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Travelling through South India

The slow grind: How Raja Sankar is replicating the power of the marachekku for fresh, cold-pressed oil in Pollachi

Replicating the power of the traditional bull-driven marachekku to make fresh cold-pressed oil in Pollachi, Raja Sankar wants to set up a cooperative, not a corporate

November 08, 2019 06:30 pm | Updated 06:37 pm IST

Coconuts in the customised machine

Coconuts in the customised machine

A t the production unit of Purva Naturals in Diwansapudur, Pollachi, under the shade of a large tree, a group of women de-shell dried coconut with sharp knives, their voices drowned out by the oil-making machines indoor. Annapoorni stands atop a stool and empties a sack full of copra (dried coconut bits) into the chekku (rotary press) and in a few seconds, warm, fresh oil drips from the outlet below.

While the process seems similar to that in any oil-making unit, a closer look reveals a set of customised machines built to imitate the power of the traditional bull-driven marachekku , using a single phase three horsepower (hp) motor. “When we started studying the designs of existing cold-press machines, we realised that they were archaic in terms of design, engineering and functionality. They consume a lot of power (7.5 hp) and the design did not make sense from a physics point of view,” says founder Raja Sankar. Along with his friend Krishnaraj Balusamy, an automotive engineer, he researched the concept. But it was when the duo visited Dhaly, near Dharmapuri, and studied the traditional machines powered by bulls, that the design took shape. “We tried to match the speed of the animal, and the technology resulted in reduced power consumption. It is easy to operate, especially for women. Our machine is evolving even today,” he says, adding that the slow process helps preserve the enzymes and nutrients that oil should contain.

Set up in 2014, the unit today is home to four machines — two for coconut oil, one (made of wood) for groundnut and another for sesame — and churns out 2,000 litres a month.

Raja Sankar (far left) and his team

Raja Sankar (far left) and his team

Call of the bull

Sankar tells me i t all started when he quit a 13-year career in IT in 2013 and returned to his farm seeking a slower pace of life. “I was yearning to move out of the city to be closer to the real things,” says the 56–year-old, who decided to venture into oil making when a friend told him about the dearth of pure, natural oil in the market. In 2017, a farmer’s group in Punjab (whom they supplied to) urged them to brand the oil as they struggled to repack the bulk bags Sankar was sending them.

“We decided to name it Purva: a term that means ‘ancient’ and ‘East’. Our message is that we’re rediscovering an ancient technology that we’ve missed on the way.” Today, their cooking oil variants and hair oil are sold across leading organic outlets and on their online store. Soon-to-launch online is a skincare oil with coconut oil and desi cow milk, and a massage oil. “A local Ayurvedic hospital, Vaidyagrama, approached us with a recipe for the latter, made with sesame oil, lemongrass and other essential oils,” says Sankar, who has also developed a motor-powered traditional stone pulveriser to grind turmeric.

Keeping it small

Sankar is mindful about keeping things manageable. The team has an upper cap of where they want to reach (15,000 litres a month). “I don’t believe in limitless growth, as technology can get you places, but it is not economically viable; it won’t sustain. If we want to go beyond our target, it will mean making compromises in quality,” says the entrepreneur, who aims to set up “a cooperative movement, not a corporate”.

The team has helped NGOs like Jandanya in Kanakapura (near Bengaluru) set up oil making machines. “The idea is to support local consumers, farmers, and help others set up similar units,” says Sankar, adding how his entire task force is women-led.

“There are many who are making ‘organic’ oil, but they are sticking to the power-consuming models. Power wastage is a crime; you can’t drive in a BMW from Coimbatore every day and say you are being eco-friendly or organic,” he concludes.

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Nidhi Adlakha

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