Thursday, January 12, 2017

Open Sesame



In an interview reported earlier this week, India's Minister for Commerce and Industry, Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, requested Japan to take steps to increase Indian exports to Japan of sesame seeds, Surimi fish and generic drugs.

This was quite puzzling. Why were two specific items - "sesame seeds" and "Surimi fish" - mentioned in the same breath as Generic Drugs, which is a whole category in itself?

Perhaps it had something to do with the commercial value of the items being imported by Japan...

Sure enough, it turns out that Japan is one of the world’s largest importers of sesame seeds. It is mainly sourced from African countries. Nigeria is, by far, the biggest source, accounting for 28% all sesame seed imports valued at about JPY 11.4 billion (USD 96 million or INR 656 Crores in 2014). This means that Japan imports seeds worth about USD 343 million annually!

In recent years, India too has seen a sharp rise in sesame seed production. In 2014-15, over 0.43 million tonnes was produced, mainly in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. However India has not had much success in exporting the seeds to Japan. This is apparently because of high pesticide residue levels.

In other words, it is India that needs to take adequate steps to ensure that the sesame seeds it produces, is not only cost competitive, but also meets phytosanitary standards in the export markets.

The second item - Surimi fish - . I had heard of "Surmai" (Indo-Pacific Mackarel) but not this one.

It turns out that Surimi not a type of fish but something that Japan exports to other countries - especially USA. It is the term used for  "minced fish paste, made from a cheap fish in abundant supply, usually Alaskan pollock, frequently mixed with sugar and sorbitol, a sweetener. The paste is combined with other varieties of fish and fish flavorings, preservatives such as sodium tripolyphosphate and binders such as wheat flour or egg white, and then restructured and colored to look like higher- priced crab, scallops, shrimp or lobster." 

So, is this a case of a minister who was not properly briefed, or was it the IANS/Business Standard reporter who misquoted what has actually transpired?

Either way this is a fine example of the cross-talk, and communication gaps, not only within India, but also between the two countries.


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REFERENCES & LINKS

* BS (2017) - http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/india-japan-fta-implementation-needs-to-be-expedited-sitharaman-117011000351_1.html

* Surimi exports from Japan to USA - http://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/25/garden/surimi-what-kind-of-seafood-is-it.html?pagewanted=all
* (BS, 2014) - Sesame production in India - http://www.business-standard.com/article/markets/india-s-sesame-seed-output-to-rise-by-126-shefexil-114110200688_1.html

* BS (2016) - http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/sitharaman-urges-firms-to-exploit-free-trade-accord-with-japan-116100600675_1.html

* CEPA - RIS Report 2016

* Mint (2014) - http://www.livemint.com/Politics/Nv3BR8VYZ9zLJwwGeFAlWJ/EU-team-to-inspect-sesameseedprocessing-units.html

* SHEFEXIL - http://www.shellacepc.com/
-  About Sesame seeds - http://www.shellacepc.com/products/sesame-seeds/

* IARI - All India Network Project on Pesticide Residues - http://www.iari.res.in/?option=com_content&view=article&id=185&Itemid=531

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

MPesa India: Wrong Time, Wrong Place?

According to a recent article, there are 271 different mobile money services offered in 93 countries worldwide. Among these, the most successful one is Kenya's M-Pesa.

Launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania, M-Pesa has spread quickly, and by 2010 had become the most successful mobile-phone-based financial service in the developing world. By 2012, it had about 17 million M-Pesa accounts registered in Kenya alone.

M-Pesa's key advantage is that it does not need a 'smartphone'. Apart from being relatively expensive, smartphone tend to be battery guzzlers which need to be charged frequently, quite unlike the older mobiles which are cheap and far more durable.

In India, 61% of Indians own a basic mobile phone while only 17% of own a smartphone. Why, then, has M-Pesa not caught on in India?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in a closer look at the Kenyan mPesa model.

The idea behind M-Pesa has its origins in 2002 when researchers found that the Kenyans had been using talk-time on pre-paid mobiles to make small payments across the country. People were purchasing everyday necessities - provisions and services - and paying for it by adding talk-time to the service provider's mobile phone. Thanks to code written by a student, this was expanded into a payment-transfer service.

