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Of cowboys and Indians: Ravi Malhotra helps rural businesses

 

Delta, Colorado
Ravi Malhotra steps from an air-conditioned SUV and inhales the stench from mounds of human waste chips and rows of evaporation ponds cooking in the rising summer sun. This is the CB Industries-Delta Inc. Composting Facility, tucked along a back road among adobe buttes and gullies just outside of Delta, Colo., a conservative agricultural community.

With his trim mustache, business-casual clothes, deep brown skin and unmistakable Indian accent, Malhotra appears thoroughly out of place. Born and raised in Mumbai (which he still calls Bombay), Malhotra is progressive, well-educated and tech-savvy. He looks like someone you'd see walking briskly down a city street with a Bluetooth snugged in his ear, not casually chatting about the finer points of septic systems with cowboy-clad and bearded local septic pumper John Caven -- a conversation that began hours earlier over continental breakfast in a chain hotel.

But this is a typical day for Malhotra. He and his colleague Christopher Jedd are on a 72-hour journey around the state's Western Slope on behalf of Malhotra's Denver-based nonprofit iCAST -- the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology. The group's name and mission -- "to provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to communities in a manner that builds local capacity" -- make it sound like an aid group at work in the developing world.

And in a way, that's what iCAST is. The economic hardships in small Western communities are a far cry from the persistent poverty in developing nations. But even so, unemployment in Delta County reached over 11 percent during the recession, surpassing the statewide average. And average per capita income ranks near the bottom for Colorado counties. As in many rural areas, families scramble to get by, shuttered storefronts punctuate the streets, and wireless Internet remains a novelty. It doesn't help that educated young people tend to flee depressed rural areas for jobs in cities, leaving locals without much access to technical expertise. That makes it harder to tackle small engineering projects, develop ambitious business or marketing plans, or gain access to much-needed capital or credit. And many locals don't want help directly from the government.

ICAST tries to bridge those gaps, helping rural residents learn how to maintain or expand their businesses in ways that also benefit the environment. Malhotra is quick to say that he and his staff are not experts on sanitation or forestry, ranching or horticulture, although iCAST projects have addressed all those fields.

John Caven's predicament, though unique in its particulars, is hardly uncommon. He's a plumber with 40 years' experience, and most of his recent work comes from pumping septic systems and hauling waste in his truck, up to 2,000 gallons of sludge per trip. The recession has hit him hard because people put off septic maintenance when money's tight, and the rates he must pay to dispose of sludge at local facilities are two to three times the national average. In 2010, he had to cut his staff from 11 to two.

Caven explains that finding alternatives to expensive disposal areas might help; perhaps he could get equipped to handle treatment himself. Malhotra nods quietly. He doesn't react when the septic dump manager blames the economic slump on the state's Democratic leaders. And Malhotra knows better than to shift the conversation to talk about "sustainable development." After all, he's not here to promote an ideology or a specific approach. He's just here to help.

ICAST's methods are rooted in Malhotra's background. "Coming from India obviously gives me a different perspective," he says, "but I think that's beneficial because it's an outsider's perspective."

Like many urban schoolchildren on the subcontinent, Malhotra, now 45, studied the Queen's English and read Shakespeare in high school. He took a degree in engineering at the Delhi campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, which has been called the "MIT of India," although it's even more selective.

In 1988, he took his first job with a New Delhi-based nonprofit called Development Alternatives. "Growing up, my aunts and uncles were doing social-service work, helping the poor -- and there's a lot of them in India, unfortunately," Malhotra says. "So that was ingrained (in me)." There, he designed and established manufacturing lines for solar cookers and stoves, geared handlooms and mud-block presses, each meant to capitalize on available labor and minimize fuel costs in developing regions of India, Asia and Africa. The projects provided basic services to families and created new business prospects, often improving local living conditions in the process. The job also introduced him to his future wife, Jyotsna, who worked for the group.

After four years, Malhotra was tired of traveling India's rough and uneven roads and dealing with corrupt bureaucracies, so he joined his own country's brain drain. He headed to the U.S. on a scholarship to the University of Texas, eventually earning a master's degree in engineering and an MBA. Over the next decade, Malhotra worked at several engineering and technology-development firms and eventually started his own company, which analyzed school data and student performances.

But the work wasn't exciting; he wanted a greater purpose. Besides, Texas wreaked havoc on his allergies, he says. "So I decided to do what I wanted to do and live where I wanted to live." In 2001, he and his wife moved to Colorado because they love the mountains. "I'm kind of a Westerner at heart," he says. "Going to Bombay, or New York, is good for a vacation, but I can't imagine living in those close spaces."

Malhotra launched iCAST as a student service-learning initiative in 2002, placing engineering majors in rural outposts. The center was initially attached to several universities in Colorado and projects were dispersed around the West and the world. Advisers suggested narrowing the scope, so Malhotra spun off iCAST into an independent nonprofit, focused mostly in Colorado.

