An experiment to make incense sticks from char left behind when converting rice husk to power is being tried out as a livelihood option for women in Champaran district

A livelihood for women is also a revenue stream for those interested in providing renewable energy to areas in darkness in the country.

Husk Power Systems (HPS) -- a renewable energy company working in rural India -- is doing exactly that. It is trying out new ways to make agarbattis out of the char waste left behind while converting rice husk into power at its rural power plants in the West Champaran district of Bihar.

“We've been trying out the new way to make agarbattis and it seems to be working out. I am earning Rs 60 to Rs 80 per day doing this,” says Rajini, who works in the incense sticks making unit of HPS who mostly spends the money on her children. She, however, is waiting for the agarbattis to go to the market, so that her income can increase to around Rs 100 a day.

HPS is progressing with the experiment, and has come a long way. Of course there is still scope for perfection, says COO Mr Ratnesh Yadav, pointing out its potential to provide employment to thousands of women across the district. While each of the mini power plants provides light to about 400 households and shops, it also saves the community approximately 42,000 litres of kerosene and 18,000 litres of diesel per year.

The production of agarbattis will make use of waste from rice husk, give us an added revenue stream and provide employment to the local women, he says, adding

“It's not about electricity alone, it's about empowerment.” As of August 2010, HPS has sequestered 50,000 tons of CO2, and employed and trained more than 300 local people for running and managing its power plants. Through agarbattis it hopes to create a livelihood for the women as well.

Agarbattis or incense sticks is a mass product which commands a market size of Rs 1000 crore annually in the country. Traditionally agarbattis in the country are made of a variety of powders mixed together, essentially charcoal, white chip, and sandle wood with jiget as the binding agent. Mixed with water and made into dough, it is then rolled on bamboo sticks. If they need to be perfumed, they are generally dipped in it or sprayed with it.

Making agarbattis is essentially a low technology, labour intensive job, and HPS has decided to do extensive R&D for the project essentially to keep costs at the minimum so that earnings can be enhanced for the women. Though initially HPS was also using the traditional hand rolled method to turn the waste char into agarbattis, it realised that the margins were not substantial enough to keep the initiative afloat. With a team that is young, technology savvy and interested in issues of sustainability, HPS studied different ways they could use to make the incense sticks. They then struck upon an innovative method to fix the char and binder to the bamboo stick – a trade secret not to be disclosed.

"We will help HPS with product packaging, design and taking it to the market", says Ms Anuradha Bhavnani, Regional Director at Shell Foundation, the organisation that is providing grants for the renewable energy venture.

She suggests the product be perfumed with essential oils from local flowers such as the champa (magnolia), the tree that the district is named after.

More In: Society | Metroplus