Vodafone was the first to spot a big opportunity here and purchased the code. It then improved upon the model and created a wide network of agents across Kenya, selling this as a service. Within 10 years, M-Pesa transactions have grown so fast that they account for 20% of Kenya's gross domestic product.

Yet, when Vodafone tried to replicate the same M-Pesa model in neighboring Tanzania, it bombed. What was so different between Kenya and Tanzania?  An IFC report suggests the following reasons:


  • Demand - urban migrants sending money back to family is not as prevalent in Tanzania and since there is less crime and insecurity in Tanzania
  • Access to Financial Services - Only 9% of the population has access to formal financial services and 54% don’t use any form of financial services. When compared to Kenya, we see that 19% of the population there has access to formal financial services and only 38% don’t have access to any form of financial service
  • Strength of Economy and Banking System - Kenya also has a stronger economy, a higher GDP (USD 890 per capita in Kenya versus USD 520 in Tanzania). 1.38 bank branches per 100,000 inhabitants in Kenya versus 0.57 in Tanzania
  • Geography and distances - Tanzania is a large country with a dispersed population so quickly reaching dealers in rural areas was difficult
  • Competition - Tanzania as Zantel’s competing service - ZPesa -- Tanzania also faces competition from informal money transfer channels such as the use of airtime as a currency
  • Business Model -  Vodafone decided that the service would be offered to local subsidiaries on a license fee model instead of the shared revenue model that was agreed with Safaricom in Kenya. 
  • Population and Customer Base - Tanzania has a population of 40 million - dispersed across Vodacom’s market share in Tanzania (41%) is significantly less than Safaricom’s in Kenya (79%) which translates into a base of 13 million customers for Safaricom as opposed to only 5.9 million for Vodacom
  • Technology - M-Pesa is delivered in Tanzania using USSD which does not require any application to be stored on the SIM card. The user dials a short number to receive a set of menu options.
  • Laws & Regulations - no national id in Tanzania -- cumbersome Anti-Money Laundering procedures -- 
  • Lack of preparation - no market survey -- pilot test only covered one aspect: The main focus of the pilot was to test the USSD gateway since the USSD channel was not used in the Kenyan implementation. 


So the key factors that prevented this useful technology from crossing borders were - population dispersion, crime rates, financial literacy and mobile penetration.

In 2013, mPesa was launched by Vodafone India, in collaboration with ICICI Bank. From the look of it, this seems to be based on the menu-driven USSD model that was used in Tanzania, and not the faster, more efficient SIM-based model that was a huge success in Kenya. Over and above the challenges faced by Vodafone in Tanzania, the Indian market was already groaning under severe competition by the time Vodafone stepped in.

Perhaps the biggest advantage it still retains is the fact that unlike other leading e-wallet services like PayTM and Oxigen, M-Pesa users do not need to have a smartphone or 3G/4G internet connectivity, to use the service.

Howver, this advantage has also been diluted with the launch of the national Universal Payment Interface (UPI now renamed  BHIM). ICICI Bank too is offering this as a service independent of Vodafone.

So, is it just a matter of time before M-Pesa turns belly-up in India?

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REFERENCES & LINKS

* mPesa India FAQs - https://www.mpesa.in/portal/customer/FAQ.jsp
* Smartphone penetration in India (2014-2019) - https://www.statista.com/statistics/257048/smartphone-user-penetration-in-india/
* mPesa launch in India - 2013 - http://gadgets.ndtv.com/telecom/news/vodafone-india-launches-m-pesa-mobile-wallet-with-icici-bank-355406
* IFC Case Study mPESA in Tanzania - http://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/3aa8588049586050a27ab719583b6d16/Tool%2B6.8.%2BCase%2BStudy%2B-%2BM-PESA%252C%2BTanzania.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
* Padmanabhan, Vishnu (2016) - http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/GOqw0yvSZqFbIB5Oxd1J2O/Transforming-the-digital-payment-infrastructure.html

Sunday, December 11, 2016

An Era of Darkness



A book launch was held yesterday at the former residence of the Commander-in-Chief of British India, now called Teen Murti Bhavan. At an estate that placed symbolically behind the imposing Viceregal Lodge, two Indians sat on the stage to launch a book, and to demolish the notion that 200 years British rule was "good" for India.

