Green Technology Book – Tech Story: Bhungroo – Small Technology with Big Impact

April 28, 2023

Biplab Ketan Paul and his wife Trupti Jain have devoted their lives to bringing water to the poorest of farmers – creating a revolutionary social impact. Their story began in 1996 when Biplab was working with women’s support groups in the Gujarat region of India, providing education on water treatment. He quickly learned that the main problems related to water in the region were less about its treatment and availability as drinking water and more about how water availability affected farming and the cultivation of food crops. The high salinity of the soil combined with heavy floods during monsoon season makes agriculture challenging. Such issues are especially impacting poverty-stricken women farmers, who lack the rights to land.

In response to these issues, Biplab in collaboration with engineers and women from the local community, developed the Bhungroo technology. Bhungroo is a simple aquifer recharge technology that works to store water deep underground with the support of a hollow pipe – the Gujarat translation for which is Bhungroo! Naireeta Services was founded by Trupti in 2011 as a social enterprise. Owner of the Bhungroo technology, Naireeta Services acts with a social purpose - to empower women, tackle social inequality and support adaptation to the effects of climate change.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)
(Photo: Naireeta Services)

The Problem

In India, a significant area of land is affected by heavy floods during the monsoon season, followed by long periods of drought. Climate Change is exacerbating these challenges, giving rise to extreme weather events and more severe floods. These variations in weather make it difficult or impossible to cultivate the land and threatens the income and food security of up to five million smallholder farmers. Poor rural women are especially vulnerable to the social and economic effects of this.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

The insecurity in land cultivation led to large-scale migration from rural areas to urban cities where former farmers found work in construction or on larger farms. However, the devastating Gujarat Earthquake in 2001 resulted in many of these migrant workers losing their jobs as buildings collapsed and new projects in these urban areas were discontinued. Farmers were then forced to move back to the countryside without means to provide for themselves.

Witnessing such hardship, Biplab decided to try to find a solution that could help the cultivation of land throughout the year and, by extension, provide a solution to the social inequities.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

The Bhungroo Technology

Bhungroo is a simple rainwater filtration and storage technology. It helps to save crops from becoming waterlogged during monsoons and ensures adequate irrigation during dry seasons.

The Bhungroo technology contains an underground unit that filters, injects and stores excess farm or storm water in underground aquifers (read more about Managed Aquifer Recharge here). The unit top consists of a cemented pit measuring 1–2.5 meters in diameter and 0.5–1 meters in depth. Units are generally installed on land that has a slight incline or gradient. Connected to the cemented pit is a pipe descending to a depth of up to 100 meters that allows water to be stored in coarse sand soil layers within the unit. Water is stored in this manner during rainy seasons and can then be pumped up and used for irrigation during a dry season. The Bhungroo technology is hand built from locally sourced materials and only requires a one-time low capital investment. The end users are personally involved in the construction, maintenance and management of the technology.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

The Bhungroo Journey – From a Small Community To The World

Too much water during the monsoon season – too little during the dry season. To solve this problem, Biplab gathered technicians and engineers and worked together with women farmers to create a tool that could capture water during the monsoon season for later use during periods of drought. The process was a long one, based on trial and error. Trupti explains that the development of Bhungroo has never been an exact science: every soil is different and the solution has to be tested each time it is implemented in a new place. The women farmers - experts in the local soil – are always part of the process and share their knowledge in order to develop a solution that work in their context.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

The development process started in 2001 and the first version of the Bhungroo technology was ready in 2004. At this point, Trupti and Biplab thought they had created a simple solution to a local, community problem, but when the World Bank awarded the Bhungroo technology the World Bank India Development Marketplace technology award in 2007, they realized that it could in fact be expanded and deployed on a large scale. The technology is now used across India, and internationally, with eight Bhungroos installed in Bangladesh, two in Ghana and one in Vietnam.  

