Embrace Infant Incubators

A global partnership for children, including the WHO and UNICEF, report that annually, 4 million babies die within the first 30 days of birth. Why are 4 million babies dying? Concise 2 and 1/2 page article. The common causes are infection, birth asphyxia and premature (including low birth weight) births. Premature and low-weight babies are particularly susceptible to hypothermia and need to be kept warm.

In the well-off world, such babies are placed in expensive incubators (costing upwards of $10,000), while vital signs are monitored and stabilized. In much of the developing world such luxuries do not exist and babies continue to die off. Multinational medical device companies are quick to donate expensive equipment to far off locales. Consider that in places where infant mortality is very high, there is likely no electricity to power incubators and no trained personnel to operate them. Most of the equipment is completely useless and gathers dust.

This lack of understanding local constrainsts leads me to believe that most expensive equipment donations are made primarily for tax right-offs and a way to showcase social responsibility to shareholders. But thankfully, social entrepreneurs in small teams are continuing efforts to develop baby incubators for the developing world.


Here is a creative solution by EmbraceGlobal: A sleeping bag-like device with an add-on warming pouch. It does not require electricity, is portable and costs $25. At that price, they are near disposable and can go home with the baby. Most likely, parents don’t have anything nicer to put the baby to sleep in.

A Neonatologist I spoke to voiced concern that for critical babies, it is important to be able to see the chest of the baby rise and fall as it breathes. I think this can be addressed by a zipper (or velcro) on the sides of the bag. These will also make it easier to get the baby in and out of the bag, and provide ventilation.

I think $25 is still a steep price for essentially a wrap-around quilt. If folks can build a laptop for $100, then such a sleeping bag should not cost more than $1! Yes, One dollar!

Any of you have ideas for modifying the designs to address local needs? Can this be made of locally sourced materials? How about involving micro-finance based women’s groups to fabricate/assemble them locally? This could improve their livelihood as well. Perhaps this may trigger other solutions in the local populations.

Make it for $1! Any takers?

Cashew Nuts: To Your Health

Factories play an important role in India's rural economy. They provide jobs for local men and women, which translates into money to buy food, send kids to school, buy medicines if needed, repair and maintain a house and save some money. Villages and towns in India (as elsewhere in the world) don't need an handout, they need a hand-up! People are willing to work hard, but they need jobs with good working conditions and a decent pay. And customers who are willing to pay a fair price for their products. On every visit to rural india my ears are alert for news of well run companies creating jobs for locals.

In the Konkan town of Kumta, I visited the Sahyadri Cashew Processing factory run by Mr Murlidhar Prabhu. He is a relative of a relative. I was particularly impressed that he hired a lot of women in his factory. Of the more than 250 people he employs, only 8 were men and more than 240 were women. WoW!

“But do they like working here,” I asked. “Most of our new workers are younger daughters, sisters, and relatives of those already working here,” he explained, implying that if the pay was not good, or work conditions onerous, workers would not be bringing other family members in to work. Within a few years of working the women are able to save a decent amount of money. They generally leave when they get married and move out of town. Their ability to earn a living also makes them more marriageable, to a better person and gives them the confidence to seek other jobs wherever they move.

We need more such social entrepreneurs in the villages and towns of India. No! We do not need more television sets, or dainty models selling shampoo, or fancy soaps. Certainly not coffee shops or liquor bars or 'menthol' cigarettes or posh grocery stores. So the next time you munch on the nuts, remember all the folks working in the factories in rural india and elsewhere whose job depends on your choices. Did I mention nuts are actually very good for you?

The hard, gray, raw cashew seeds, perched below the fruit are collected and dried. Seeds are first steamed and allowed to cool in large heaps on the factory floor. The quick heating and cooling causes the kernel to separate from the shell. Operating steam boilers and loading /unloading large bags of cashew seeds was the only tasks in this factory performed by men. Women handled all other jobs here.

After cooling, women on tables with rudimentary cutters expertly position each seed in a v-grip using the hand lever. Then a foot operated lever snips the outer shell longitudinally in half. Cut seeds tumble through a hopper to a basket on the floor.
pics of women working in a cashew nut factory in Kumta Karnataka by Arun Shanbhag

… where another woman separates the whole nut kernel from the shell. The gray shell has corrosive agents and women rub oil on their hands to protect from the corrosive effects. The shells are sold off to companies which extract oils, which are apparently an important ingredient in marine paint used on ships and docks. May explain why most ships are painted gray?
pics of women working in a cashew nut factory in Kumta Karnataka by Arun Shanbhag


Collected nuts are dried in an oven, making the skin brittle and easy to remove. While I suffer at this chore, the women fly through at a dizzying speed. They use a tiny knife to scrape and release the skin on the inner surface of the nut. Then the rest of the skin just falls off. Preliminary sorting of the nuts is also performed at this stage.
pics of women working in a cashew nut factory in Kumta Karnataka by Arun Shanbhag


On these tables the cashew nuts are sorted depending on their size, colour and if they are chipped. Halfs and pieces of nuts are also sorted by size. This grading determines the ultimate price of the cashew nuts.
pics of women working in a cashew nut factory in Kumta Karnataka by Arun Shanbhag


The sorting tables were in a large well-lit area.
pics of women working in a cashew nut factory in Kumta Karnataka by Arun Shanbhag


The cashew nuts undergo extensive quality control before packaging. Nuts are placed on a conveyor belt and inspected. Over a sieve, dust and other contaminants are sucked. Over a magnetic table, metallic contaminants are removed. Cashew nuts are then packaged in vacuum in large packs (greater than 10kg). Most of the cashew nuts from this factory are exported through bulk dealers. They do have their own private label that you saw above. Depending upon the needs of the customer, the factory also does some post processing such as roasting cashew nuts with spices.
pics of women working in a cashew nut factory in Kumta Karnataka by Arun Shanbhag


Note on photographs: All factory pics were shot in Sept 2004 using my Olympus C4040, 4MP point and shoot digital camera, confirming you don't need fancy cameras to take good pics. I do have a dSLR which I have been using more recently. The opening cashew fruit pic was from an indian cashew trade association website.

Kumta: Girls Making Papad

girls making papad in rural Kumta
I look forward to visiting Kumta, our ancestral home along the konkan coast. Lush green fields, coconut tree groves, red mud roads where lazy cows have the right of way. A place where I can speak konkani all over town.

Strolling through someone’s orchards, I came upon a small cinder-block shed buzzing with activity. Inside were a group of young girls busy making papad (konkani: haapoL). The girls were churning out hundreds of papad right before my eyes. Apparently one of the women had gotten a small loan, and started selling papad and other konkani foods to local restaurants and grocery stores. Continue reading “Kumta: Girls Making Papad”

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