings of 2% is much more than the cost of the instrument.

    Sunset over Assam tea gardens, photo by Ranjit Chaliha

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  • Frugal Innovation

    There are few entry barriers to tea. It does not demand heavy infrastructure. But the complaint from smallholders selling raw leaf to large-scale tea producers operating multiple factories is that for the past decade, farmgate prices are not commensurate with costs. Now the economics of the tea trade is gradually shifting from oversupply to scarcity. At the same time, some quiet work underway in India is yielding encouraging results that lower the cost of tea production, improve quality, and ease a shortage of labor. The most powerful driver for change is revenue. Prices globally, on average, increased by $0.21 cents per kilo during 2021, according to Trading Economics. Abhijeet Hazarika, IT analyst @TeaSigma and former head of process innovation at Tata Global Beverages, observed that “Tea is not a very high profit yielding commodity and will not be so in the foreseeable future until some tech breakthrough happens.” The frugal innovations described in this series, combined with higher prices may herald that breakthrough.

    • Caption: A quality assessment station. Improving quality is critical to the success of growers.
    Hear the interview (part 1)
    Abhijeet Hazarika on promising new Frugal Innovations

    Scanning tea fields at different wavelengths to assess plant conditions. Using cameras to monitor crop conditions, in
    order to identify threats from disease and pests at an early stage, enables a more targeted (and effective) use of pesticides, lifting productivity and profits. Photo courtesy of Shekib Ahmed.

    Bringing Technology into the Tea Value Chain

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    Abhijeet Hazarika talks about technology in terms of “frugal innovation”.

    What is frugal innovation? His checklist includes:

    • 1.    Low capital expenditure because the industry cannot bear additional high expense
    • 2.    Low complexity, taking into the view that skill levels on the tea estate, with people who are not very conversant with technology
    • 3.    Low upkeep cost, because tea estates have limited infrastructure. Innovations that required high maintenance have a short shelf life and soon land in the junk pile
    • 4.    Clean and safe because this is non-negotiable, and buyers ask for it, especially export buyers
    • 5.    Highly reliable, because the whole idea of innovation is to improve efficiencies
    • 6.    Impact, because the scale of impact must justify adoption of innovation

    The ideas he shares are not limited to large estates but have taken cognizance of the small growers. Frugal innovation also correlates with low risk which makes it an attractive proposition. And yet, there have been few takers for it.

    In Part 1, we look at how implementing frugal innovations can impact the purchase of leaf and the sale of tea.

    Innovation in the procurement of leaf

    Saurav Berlia is the third generation in his family’s tea business. The LR Group (Berlia Foods) has been involved in all aspects of tea, from gardens and factories to broking, packing and exports. His company produces more than 20 million kilos annually, supplying to buyers including the top three in India. Berlia decided to pilot some of Hazarika’s projects in frugal innovation.

    The group procures about 500 kilos of tea every day from small growers. This process involves calling every small grower each morning for an estimate of the tea they expect to pluck. The small growers sell their leaves, but they won’t know the price they will be paid for it until the next day. They will also not receive feedback on the quality of their leaves.

    Berlia is piloting an app that his growers could connect to. With this, the call every morning is made redundant. The grower’s login to the app to understand the market requirements in the morning and offer the estimated quantity of leaves right there. What’s more, because they have an insight into the market requirements, they can set their own prices. Berlia’s staff can accept the price or negotiate before they buy the leaf. Once the transaction is confirmed, the grower gets a message with the weight of the green leaf to be supplied and the price they will be paid for it.

    A three-month pilot has shown a positive response and a few of the growers are very happy. However, Berlia admits that he met with resistance at both ends — growers were resistant to the new-fangled app that demanded their inputs and attention. At his factory, Berlia’s staff were convinced it wouldn’t work. They preferred the status quo. He says patience accompanied by training addressed some of this resistance. With each unit having about 50-100 growers as partners, the app can potentially transform how transactions are conducted, to everyone’s benefit.

    “Technology has become much more affordable today than what it was 5-10 years ago because processing power has made it affordable. Devices are more affordable. Technology has become simpler.”

    – Shekib Ahmed

    Using data effectively

    Another early adopter of tech is Shekib Ahmed who runs the Koliabur Tea Estate near Silghat in Assam. The 1,600-acre estate next to the Kaziranga National Park with 900 acres under tea. Low hill ranges form part of the terrain here. The garden produces exceptional single-origin CTC tea.

    Ahmed chose to partner with Hazarika because of a shared desire to integrate technology in tea farming. Listen to as Ahmed talks about the two key points that attracted him to this.

    “Technology has become much more affordable today than what it was 5-10 years ago because processing power has made it affordable,” says Ahmed. “Devices are more affordable. Technology has become simpler. He (Abhijeet) was reminiscing how, when he was working with data, the cost of data analytics was astronomical. But now with cloud computing and everything, it’s become a lot more affordable for companies of our size to give it a shot. That was the first part.”

    “The second part was how he focused so much on frugal innovation, things that are affordable for companies of our size to try to tweak and to learn. And one of the biggest benefits of working with Abhijeet is that when we’re doing three to four projects, two or three may not give the results that we want today. They may give it later or they may not work out. However, the side benefits of all the ideas and discussions, just the access to these bright minds like Abhijeet, like the scientists really opens up a lot of little innovations, which are very groundbreaking in the sense that it’s really helped me improve quality in the last one and a half years,” said Ahmed.

    He adopted a simple system of data analytics for tea from the tea auction system. There’s a lot of data that comes from the tea board of India, but this is raw data. Ahmed talks about the resistance to change even here when he says the Indian tea industry is where the steel industry was 30-40 years ago. Innovation was very, very slow and the industry was loathed to move past its way of working.

    Ahmed’s tea is sent to the auction every week. Data analytics helped him understand how his tea was performing but also what quality the market was seeking. Just to jump the gun a bit, in using data analytics to offer tea that the market wants, Koliabur and Dubba, both of Ahmed’s estates saw a jump of 15-25% in auction prices this year. From being in the Top 20 in the ranks, they are now in the Top 10, which, given that there are 800 gardens in Assam, is no small feat. But he is quick to add that it’s not data alone that has contributed to this.

    For innovation to fully work, it must be leveraged across the value chain.

    Listen next week to Part 2 when we take a look at frugal innovation in the fields and in the factory.

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