The venue at Teen Murti Bhavan - NMML auditorium - was packed. Folks who lingered outside to tuck in a few more chai-pakora's had to stand by the doorway as the author, Shashi Tharoor and historian R. Mukherjee too the stage to discuss the book, "An Era of Darkness - The British Empire in India".

The discussion took on a predictable course with Tharoor outlining the reasons why he thought a such book was necessary; the realization that most of his countrymen were blissfully unaware of the methods used by the British to systematically reduce the country from an global economic heavyweight to a basket-case, and of contemporary notions of nationalism.

One point that stuck in my mind came up in the Q&A session. An elderly person sitting on the front row asked, "Throughout history, why is it that we were betrayed by our own people?"

Tharoor skirted this question, and restricted his answer to the usual suspects - the Mir Kasim's and Mir Jaffer's - of the British Era. In introduction to his book he tosses the ball back to the other court by saying, "...when a marauder destroys your home and takes away your cash and jewelry, his responsibility for his actions far exceeds that of the servant who opened the door for him, whether hout of fear, cupidity or because he simply didn't know any better".

It is difficult to imagine that the grand quislings in our history were acting out of fear, cupidity or ignorance. The Mir's of Bengal seemed to be driven primarily by ambition, greed and self-interest. Ditto for Jaichand, the king of Kannauj, who allied with Mohammad of Ghor, to settle a personal insult, or political score with the Chauhan ruler of Delhi.

Clearly, there is something more basic at work in our minds. In a country that has always been a slow-cooking melting pot of different races, languages and habits, almost every ruler would have sought out existing fissures, divisions and rivalries to consolidate their own power-base. It is a trend that continues to this day.

Greed and self-interest was also apparent in the manner in which the audience jostled around Tharoor, doggedly ignoring all pleas to come in an orderly line. A singular lack of concern for others that was also being played out at the traffic roundabout outside where vehicles refused to give way, and slowing themselves in the process; along the footpaths where bikes and scooters rushed into a space that belonged to pedestrians, and, finally in the metro trains where perfectly healthy men squatted on the train floor, while others struggled to find space to stand upright.

Clearly, the era of darkness is yet to disappear into our history books.

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LINKS

* BL review - http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/books/uday-balakrishnan-reviews-an-era-of-darkness-by-shashi-tharoor/article9391768.ece

* IE review - http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/shashi-tharoor-book-an-era-of-darkness-british-colonialism-in-india-3741446/




Saturday, December 03, 2016

Battery Blues




Our stairwell now has a functional solar light that gets triggered with an automatic twilight switch. Yet, the circuit is not really working as I had expected, and I wonder if the problem lies in the solar panel, the charger, or the battery.

Initially the panels had been rigged to a Sealed Maintenance Free (SMF) battery I got from a friend. It was an Exide 26Ah SMF - compact,and relatively lightweight at ~8 kg. The trouble was that even after getting charged by the 60Wa panel in over five hours of clear sunshine, it would not get the ~12W LED panel to run for more than a few hours.

Perhaps this was because the battery had got discharged after lying unused for more than a year. So, based on an online tutorial, I pried open the sealed valves and poured in a bit of distilled water in all its compartments. This did not seem to work either, with the LEDs going blank after about 3-4 hours every evening.

At this stage I purchased a dedicated solar battery from Okaya. This one was a 40Ah tubular battery, weighing more than 15kg. Big, heavy and designed for the outdoors.  In theory it was expected to hold about 480 Wh of juice (40Ah x 12V). It worked just fine the first night. The lights switched on automatically at dusk (5:30PM) and stayed on until daylight turned the twilight switch off (6:30AM). In effect, during this 13-hour duration it should have used up about 156Wh (12W x 13 hrs).

