Area of work:
The high altitude and low rainfall in the Ladakh region of India mean that crops can be grown outside for only about 90 days in the year. Fresh vegetables have to be imported by truck in summer or by air in winter
GERES has developed improved greenhouses, heated only by the sun and with high thermal mass and insulation, allowing vegetables to be grown and sold throughout the year
The Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti areas of North West India lie within the Himalayas. The high altitude (3,500 m), low rainfall, and harsh winters mean that fresh vegetables and other crops can be grown outside for only about 90 days in the summer, but some are still brought in by truck. Fresh vegetables can be air-freighted to some areas in winter, but supply is limited and cost is high, so most people rely on dried leafy vegetables and stored root crops in winter.
Despite winter temperatures regularly below -25oC, the cloudless skies mean that there are over 300 sunny days per year, so there is plenty of sunshine for crops to grow, provided that they can be prevented from freezing. There have been programmes to provide greenhouses to extend the growing season, but these have had limited success due to poor designs and inadequate training.
Ten years ago the French NGO GERES (Groupe energies renouvables, environnement et solidarités) started working with the Ladakh Environmental Health Organisation (LEHO), and other local NGOs to develop better greenhouses and to help local people substantially increase their crop production using them.
GERES is a long-established French NGO with a strong track record in providing design and assistance for renewable energy and environmental programmes in Asia. In 2009, it had 108 employees and 13 volunteers and the representative and project manager in Ladakh is Vincent Stauffer. GERES is gradually handing over responsibilities for the improved greenhouse project to LEHO and other local NGOS.
Previously the work was funded by the EU, with co-funding from Fondation Ensemble. Since spring 2009, a mixed stream of funding has come from the French NGO Solidarités, the Indian government’s National Rural Health Mission and the voluntary carbon credit trading organisation Myclimate.org, which is providing carbon finance until 2013.
The improved greenhouse is designed to maximise the capture of solar energy during the day, while minimising heat loss at night so that the crops do not freeze, even in winter when temperatures fall below -25C. The greenhouse is heated by solar energy alone, there is no supplementary heating, and it is designed to be simple and robust. The insulated cavity walls are generally constructed of mud bricks. Local masons are employed to build the walls and, where necessary, specialised training is provided. The transparent cover on the South-facing side is made from a heavy-duty polythene, stabilised to prevent degradation by ultraviolet light. The roof uses locally available wood for the frame and straw or waterresistant local grass for the thatch. Two sizes of greenhouse have been developed. The normal domestic type is 4.5 m deep and 9.7 m long in the East-West direction. The larger commercial type has a similar depth (4.8 m) but is 27.3 m in length.
A wide range of crops is grown in the greenhouses. Spinach is a very popular vegetable, as is coriander. Garlic, radishes, onions, lettuces and strawberries are also grown in winter. In spring the greenhouses are used to raise seedlings, and in autumn to extend the growing season for crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and grapes. Some families also grow flowers and flowering pot plants.
US$1 = Rs 50 (Indian Rupees) [April 2009]
GERES estimates that the total cost of a domestic improved greenhouse is about US$600 (Rs 30,000). Half of this is for materials sourced locally such as wood for the roof, mud bricks, stone and thatch. These can often be collected rather than purchased, and must be provided by the prospective owner. The owner is also expected to provide the labour to build the walls and roof, either directly or by paying a skilled mason. GERES pays for and provides the door, air-vents and the UV stabilised polythene, which represent about 25% of the total cost.
The timing of greenhouse construction is arranged carefully to fit in with the agricultural year. New owners are selected in the spring, so that they have the opportunity to collect materials, make mud bricks and bake them in the sun during the summer. At the end of the summer, when the main crops have been harvested, there is time available to construct greenhouses, and money from the sale of cash crops to pay for other materials and labour.