Malhotra broadly defines the organization's path to sustainability. Caven's business troubles might not interest the Sierra Club, but coming up with a solution that circumvents his multiple trips to disposal facilities should cut his fuel use and pollution -- and create jobs. Many iCAST projects aim to increase energy efficiency -- for homes, farms, or businesses -- by applying small-scale renewable technology or finding novel uses for byproducts. Such efforts are "an uphill battle to get on people's radar," Malhotra says, because they aren't as exciting as larger green-jobs initiatives, but the benefits add up for individuals and communities.

In order to gain traction in rural areas that are often suspicious of urban outsiders, iCAST generally reaches out to local Resource Conservation & Development councils -- nonprofits established through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which engage local government officials and community members to promote rural development -- or other economic-development boards. Malhotra ducks touchy political or environmental matters to avoid confrontations with his clients. "We don't get into any discussions about climate change," he says, although iCAST touts its projects' energy and carbon savings.

ICAST pulls in about half of its money from grants and federal stimulus funds, enabling the firm to work with clients of modest means and provide otherwise unaffordable professional services. It also coordinates workforce training and energy-efficiency projects around metro Denver.

Malhotra's first successes came in southern Colorado, after a university professor connected him with members of the San Luis Valley RC&D. In this six-county farming region, more than 20 percent of residents fall below the poverty line, compared with 11 percent in the rest of the state. The staff hooked Malhotra up with local potato growers to study potential markets -- everything from vodka to starch to ethanol to fresh-frozen mashed potatoes -- for the valley's millions of tons of irregular, "off-grade" taters considered unsuitable for sale.

John Baxter, who runs one of the few small timber-mills still operating in Colorado, says Malhotra walked, practically unannounced, through his shop door in the San Luis Valley some years ago. In fact, Malhotra had learned about Baxter through the RC&D, and the two men struck up a partnership to identify new uses for the mill's waste. Baxter, who calls Malhotra "aggressive" but "accessible," now sells his wood shavings as filler in animal bedding, using a baler that Malhotra helped him acquire. "The baling has helped us maintain some needed cash flow using our byproducts, and it's been able to open up some other markets we wouldn't have had," says Baxter.

In the wide-open southeastern corner of the state, some counties have experienced more than 10-percent population losses in the last decade, as if the winds were blowing away the small farming and ranching towns. Malhotra discovered the hardscrabble landscape through a referral from San Luis Valley to the Southeast Colorado RC&D council. Over several years, iCAST has helped put wind turbines and solar arrays on local farms to keep landowners' energy bills down. The group has also helped install three biofuel facilities that produce oil from crushed sunflower or canola seeds, making farmers more self-sufficient and saving them fuel money. A mobile slaughtering unit, which would allow area ranchers to directly market their beef to in-state customers and avoid the high costs of shipping livestock, is still under consideration, as is a manure-to-fuel gasification plant.

Engineering and business students  still help with these projects, providing cheap, capable labor to clients while gaining valuable real-world experience. iCAST's interns, including several international students, have had some unexpected but "endearing" multicultural opportunities, laughs Misty George, a former project manager with the Southeast Colorado RC&D. One landowner taught some of them to shoot. And the iCAST students "couldn't believe what kind of food happens at a potluck in a rural community ... the full spread of hot rolls and casseroles, and a dessert table that just doesn't end."

The council recently made iCAST its official "technical service provider." "There's a place for Ravi and iCAST and that philosophy down here," says Matt Heimerich, a local farmer, Republican and former Crowley County commissioner who joined the organization's board of directors in 2009. "The model is really about empowering local people to change their own destiny."

After checking out the Delta waste facility with John Caven, Malhotra and iCAST project manager Jedd head back to Caven's office, a converted trailer along a state highway. Malhotra listens as Caven runs through a few options he found on the Internet. Over the next few months, Malhotra analyzes their benefits and costs with help from chemical engineering students. Ultimately, they determine that the high price of a promising piece of equipment probably doesn't fit Caven's small-scale business. Malhotra suggests a similar technology that should slash his hauling trips and transportation costs. The center could eventually help finance equipment through a grant or loan, and Malhotra hopes to bring the findings to other septic haulers and industry groups.

Caven, who describes himself as both "so conservative" and "far green," is pleased. In an era of political polarization and government stagnancy, Ravi Malhotra is a doer, he says. Indeed, after a decade of "doing," Malhotra and iCAST say they've directed $5 million in investments, grants and iCAST services to small businesses and other initiatives, while generating another $25 million in economic benefits to communities through those projects.

"Nobody's going to have that larger conversation unless we can show some results," Malhotra says. "We're not here to tell anyone we're here to save their community. It's more: 'Here's what we bring to the table, and here's what's of interest to you.' And eventually the conversation gets around to the bigger picture" -- the energy savings, waste reduction, and more diversified local economies that come from this brand of job creation and business development.

It's not a discussion every rural citizen or economic-development board is interested in having, but Malhotra has found his niche. As far as facing prejudice as an Indian working among mostly pale-faced Westerners, Malhotra says: "It hasn't been so much that I'm not from around 'these parts,' (meaning) the U.S., or that I have a weird or Indian accent. But there's definitely: 'You're not from around these parts ... you're from Denver.' "