Again, in theory, there should have been about 324 Wh remaining in the battery (480 Wh - 156 Wh). Yet, within two days, the battery turned out to be completely discharged.

Okaya was a bit tardy when it came to servicing warranties but a service engineer turned up and checked the battery. It was showing an output of 12.31V on the multimeter, but after checking all the six compartmetns with a hydrometer, he declared that the  battery had indeed got discharged. Aparantly, the density (specific gravity) of the electrolyte had dropped way below 1.265 for a fully charged battery.

The next day, he came with a charger (16V), plugged the battery to the mains and said that it would get recharged in the nex 24 hours. All the caps were left oepend during charging because he expected it to bubble during the charging period.

Now the solar lighting system seems to be working perfectly fine, even though I continue to be nervous about the voltage drops. A dusk-to-dawn operations brings down the battery voltage to 11.86V, and it looks like the 60Wa panel is not really doing its job of topping up the battery even when there is bright sunshine for ~5 hours every day.

So, finally, the key questions that need answers are -
  • How does one measure the juice remaining in a battery? 
  • If the 60Wa panel is not doing its job, should I get an additional panel?
  • Is the LED panel consuming more than the 12W, as claimed by the vendor?

8 Dec,, 2016 - Update:

So far, my understanding of solar systems has been guided by the WWW, shopkeepers and technicians who had many years of installing systems. Yesterday, I finally met somebody who was not only a hands-on expert but also one of the pioneers in the solar ecosystem in India -- Yeshwant Thakur, ED of Surya Kiran Technologies Inc.

One look at a pic of my hastily assembled unit and he pronounced that I had been wasting my time and money. The "Tata BP" solar panels were cheap imitations that could never deliver 60Wa; the charge controller was a rip-off, and, I did not have to buy a separate twilight switch in the first place!

A dusk-to-dawn sensor, built into the CC was all that was needed. It would simply sense the incoming current from the panels to decide that the ambient light was not enough, and to turn on the light circuit.

Also, if the battery needed 10 "chappatis" of sunlight, it the panels had not been giving it even the bare minimum of two (6Amps), even while the LED lights were making it work overtime. So, in the absence of sufficient current coming in from the sunlight, the battery had gone back into deep-discharge mode. The only solution was to get the battery charged on the mains, once gain, and to get a new panel that feeds in at least 100Wa (6A) to the battery.

Wish I had met YT before seeking advise from the quacks at Bhagirath Palace!

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REFERENCES & LINKS

* All about lead acid batteries - http://all-about-lead-acid-batteries.capnfatz.com/
* Lead acid battery charging basics - http://www.powerstream.com/SLA.htm
* DV Voltage Drop Calculator - http://photovoltaic-software.com/DC_AC_drop_voltage_energy_losses_calculator.php

* Video - Using a hydrometer to test batteries - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRcOqfL6GqQ
- A lead acid battery cell is fully charged with a specific gravity of 1.265 at 80° F.

* Maintaining SMF batteries - https://dmohankumar.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/how-to-maintain-maintenance-free-battery-tech-focus-5/

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Bridge That Went Too Far

A debate is raging over one of India's first "successful" Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects.

The Delhi-Noida-Direct (DND), an arterial, privately-built road connecting NOIDA to Delhi has been declared toll-free by the courts, and the company in question, ILFS-NTBCL, is trying it best to return to status quo.

By all accounts, the status quo seems like a perfect sweetheart deal where the private company keeps on making handsome returns in perpetuity, at the cost of the public.

The DND story begins in the early 1990s when the country had just initiated major economic reforms and its public infrastructure was in a woeful state. A company formed by retired government bureaucrats, IL&FS, won a contract for building the road-bridge in 1997. The construction was completed ahead of schedule, and the bridge was opened in 2001. Under the contract, the company was to get an assured return of 20% return on investment, over a 30 year period.

