S4S empowers female farmers to reduce food waste in India

A solar dryer for locally grown crops provides status and a regular wage.

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Over the past two years, hundreds of women in rural India have become breadwinners often for the first time thanks to a UN-award winning food dryer, designed for use in small villages.

This solar-powered device can preserve 45 different types of vegetables, fruits, pulses, cereals and spices, spanning harvests across much of the year.

That benefits rural economies as well as the women running the machines by bringing commercial dehydration usually carried out in distant factories closer to where the food is grown.

“We can easily process three to four batches in a day,” says one of the women using the dryer, Manda Keshavrao Tupe from Narla village in Maharashtra.

“Earlier, we used to sit and do nothing in the summer season due to the unavailability of water,” Tupe says. “Now we are getting a job at home during the summer days.” 

The extra money Tupe earns has helped secure farm equipment for sowing during the annual monsoons. That has eased heightened financial pressures during a tough year.

The drying system is easy to maintain and easy to use. It also retains more nutrients as well as flavor and color than traditional sun drying.

Local processing cuts down on food waste, an endemic problem.

Up to 40% of food harvested by India’s smallholder farmers is never eaten, due to losses incurred during storage, handling and transportation. 


Combating food waste

The dryer used by Tupe and hundreds of other women comes from S4S Technologies a foodtech specialist set up by seven graduates from Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology.

These women process 27,500 tons of food each year that otherwise would have gone to waste.

“We procure various agri-produce from farmers,” explains co-founder and chief executive Vaibhav Tidke.

“We take that produce and do food processing, with the help of women entrepreneurs,” adds Tidke, who also grew up in India’s countryside.

“We convert the agri-produce into value-added products, and then we have customers, mainly in the B2B space, to whom we sell these products.”

S4S Company Summary

More than 500 women across three states Odisha, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are now using S4S’s drying system. 

On average, each woman brings home around US$1,000 to US$1,500 a year by selling dried food. This often provides a heightened status and independence as well as more money.

Typically, women in rural India make do without a regular source of income. They sometimes work odd jobs at home or leave their families for months on end to find work elsewhere.

A dependable wage changes that.

“We have provided a stable way to earn an assured income for at least ten months of the year by staying at their home, not traveling outside,” explains Nidhi Pant, one of S4S’s co-founders. 

“By investing a small proportion of their time, they can earn money that directly flows into their hands,” Pant adds. “They can be decision-makers.”

Additional income is especially welcome in rural communities where crop failures are often compounded by small land sizes and poor market linkages. 

Enabling women smallholder farmers also has positive cascading effects on economic growth and development. 

Studies show that women’s financial empowerment is highly correlated to poverty reduction, as women tend to invest more of their earnings on their children and communities


A food processing platform

S4S liaises with local banks to arrange loans to buy or rent its dryer. Typically, around 10 to 30 women in each village (usually made up of 100-200 homes) sign up for one.

S4S also employs women in each village to arrange pick-ups and delivery.

Men and women serve as onboarding managers in each district, covering 15-20 villages, to help with local marketing while teaching new recruits how to use the dryer.

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

The company also sources and delivers the crops, benefiting local farmers. 

S4S buys crops for drying from 6,500 smallholders, usually through local co-operatives as well as women-led collection centers in villages. 

This often saves the farmers the trouble, and expense, of organizing delivery themselves. Sometimes the cost of taking the food to market can wipe out any profits farmers make, especially for perishables like tomatoes.

Lower-value damaged or misshapen produce, which typically accounts for around 20% of a harvest, is used for drying. The rest is passed on to S4S’s channel partners.

“We used to sell maize, cotton, tur, sorghum, millet and ginger outside the village but S4S started buying our goods in our village, saving on our transportation costs,” recounts Baban Narayan Ghait, a member of the Farmer Producer Organisation collective in Narla village.

“They buy goods from us at market price and send the money to our bank account within two days,” Ghait adds. 

“From these profits we get good quality seeds, seedlings and agricultural inputs so that the farmers can produce in a more efficient way.”


Ingredients for restaurants and food firms

S4S takes this dehydrated food to its own factory for further processing, so it can be used by restaurants, packaged goods firms and other companies.

More than 850 customers buy S4S’s finished goods, including large corporates such as Marico, Capital Foods, Sodexo and Indian Railways. 

The women and farmers in S4S’s network are paid the market rate.

The company earns a margin on its finished products, making money by cutting out the network of intermediaries that are common in Indian agriculture.

Tidke also emphasizes the quality and nutritional value of S4S’s products. 

Sales and distribution teams work in eight cities in West and South India. 

“This was our basic hypothesis,” Tidke says. “We can really create margin in this business, if we can cut out all the middlemen and the logistics costs, and do the food processing at the farmgate.” 

Group training and peer-to-peer quality control for dehydrated onions using S4S’s solar dryer

Tidke now intends to raise Series A funding to scale up the business.

These new funds will be used in three ways: to expand the network of women smallholder farmers; to diversify its product range; and to optimize core business systems as a foundation for future growth. 

The seven-year-old company has already raised just under US$1.7 million in seed and pre-Series A funding from Acumen, Factor[E] Ventures, Shell Foundation, DBS Foundation and Yunus Social Business.

The company generated US$2.3 million in revenue in its 2020 financial year, and employs 60 people. 


Room to grow

S4S founders are also mulling a pilot for expansion beyond India in the medium term.

The low maintenance and operating costs for its technology could make its offering attractive to nearby markets where agriculture is a significant part of GDP, such as Central Asia, Pakistan and Thailand.

Their biggest opportunity and challenge are closely interlinked,” says Joshua Soo, CEO of agri/foodtech accelerator Grow, which is backing S4S as part of its impact accelerator program.

They have ample room to grow still within the Indian market alone; what remains to be seen is for S4S to replicate their successful business model in other countries,” Soo adds. 

“Ultimately, S4S has the ability to become a significant player in the international ingredients market while delivering a strong impact story to its partners.”

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Vaibhav Tidke

CEO, S4S Technologies

Nidhi Pant

Co-Founder, S4S Technologies

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