Since childhood, fisherman Ramkrishna Tandel cringed at seeing fresh prawns and Bombay Ducks being dried in the sun in unhygienic conditions along the shore.
In 2008, when Professor Bhaskar N Thorat of the Institute of Chemical Technology, Matunga, introduced Tandel to a compact solar cabinet dryer, he agreed to test it for drying fish as an alternative to the usual bacteria-infested surroundings.
"Today, 20 fishermen from Tarapur and nearby areas use the cabinet dryer to dry their catch, which is then packed and sold," said Tandel, 46, secretary of the Maharashtra Machimaar Kruti Samiti.
It has reduced the six-day period required to dry 1,000 Bombay Ducks to 11 hours.
In 2006, growing urbanisation and demand for ready-to-eat food spurred Thorat to develop the solar cabinet dryer to dehydrate and preserve agriculture and marine products.
By the end of 2008, two semi-commercial pilot plants for drying both vegetables/fruits and fish were set up in Nashik and Tarapur respectively. By this year-end, large-scale commercial plants for turmeric and fish will be set up at Satara and Tarapur respectively. "Drying technology is very important for the food chain," said Thorat, president of the World Forum for Crystallisation Filtration and Drying. "The demand for ready-to-eat food will grow with urbanisation as the urban population has the capacity to buy processed food even if it is expensive."
Thorat said that draining 90 per cent of a vegetable or fruit's water content, increases its shelf life. For instance, dehydrated palak can be rehydrated for consumption by soaking it in water.
Last year, grape farmer Ashok Pingle tested the solar dryer for raisins. The dryer has ruled out the requirement of treating grapes with sulphur to retain colour before sun drying them. "If the government offers a subsidy, there will be many takers for the technology," said Pingle. "It’s hygienic. Consumers are more aware and choosy about how they want their food."
Thorat sees great potential. "Until 1970, countries such as Holland and China imported dried Bombay Duck worth Rs 150 crore. But that stopped due to lack of quality in the sun-dried products. We can regain our position."