What exactly was the investment involved? Now this is where things start getting murky. IL&FS reported that engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) cost was Rs 193 crore. The cost for acquiring the land, facilitated by the Noida administration, was just Rs 11 crore. On to this amount, the company added an a huge  "management fee" of about Rs 200 crores, bringing the total cost to Rs 378 crores.

As if this was not enough, the Total Project Cost (TPC) was calculated ex-post and remained open-ended to include just about anything (with zero-risk to IL&FS). This ensured that the TPC and the toll-rates could be revised upwards with each passing year. It also ensured that the "20% assured return" would always remain unmet, and the total cost spiraled to Rs.5,000 crore in 15 years!

In 2001, the government was wet behind the ears about PPPs. Soon after the DND project was completed it realized that the private developers were leading it by the nose, and came up with a series of measures to ensure fair-play and public accountability in PPP contracts. By 2005, Model Concession Agreement (MCA) were ready for PPP projects, along with samples of other documents like Request for Qualification (RfQ) and Request for Proposal (RfP).

So what happens to the contract that was signed between IL&FS and the government (UP & Delhi)? The company, quite naturally, continues to claim that it has the legal right to do as it pleases.

Fortunately this issue has come to a head with the filing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The Allahabad High Court noted that NTBCL had “recovered all reasonable returns” on its investment, and was no longer entitled to collect toll. The company filed an appeal to the Supreme Court which tossed it aside with a note of sarcasm - "You have only ten kms of highway", the bench said, "and you claim that you have made a road to the moon"!

A follow-up study is now analyzing the company records for the profits it has made so far. It would be interesting to know exactly how the ex-bureaucrats went laughing all the way to the bank.

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* Puri, Pradeep (2016) Article by the ex-IAS officer who joined IL&FS -
"Making the DND Flyway Toll Free can Ring Death Knell for Private Investment in India"  http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/making-dnd-flyway-toll-free-can-ring-death-knell-for-private-investment-in-indias-infrastructure/

* Rejoinder - Mohanty, Nalini (23Nov16) - "Why the DND is a Virtual Sellout at Public Expense" - https://www.newslaundry.com/2016/11/22/why-the-dnd-is-a-virtual-sellout-to-private-companies-at-public-expense

* Mint (2Nov2016) - http://www.livemint.com/Politics/sh9pNZbfTPnt7r0ZPjxjtI/Price-of-making-DND-Flyway-free-to-use-amounts-to-Rs5000-cr.html


* DNA (28Oct2016) - http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-dnd-flyway-row-you-ve-not-built-a-road-to-moon-sc-tells-noida-toll-firm-2268316
* Indian Express (28Oct2016) - http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/issues-and-arguments-how-a-key-delhi-noida-bridge-went-toll-free-3730051/

* Singh, Abhinav Prakash (10Apr2013) -- Delhi-Noida Toll Bridge- Loot in the name of Public-Private Partnerships (An excellent primer!) -- http://centreright.in/2013/04/delhi-noida-toll-bridge-loot-in-the-name-of-public-private-partnerships/#.WDVCctV97IU

* Chandran, Rahul (2007, Mint) - http://www.livemint.com/Companies/GaP1xmYycrKNl8KPvvcFEK/With-DND-he-paved-the-way-for-smooth-publicpvt-partnership.html

* Qunit (16Oct16) -- https://www.thequint.com/videos/2016/10/27/bigger-loss-toll-free-dnd-means-commuters-face-ticket-less-mess-noida-allahabad-high-court
- the court noted that “the Concessionaire, according to their own financial statements, has recovered Rs 810.18 crore (approx) from toll income from the date of commencement of the project till 31.03.2014 and after deduction of operation and maintenance expenses and corporate income tax, the surplus was Rs 578.80 crore.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

LED Brightness




What makes some LEDs brighter - and more durable - than the others?

The Maglite Solitaire has a tiny LED that uses a 1.5V AAA cell to produce 47 lumens. On the other hand, the standard bulb distributed by electric utility companies like UPs PVVNL uses 7W from the grid to produce 700 lumens of light.