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

Today the Bhungroo technology continues to evolve, with 15 different designs of the tool in existence. All terrains are different and the hydrological structures vary in every rural area, so the technology design is adapted to fit the needs of the farm. It’s not like a solar lamp that can work the same way everywhere, the different conditions demand a slightly different technology every time. Trupti says that today she can think she has a tool that works really well and tomorrow, somewhere else, it does not work and needs remodeling again. “It’s always up and down” she says. “And we are always refining and developing ourselves”.

Water is Essential For Life on The Planet - And It Can Create Empowerment and Social Justice

Bhungroo is more than the technology itself, it is also the greater effect that it has on the ground.

Despite working on the land for decades, women farmers do not traditionally have the right to land as the property usually belong to men. This inequality is interconnected to other social problems in the region such as domestic violence, lower socioeconomic status, unpaid work and exploitation. Women are also disproportionally vulnerable to and impacted by climate change, which in turn amplifies existing gender inequalities. Naireeta Services has a mandate to address and find solutions to these challenges. By providing women with the technology, and training to use it, women become the ones who provide the water to the plantations. In bringing this essential commodity to the land, women farmers receive rights to the harvest benefits, a source of income, food security and dignity. In addition, because water knows no boundary, six to seven farmers can ultimately benefit from the water collected from the Bhungroo technology. Such collective benefit harbors unity among the farmers and creates a community - centered around water.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

The Bhungroo technology has had an immense impact. Women who previously had no source of income can now harvest their farms two to three times per year. Consequentially, migration has slowed down and the women farmers are able to live stable lives in one location, send their children to school and get access to better health facilities. The Bhungroo technology has thus effectively empowered social and economic decision-making.

No Need For Marketing – Bhungroo Speaks For Itself

The Bhungroo journey started with a ‘need’ from the local Gujarat community. Since then, demand for the technology has exploded, and Naireeta Services struggles to keep up with all the requests coming in. “Demand is not a problem, the scale-up is the problem” Trupti says. Word has spread that such a technology exists and requests come from all directions. As a small company, the idea is not to waste resources on staff and office infrastructure, but to feed it directly into the communities –an ongoing challenge for the company.

Today, five million small-scale farmers are waiting to receive the technology - as far as Naireeta Services is concerned, the scale-up cannot happen fast enough.

“Billions of hectares of land is affected by these kinds of problems globally.” Trupti explains. “So you can understand the demand of it. The market of it. So the problem is not the demand side, the problem is this side.”

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

Business Model and IP

In 2012, Trupti decided to leave her government job and to operationalize Naireeta Services through a Fulbright scholarship. The business model is a simple one – they only employ three office staff, so that the recurring costs can be minimized as much as possible. There are 17-18 people in the field, six full time staff members and many volunteers. This is how they are managing this enormous undertaking.

In the beginning, Naireeta Services operated with public funding only, but they soon realized that it was insufficient to scale-up and meet the fast-growing demand for the technology. Over time, their model has evolved, and now they sell Bhungroo to bigger enterprises for a profit and use these profits to deploy the technology faster and for free in communities with the poor farmers who need it.

Though the Bhungroo name and logo are trademarked, they have never patented the technology, because they are following the principle by Mahatma Ghandhi ‘Antyodaya’ that means to serve the poorest first. This Robin Hood -type of deployment system does not come without challenges.

But at the heart of the company is its values.  These are also in play when developing partnerships with organizations outside of India to make the technology available globally. There are fixed partnership criteria for organizations who want to deploy the technology, ensuring that these organizations place a priority on climate change adaptation and women’s empowerment.

(Photo: Naireeta Services)

Bhungroo is featured in WIPO’s Green Technology Book, a WIPO flagship publication containing more than 200 climate change adaptation technologies. When asked for her message of hope in the face of climate change impacts, based on what they have achieved with their technology, Trupti says:  

“To those who want to do something in the field of development, I would say from my experience to have a goal to help others. That’s all. Innovation will automatically follow. It doesn’t need to be rocket science. It can be a combination of traditional knowledge and technology. So don’t wait for the rocket science, just try to apply it in the field, so it will always come.”