LEHO and partners worked with the local community to select 64 greenhouse owners who act as a local resource, some trained to supervise improved greenhouse construction, others to advise owners on agricultural management. They receive some pay and expenses for their work, typically US$1.5 (Rs 70)/month per greenhouse. Other greenhouse owners are supported by the resource people and also have direct access to their local NGOs and to LEHO, usually by phone. The phone number of a contact person is painted above the door of each greenhouse.
Selecting people to own a greenhouse is carried out with care: families chosen must be living below the poverty level of US$1/day per person, and have a suitable site on which to construct the improved greenhouse. The family must be keen to make a success of using the greenhouse, and also to share the produce with the wider community through sale or barter. Potential owners are taken to see existing greenhouses before they make a final decision about having one.
A total of 586 improved greenhouses were constructed between 2005 and 2009, seven of them large commercial ones and the remainder for domestic use. Nearly all remain in use. A few minor problems have occurred, for instance some roofs have been replaced because of water damage.
Over 4,000 family members benefit directly from growing their own vegetables, but many other people also benefit through sale and barter of produce. Surveys by GERES suggest that the diet of over 50,000 people, or about 25% of the local population in the area, has been improved through the availability of vegetables. In some areas it is the first time that fresh vegetables have been available at all in winter.
Greenhouse owners gain social standing in their communities, through providing vegetables for the wider community for regular consumption and for festivals, and through earning income. New opportunities have opened up for rural women, who are the main producers. As a result of their improved financial position, some families are able to afford to educate their children for the first time.
The main purpose and value of the improved greenhouse programme has been to improve quality of life by increasing the quantity and variety of fresh vegetables, particularly in winter. Surveys carried out by GERES suggest that about 300 tonnes/year of extra vegetables are produced locally, or about 0.54 tonnes/year per greenhouse. Studies have shown that consumption of vegetables during the winter has grown substantially for families who own an improved greenhouse, allowing fresh produce to be eaten two or three times a week compared to twice a month in the past.
GERES estimates that the planes and trucks which bring fresh vegetables to the area emit about 1.6 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of vegetables. Local production of 300 tonnes/year of vegetables in the improved greenhouses therefore prevents the emission of about 470 tonnes/year CO2 (or 0.84 tonnes/year CO2 per greenhouse).
Additional environmental benefits have come from improved soil fertility, mainly through the use of better composting techniques pioneered by GERES, and in improvements in soil quality and organic content, which reduces soil erosion.
Locally produced winter vegetables are now available in markets at lower prices, and surveys suggest that families save between US$10 (Rs 500) and US$20 (Rs 1,000) on vegetable purchases in winter. Some families are also able to buy less meat, because they have the nutrition and variety of vegetables, and this way they make further savings.
The Ladakh region has limited opportunities for employment, so any way of generating increased income is welcome. The income from sale of produce varies between families, depending on how much is consumed by the extended family and neighbours, how much is bartered and how much is sold. Surveys have found that the average increase in family income from the sale of vegetables and seedlings is US$165 (Rs 8,250)/year or about 30%. The payback period for the cost of a domestic improved greenhouse is therefore less than four years. Running a commercial improved greenhouse can earn about US$700 (Rs 35,000)/year, which more than doubles family income.
Locally, 221 masons and 15 carpenters have received training and benefitted from increased employment from the scheme.
GERES estimates that there is a potential demand for at least 3,000 improved greenhouses in Ladakh, and possibly 6,000 if provision of vegetables for the large military presence in the area is included. Many owners are keen to build a second greenhouse with their own money. In 2010 LEHO will focus on promoting the commercial potential of improved greenhouses, with a target of 60 new commercial units.
GERES makes the greenhouse designs freely available, and encourages replication by others in India and elsewhere. A community of practice has been launched through a website ‘solargreenhouse.org’. The adoption of the improved greenhouse design by other organisations has been encouraged by GERES, and there is evidence of take up in other countries, notably Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China, as well as in other parts of India.
4 November 2021
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