When Dry Is Good: An Engineer’s Quest to Empower Farmers in Bulgaria

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Bhushan presenting Farmer’s Pride, his project in aid of Bulgarian farmers

Whether by bringing electric power to poor neighborhoods, enabling disadvantaged kids to dream of employment beyond minimum-wage occupations, or ensuring potable water reaches the world’s most arid places, technology has the power to improve lives and invigorate communities.

Technology’s ability to empower is what made Bhushan Trivedi, a mechanical engineer from Mumbai, India, leave behind lucrative career options in the UK and instead dedicate his life to pursuing technological solutions to the challenges faced by society’s least fortunate. He worked on delivering affordable, solar-powered energy to poor households in Indian cities and villages and on developing an efficient cooking stove that reduces wood burning, thereby reducing deforestation and creating less household air pollution in rural Myanmar. Then, in 2019, Bhushan moved to Bulgaria, having married a Bulgarian woman, and, before long, his project Gordost na Fermera (“Farmer’s Pride”) began to take shape.

Gordost na Fermera was conceived in response to the challenges experienced by small farmers around Bulgaria, who make significant investments to grow quality produce yet have trouble getting fair prices for it on the market. So, Bhushan came up with the idea for an inexpensive solar-powered food dryer that would give small farmers’ produce a longer shelf life, remove pressures to sell below break-even prices, and create higher-value final products. This would ensure that farmers gain the most from their labor and consumers have healthy, locally sourced food options at competitive prices.

The social entrepreneurship aspect is what got Radimir Krustev, Ralitsa Dimitrova, Alexander Vranesku, Rafaela Aprahamyan, and Emiliya Kaloferova interested in the project. They were Bhushan’s teammates in ABLE Activator, an intensive six-week entrepreneurship program for university students and young professionals run by the Association of Bulgarian Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE). Conducted entirely in English, the program consists of workshops and team activities and exposes participants to the work of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, who pass on their knowledge about product development, branding, and sales, among others. Participant teams develop their own business ideas, which they pitch in front of a jury at the program’s end.

The team behind Gordost na Fermera

Gordost na Fermera was one of five business plans developed during ABLE Activator’s spring 2020 edition. A storytelling app for tourists, a handyman subscription service, a marketplace for eco-living items, and a software plugin for architects and designers also vied for the jury’s attention at the program’s closing event on April 15. Gordost na Fermera stood out with its social-mindedness and its carefully crafted business development and marketing plans. It was awarded first place.

“The biggest prize we won was getting to know each other and learning from each other. I loved hearing and discussing everyone’s perspectives and ideas. That’s the beauty of the program—five or six strangers coming together to work on an idea for the next two months,” an emotional Bhushan told his teammates after the closing ceremony.

“I am thankful for the deep and long-lasting relationships we formed in those weeks. As I keep working on my idea—developing a prototype and speaking to Bulgarian farmers—I am excited to have my teammates to bounce ideas around [with] and support each other.”

While plans for Gordost na Fermera preceded the program, Bhushan’s ABLE Activator team gave the idea new impetus and helped adapt it to the local market’s needs. The team conducted interviews with Bulgarian farmers, did market research, and made scalability projections. Two members of the team, Alexander and Emiliya, even contributed firsthand knowledge of the challenges confronting small farmers in Bulgaria: Alexander was previously a beekeeper, while Emiliya’s family grows cherries commercially. As a sales manager, Radimir kept the team’s focus on sustainability through profit.

Team building

The team’s plan hinges on the development of a low-cost dryer that traps the sun’s energy and uses it to extract moisture from fruits and vegetables while protecting them from pests and dust. Gordost na Fermera dryers will be 100% safer and faster than open sun drying and much cheaper to operate than electric dryers. Helping small farmers market their produce is also part of the team’s vision, which includes launching a socially aware line of dried snacks bearing the Gordost na Fermera brand.

“We pivoted the focus quite a bit—from the hardware, to the online shop for dried food, to a brand with connections to retailers… and back. The ‘how’ kept evolving, but the ‘why’ remained the same. We wanted to find the solution that would make the most sense,” Emiliya says.

The resulting solution has a twofold goal: to provide a sustainable business model for Gordost na Fermera and to level the playing field for small farmers. For Ralitsa, one of humanity’s greatest challenges is “making technological progress accessible to everyone, especially the disadvantaged among us, and this is where technology has the potential to do the most good.”

Rafaela agrees. “Each team member contributed to the development of the idea because each one of us has their own vision and expertise. The idea evolved as a result of the constructive feedback we were receiving from our mentors [too]. However, one thing remained unchanged—our desire to build something that will empower the lives of other people,” she says.

Bhushan poses next to his food dryer prototypes

A part of the team continued working on the project over the summer, honing the business plan and making useful contacts. In the meantime, Bhushan built two prototypes for the food dryer, which he financed with his own savings. He is currently testing them on produce from his father-in-law’s gardens and looking for funding to build several more dryers and test them on other farms as well.

“[Social entrepreneurship] is a challenging path, may not make you a bag full of money, but, believe me, it gives you a strong sense of purpose and an incredible feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment,” Bhushan says.

With the coronavirus outbreak likely to squeeze farmers’ incomes further, Gordost na Fermera might be a far timelier solution than Bhushan originally anticipated. So, he is determined to see it through, saying: “Giving up is not an option. If this idea ever had any relevance, the time is now.”

ABLE Activator’s fall 2020 edition is now open for applications. For more information, visit
https://activator.bg/ or email info@activator.bg

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