In terms of lumens per watt (lm/W), the stardard measure of lighting efficiency, the Maglite stands at 33.5 lm/W and the UP bulb at 100 lm/W. Both are small change compared to recent innovations from companies like Philips which have produced lighting units that can produce more than 200 lm/W!

However, as anybody who has used a Chinese LED bulb/panel would attest, it takes a lot more than just lighting efficiency to measure durability and useful life of an LED bulb.

Considering the fact that the super efficient LEDs from companies like Nichia-Japan and Philips are beyond the reach of regular users, is there any global standard that sets the benchmark for LEDs that strike the best balance between lighting efficacy and affordability?


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LINKS

- Top 10 LED manufacturers - http://www.ledsmagazine.com/articles/2011/02/strategies-unlimited-unveils-top-ten-list-of-led-manufacturers.html
- Maglite - http://maglite.com/shop/maglite-solitaire-led-1-cell-aaa-flashlight.html#.WCoFWNV97IU
- Philips - now more than 200 lm/w - http://www.philips.com/consumerfiles/newscenter/main/design/resources/pdf/Inside-Innovation-Backgrounder-Lumens-per-Watt.pdf
- Super high luminous efficacy - http://phys.org/news/2010-08-white-super-high-luminous-efficacy.html
- Energy storage in batteries - http://www.allaboutbatteries.com/Energy-tables.html

De-monetization in India


At 8 PM on 8th November 2016, Prime Minister Modi made a surprise announcement: Currency notes for INR 500 and INR 1000 were being declared invalid with almost immediate effect. 

The stated objective was to put an end to black money, terror funding and rampant forgery.

Six days later, I continue to be impressed with the secrecy and swiftness with which this decision was implemented. At the same time, it is clear that was not thought through. For one, it is astounding that the RBI would design and print currency notes that does not fit into standard ATM machines. 

The shock and awe tactics does seem to be having some effect on people who had got accustomed to hoarding cash. Consider these examples - 

- Big Bazaar Noida has been selling grocery cash-cards like never before. From 8 Nov., they have been open till midnight, selling cards to ladies lining up with wads of 500/1000 notes. They bought up whatever is available and walk away saying, "Keep the change!"


- At Sector-18 market, on 8 Nov., jewelry shops were open till midnight and the sales personnel hit their six-month target in just four hours!

- The sweepers and cleaners at Tower-3, Unitech South City, Gurgaon, discovered that some resident(s) had dumped poly-bags full of currency notes down the garbage-chute. All the notes had been carefully snipped with scissors so they were of no use to anybody.


- Just about all ATMs in the NCR Delhi region have  serpentine queus of people waiting to use the ATMs. Most of them are young, unemployed boys working on a commission basis - for every INR 4000 withdrawn, they pocket INR 400.

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LINKS


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Gilded Cocoons




Cocoons are usually drab and unremarkable. It is the multi-colored caterpillars and butterflies that get all the attention.

As if to disprove a point, something unusual was seen today on a milkweed tree (Calotropis procera) in our neighborhood. Tucked away under a calotropis leaf, I came across one of the most beautiful cocoons I have seen so far.

It is designed as though a jeweler was creating a line of cocoons under the category 'Understated Elegance'. At first sight it looks only neat and compact, like a shapely fruit dangling on the leaf. And then you notice something glinting in the winter morning sunlight - a neat line of golden dots that mark a ridge, and then, a few more of these gilded dots scattered as a parting flourish, on the lower side.


A few days down the line, an Oriental Plain Tiger butterfly will emerge from a tiny hole, just above those golden dots, wait for its crumpled wings to dry and unfurl, and then fly away.

The question that dangles in the air is - why would the butterfly want to advertise its presence, at the most vulnerable stage of its life-cycle, by having such an eye-catching design on its cocoon? What could possibly be the evolutionary advantage of having that gilded design on your sleeping bag?




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LINKS

* Butterflies of India - Oriental Plain Tiger - http://www.ifoundbutterflies.org/sp/744/Danaus-chrysippus
* Calotropis procera -- http://monarchbutterflygarden.net/milkweed-plant-seed-resources/calotropis-procera-milkweed-tree/