Kerala Project Plant, India

After missing the bus on the way to a winery tour at Waiheke Island, I found myself chatting to a taxi driver about black soldier fly, organic waste and sustainable protein. Six months later, I was in a plane to implement the first black soldier fly waste treatment plant in India.

The pilot plant was to be situated at Abhilash Hatcheries (where the company produces fertilised chicken eggs for sale) in two old poultry sheds that were no longer being used. Ashok John, who has a background in bringing agricultural technology from New Zealand to India, coordinated with the hatchery and myself to design a plant suited to their needs.

Two disused poultry sheds that would become the rearing facilities for producing black soldier fly eggs and larvae. Photo: Abhilash Hatcheries, CC-BY

As I wouldn’t be able to stay and train workers on rearing black soldier fly and processing organic waste, I chose to design the plant around the SANDEC/Eawag model which has excellent documentation published under a creative commons licence. The pilot plant has capacity to process 21 tonnes of organic waste a week. I drew up plans and sent these through to Abhilash Hatcheries where construction began.

Construction begins on the lab, offices and rearing facilities. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY

It was a fairly long flight from New Zealand and on arrival I was straight into it with a ceremony and presentation to the local priesthood. The area the pilot plant is based in is a majority Catholic community so the pilot plant had to be blessed and this was followed by a big dinner.

Waste is a highly sensitive subject in Kerala, with the problems associated with waste such as odour, flies and leachate being of particular concern to local citizens. There have been several waste management projects which haven’t worked impacting the health and wellbeing of neighbours and causing an understandable distrust and suspicion from the community of new initiatives.

This meant ensuring there weren’t odour, vermin or waste water issues through site design and training. For example training technicians how to feed the correct quantity and depth of waste to larvae to minimise the risk of anoxic conditions that allow odour causing bacteria to establish and allowing pest flies to invade.

Sorting restaurant waste into trays. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY
An obligatory photoshoot holding a handful of maggots in +40 °C heat. Photo: Abhilash Hatcheries, CC-BY

Unfortunately, the lack of an effective waste management infrastructure has lead to dumping of waste on roadsides and wetlands which is a stark contrast to the beauty of the natural environment in Kerala. There is however a definite apetite for fixing this and a lot of interest from people in ways to reduce these issues.

Waste dumped and burned in the wetlands. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY
Waste dumped on a vacant lot just next to the state pollution control board. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY

A second project we are looking to do in Kerala is to provide training on how people can use black soldier fly larvae at home to reduce their organic waste at source. As Abhilash Hatcheries also sells chickens for people to grow at home (either for eggs for their own use or to sell to stores), the black soldier fly larvae can be used as a source of protein for the chickens reducing feed costs for the family.

Chickens grown domestically. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY

There were a number of things in India that aren’t issues I have experienced in New Zealand, for instance lizards getting into the enclosures and eating the larvae. The question I was asked most at any meeting was “Are you married?” followed by “Do you live with your parents?”. Another learning was the regulatory environment in India is complex and slightly kafkaesque at times. Between this and the many language differences between each state, it would make it very difficult to do business if you were an outsider. Having a strong partnership with a local company is really important. As a side note, stopping for masala chai (with plenty of jaggery) on the way to every meeting is standard and being late to meetings seems to be expected – there seems to be a separate time zone called Kerala time.

Ashok, with three phones on the go, adeptly dealing with a maze of Indian government departments. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY
Our black soldier fly stall at the trade show “Krishi Mela 2018” in Karnataka. Photo: Neil Birrell, CC-BY

One of my favourite things from this project is I get to wake up to lots of strange photos such as newspaper clippings in different languages which have my picture in them but I haven’t the foggiest what they say.

Creative Commons Licence

Blog Post: Kerala Project Plant, India by Neil Birrell (Hexacycle Limited) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *