Kerala breaks new ground with electric food vans

By Sapna Gopal

Electric auto-rickshaws repurposed to hold a kitchen are providing an innovative and eco-friendly way for women in Kerala to earn a livelihood.

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Mobile kitchens powered by electricity are set to provide a viable livelihood for women. Photo credit: Lifeway Solar Devices.

In the past couple of years, the government of India has been vocal about its intent to make electric vehicles an intrinsic part of the country’s transportation sector. Beginning with electric public transit options, it is also looking at an electric transition for three-wheelers by 2023, and most two-wheelers by 2025.

A study by NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, says this transition could help save up to 64% of the country’s energy costs for road transport and cut down on 37% of carbon emissions. While the policy has been supportive of the electric vehicle industry, initiatives by individuals have also helped further the cause of this sector.

One such instance is that of Georgekutty Kariyanappally, Managing Director of Lifeway Solar Devices Limited. He is credited with launching India’s first solar-powered passenger auto-rickshaws in Kochi on August 2016.

Recently, Kariyanappally’s firm also launched another innovative product — electric auto-rickshaws armed with a kitchen unit. Introduced in the southern state of Kerala at the Kalamassery Municipality, the initiative is called Kudumbashree’s Amma Ruchi Project.

“It all began when our maid took leave due to ill-health,” said Kariyanappally, recounting how this idea took shape. “Her daughter, who is a graduate, came to work instead. When I spoke to her, I realised that she had been looking for a job in Kochi, but was unable to get one since she lacked knowledge in computers and was not proficient in English. Hence, she decided it would be better to work as domestic help. This compelled me to initiate the Electric Vehicle Kitchen Unit.”

Initially, there were some challenges as the electric auto had to be introduced on a grassroots level. These vehicles are powered by a battery, which can be charged either from the power grid, solar panels, a generator or a windmill. The key is to ensure that the battery remains charged. For lighting, a panel was placed on the rooftop and this was connected to another set of batteries and LED lights, he explained.

Carbon-free vehicles

The main aim is to have carbon-free vehicles plying on the road, be it public transport or for the movement of goods, added Kariyanapally.

While the concept of mobile food kiosks is new to India, it is an advantage in large cities since roadside vendors use up a lot of space and footpaths end up being clogged with their presence. These electric autos, he believes, are a solution to this problem as it will enable vendors of groceries, vegetables and fish, to use them and sell their products during peak hours.

Also, they will ensure they go back home after their business is done. Thus, roads in a city and the sidewalks will be free for cleaning by the civic body at night.

Kariyanappally believes that providing women with these vehicles will not only help them but their families as well. “Empowering a woman means the entire family will be empowered in the process. Furthermore, it engages them and gives them employment,” he said. “This kind of project can be used to uplift, not just women, but men as well. Instead of searching for jobs, this initiative will ensure employment and be lucrative.”

The economics are encouraging since the mobile kitchens will help women to earn INR 2,500 to INR 3,000 (USD 35-50) every day. “They will get a 30% margin for the business they do. Even if they work for 25 days in a month, they will earn approximately INR 70,000 (a year), thereby ensuring a paradigm shift in their lives and empowering them in the process,” Kariyanappally said.

Following in the footsteps of the Kalamassery municipality, other civic bodies in Kerala have also approached Kariyanappally to introduce these vehicles.

Encouragingly, the federal government’s Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) project that bears the interest of the loan amount, is focused on such projects. In Kerala, the state government gives INR 100,000 as subsidy for similar projects, he said.

First published in India Climate Dialogue.

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