University of Utah graduate Akash Agarwal’s New Leaf Dynamic Technologies offers GreenCHILL, an off-grid refrigeration system for farmers in rural and remote locations in India.
The GreenCHILL cooling system can be used to maintain a cold storage, a pre-cooler or a ripening chamber. Courtesy Akash Agarwal
Students usually take a gap year after completing a course of study, but Akash Agarwal took a year off during his studies at the University of Utah to develop a cooling system powered by clean energy. Always interested in social entrepreneurship using green technologies, Agarwal conceptualized GreenCHILL in 2011, based on the idea of using biomass, or farm waste like rice husk, straw, paddy, waste wood, bagasse, or any crop waste, to keep agricultural products cold without depending on electricity or diesel-powered generators.
He, of course, went back to the United States to complete his higher education. Today, as the co-founder of the New Delhi-based New Leaf Dynamic Technologies, which researches and markets the technology, Agarwal has successfully deployed GreenCHILL in farms across India. “I was associated with the agriculture industry even before I finished my undergraduate degree from the University of Utah,” he says. “I have traveled extensively across India and met thousands of farmers and surveyed large, medium and small farms to understand their needs and challenges.”
The technology addresses a very fundamental issue—the loss of agricultural produce, often due to inadequate cold storage facilities. GreenCHILL is essentially a cooling system that can, for example, cool up to 1,000 liters of milk, thereby leading to better incomes for farmers. Thus, using this technology to maintain an cold storage, pre-cooler, ripening chamber and bulk milk cooler is a cost-effective option, especially for farms that are not connected to the electricity grid or those that do not have continuous power supply. And, there are no greenhouse gas emissions either.
“Our first pilot project was in Ghazipur, Delhi, where we were able to successfully chill 500 liters of milk using energy generated from cow dung,” says Agarwal. “Since then, many individual farmers have installed GreenCHILL at their farms to store milk and high-value perishable produce like apples, pomegranates, muskmelons, oranges, bananas, mangoes, pears, custard apples, lemons, potatoes, capsicums, peas, green chilis and marigold flowers.”
Inspired to change
The initial idea for GreenCHILL was sparked by dairy farmers in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, whom Agarwal used to see waiting for trucks to carry milk to the nearest processing center, 40 to 50 km away, as there was no cold storage facility nearby. “I was inspired to change this supply chain logistic and prevent the losses that occur because of the unavailability of trucks,” he says. “We wanted to develop a refrigeration system right at the village where farmers could come and preserve milk, which could be taken to the processing center later or the next day.” The Off-Grid Bulk Milk Chiller was the first product to use the GreenCHILL technology, followed by the Off-Grid Cold Storage, for other produce.
In 2018, American retail corporation Walmart funded New Leaf Dynamic Technologies, under its corporate social responsibility program, to bring together 500 small and marginal farmers in Uttar Pradesh to naturally ripen mangoes and bananas, and sell them directly to Best Price stores owned by Walmart. This helped the farmers get a higher price for their produce.
Much of the research to develop the products came from published journal papers on large-volume refrigeration systems and green technology. The New Leaf plant in Noida assembles the products and parts are ordered from other local companies to save on high manufacturing and labor costs. Each machine needs some amount of customization. Prices range from Rs. 12 lakh to Rs. 14 lakh, depending on the storage capacity. New Leaf has partnerships with banks which can provide financial resources to farmers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the company’s service and support staff across the country continued to support its customers who needed GreenCHILL more than ever. “We are using this as an opportunity to re-design GreenCHILL,” says Agarwal, “so that when we come out of this crisis we have a vastly improved system.”
Agarwal and his father, with whom he co-founded the company, faced many challenges in the development and deployment of GreenCHILL. “It is hard to convince farmers to use a product they have not seen before,” he says. “We financed our earliest ventures ourselves, and our machines costed nearly double of what they cost now.” Agarwal says that his management studies at the University of Utah, where personal selling was his favorite topic, taught him how to convince customers to buy products they had neither seen nor heard of before.
Today, GreenCHILL is being used in New Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan. Each unit can be used to preserve 1,000 liters of milk and 20 metric tons of other high-value perishable produce like fruits, vegetables, flowers and fish before they are ready to ship to market or processing facilities. Recently, New Leaf Dynamic Technologies received funding from the United States-India Science & Technology Endowment Fund (USISTEF). The U.S. State Department and India’s Department of Science and Technology established the fund in 2009 to support joint applied research and development. The fund also supports commercialization of technology developed through partnerships between U.S. and Indian researchers and entrepreneurs. Its activities are administered by the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum. The funding from USISTEF “is in line with the memorandum of understanding we have with Georgia Tech [Georgia Institute of Technology], which is a pioneer in the field of absorption refrigeration systems,” says Agarwal. “This partnership will help us develop the next generation of GreenCHILL products, bring down costs of manufacturing and bring the technology to the masses.”
Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.