Helping women become eco-friendly entrepreneurs

A range of courses at Chennai’s Women’s Christian College is teaching women to be entrepreneurs and eco-warriors simultaneously

The humidity of the city is nothing compared to the environment inside the one-room hut tucked away under the trees of the Women’s Christian College campus. The walls are lined with burlap sacks; the floor caked with sand. All means to retain moisture and lower temperature, for the sake of what grows in 170 straw-filled plastic bags suspended by 170 ropes from the ceiling. The plastics gleam, the walls ooze, the floor crackles: it could be a scene from a horror show. But the things growing inside the bag are tools — of economic empowerment and ecological education.

They are oyster mushrooms, grown by the students. What looks like a mix of straw, spawn and mulch on the inside, results in the blooming of flawlessly snow-white little caps that gush out through the flimsy plastic barrier, as if asking to be plucked and cooked.

Mushroom House is a part of the college’s one-semester-long, mushroom cultivation course. It is part of WCC’s Green Box initiative, which includes a trifecta of ecology projects — including the Shadow House and a five-tier hydroponics unit — that helps departments in the college generate their own revenue, besides showing students how to earn an income and understand the business side of things. The mushrooms, for instance, are edible ones that are sold on campus. “There is a quite a demand for them. The investment is small — you just need some straw and spawn. The yield is good, and it definitely tasted better than the button mushroom that is common in the markets,” says Pauline Deborah, associate professor, Department of Plant Biology.

Rare passage migrant birds that make a pitstop at WCC
  • Golden orioles
  • Pittas
  • Paradise flycatchers

Students dedicate about a semester to mastering this craft. The course is compulsory for Botany students, elective for those pursuing other subjects. “Our students do it for 75 hours, elective students do it for 30.” The latter is less theoretical and more hands-on: how to prepare the spawn, how to maintain and harvest, analyse and test.

Mushroom House is the result of Central Government funds given to the college a couple of years ago.

“The star college fund from the Department of Biotechnology: we used it to develop a shade house. In a place like Chennai, we can create a space with controlled temperature to grow plants that we would otherwise see only in hill stations. We have ferns and other shade-loving plants,” she says, leading me to it. As we stroll, we go from one part of the green campus to another, passing by decades-old trees (there are about 105 species in all).

Pauline points out the ones that have stories to tell. She unlocks gates to mini gardens, desert gardens and miniature fields, pointing out vegetables sown by students and trees gifted by prominent friends of the college. “Last year we got a very good harvest of brinjal and lady’s finger. This year, it was lady’s finger and turnip,” she says.

‘College with potential for excellence’ is another grant — of about one crore rupees — that was given in 2016 to a few city colleges. It was with that, that WCC got its hydroponics unit. It is an interesting structure, like a broad, white stepladder made of hollow pipes through which water is pumped constantly, passing along micronutrients to nourish the soil-bereft greens. “In the beginning, we would only grow different kinds of basil: Thai, sweet, peppermint, purple, lime... But now I have asked my students to try new plants.”

The water question
  • Water is an inherent part of both hydroponics and mushroom cultivation, but that doesn’t mean its use cannot be judicious
  • The hydroponics unit uses 50 litres of water at a time, which is circulated for two to three days at a stretch
  • When under shade, the unit uses up a maximum of 100 litres of water per week
  • Mushroom House takes up about two or three litres of water a day, sprinkled through pipes that line the ceiling
  • This water is soaked up by the burlap wall linings and sandy floor, thus keeping the temperature low and humidity high, both helping the mushrooms and reducing evaporation

A few tiers of the unit are dedicated to these experiments, which, she says, are coming out well: micro greens, spinach and tomatoes are a few of them. Pauline gently plucks a little tufted plant from its seat, to point out the rounded tangle of roots beneath. “They have almost grown too big for their space; it’s time for harvest,” she mutters, before placing it back and retreating so that her students can figure it out for themselves. The basils, however, still dominate the unit, and also make their way to the college market — especially to the Home Science Department’s kitchens.

What sell like hot cakes, though, are the mushroooms. “They’re easy to cook into a tomato-based gravy. Or else, just fry them with some butter,” suggests Pauline.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2020 11:11:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/helping-women-become-eco-friendly-entrepreneurs/article29147698.ece

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