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S4S Technologies

Women cheerfully carries a bowl on her head in a garden

Leveraging technology and innovation for economic and gender empowerment

  • Case Study
  • Energy
  • India
  • 2020
smallholder farmers supported
female micro-entrepreneurs have seen their incomes grow

S4S Technologies equips smallholder farmers and women micro-entrepreneurs in rural India with solar-powered food dehydrators, empowering them to reduce food waste, increase income, and build micro-businesses.

The problem

In India, where agriculture sustains nearly half the population, a startling 30% of food is wasted before leaving the farms. This isn’t just due to spoilage – around one-fifth of farmers’ crops are rejected by buyers solely based on appearance, even though they are perfectly safe and nutritious. Between rejected produce and spoilage, around $14 billion is wasted annually, crippling farmers’ incomes, intensifying rural poverty, and widening the inequality gap.

The gender dimension is stark, as 75% of women in India work in agriculture and related industries, leaving them particularly vulnerable to climate change. Women face restricted access to land, resources, and technologies, coupled with limited mobility, decision-making power, and financial independence. This amplifies the impact of food waste on rural poverty, highlighting the need to address both agricultural practices and gender disparities for sustainable development.

The solution

S4S empowers rural women micro-entrepreneurs by selling them solar-powered dryers for dehydrating raw vegetables. The company purchases lower-grade, rejected produce (Grade B and C) from smallholder farmers and delivers it to the micro-entrepreneurs for drying. This method is not only more energy-efficient, but also more cost-effective compared to conventional industrial food preservation techniques such as cold storage and other expensive alternatives.

“We can now buy seeds and fertilizers for our farm. No need to take loans. The machine gives us an additional income and supports our farming.”

Micro-entrepreneur of S4S Technologies

The dehydrated products are transported to a central processing facility for packaging, then sold to large-scale production companies and food service providers. To maintain quality standards, S4S employs dedicated village-level coordinators who train the micro-entrepreneurs on quality expectations. The focus on quality ensures fair compensation for participants, as micro-entrepreneurs receive a fixed fee per kilogram of dried product, directly benefiting from their hard work.

The origin

S4S Technologies, founded in 2013 by seven university friends including Acumen India Fellow Nidhi Pant, initially pursued a technology-focused model by selling solar-powered dryers. However, recognizing the need for broader impact, they pivoted to an end-to-end value chain. Today, S4S operates as a decentralized food processor, sourcing raw materials, processing them, and selling the finished product. This comprehensive approach effectively combats food waste, rural poverty, and gender inequality.

The impact

To date, 100,000 smallholder farmers supported by S4S have recorded 10-15% increases in their profits and 2,000 women entrepreneurs have seen their incomes double or even triple. A 60 Decibels study revealed that after working with S4S, 85% of entrepreneurs reported an improved quality of life. Moreover, the company has generated employment opportunities for over 500 women.

S4S also boasts significant environmental impact. The company annually prevents the disposal of 40,000 tons of produce. By the end of 2022, S4S had contributed to climate change mitigation by avoiding the emission of 485,895 metric tonnes of CO2.

“It is better work than doing other labor work. There is no need to work in the fields under the sun. One can work hard here and earn. It is also possible to save up some extra money for children’s education.”

Woman micro-entrepreneur of S4S Technologies

The investment

Acumen first invested in S4S Technologies in its pre-series A round through the Pioneer Energy Investment Initiative (PEII) in 2020. To support the company’s growth and expansion, Acumen provided follow-on capital in 2022 with the second iteration of this initiative, PEII+.

The story

In the heart of rural India, where sunlight is abundant but electricity unreliable, an exceptional social enterprise is transforming the lives of smallholder farmers and women micro-entrepreneurs. At the center of this transformation is S4S Technologies, whose innovative Solar Conduction Dryer (SCD) and unique business model has allowed this company to achieve outsized impact.

S4S’s dryer is more than just a solar-powered food dehydrator; it’s a beacon of sustainability and gender empowerment. The SCD efficiently reduces moisture content in agro-produce, preserving it for up to a year without the use of chemicals. The dryer’s portable size allows it to be utilized in village houses, making it a versatile solution for diverse agricultural settings.

This innovation won the company many awards early on, but what truly sets S4S apart is its exceptional business model that places smallholder farmers and women micro-entrepreneurs at the core. The company sources grade A and grade B fresh produce from farmer clusters on a contractual or direct buying basis. This grade B produce, often rejected by traditional markets due to shape, color, or size, comprises around 20% of a farmer’s yield. S4S not only provides a market for this produce, but also prevents wastage by dehydrating it using the SCD.

The processed produce is then taken to S4S’s manufacturing facility, where it undergoes sorting, grading, and packaging before reaching end customers. The company collaborates with a diverse range of clients, from large corporations like Nestle to restaurant chains and caterers such as IRCTC and Sodexo.

S4S’s sourcing model offers a competitive edge. Unlike freeze drying, which requires substantial investment and centralized processing, S4S’s decentralized approach utilizes free space available in village houses. This not only reduces operational costs but also allows for faster processing and wider product variety. Despite the challenges of maintaining quality in decentralized processing, S4S addresses this through a team of female village-level coordinators and stringent standards at its manufacturing facility. Recognizing the economic challenges faced by women in rural areas, S4S partnered with banks to provide affordable loans to micro-entrepreneurs, enabling them to invest in SCDs.

The impact of S4S goes beyond economic benefits. By opting for transporting dehydrated products instead of raw produce, the company has slashed logistical costs by up to 80%, avoiding significant CO2 emissions. In 2023 alone, S4S prevented the emission of 853,166 metric tonnes of CO2. Moreover, the company has become a catalyst for female empowerment, generating employment opportunities for over 500 women. The results are transformative, with 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs reporting increased incomes and 85% experiencing an improved quality of life. S4S’s innovation began with its technology and solar dryers, but its business model and inclusion of smallholder farmers and women entrepreneurs is what has driven its outstanding impact to date.