- Hydroponics is a way of growing plants by immersing the roots in water and nutrients, eliminating the need of a soil-base.
- Macro and micronutrients in the water are directly fed to the plant, helping it to grow faster.
- Plenty, a San Francisco-based company has raised almost half a billion-dollar investment; Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk has invested in a company named Square roots with a similar concept.
- “In India, if you can capture a 3% market share in this, you will be a billion-dollar company,” said Gopal.
It is true that technology is an enabler and can be used to solve large problems. Technology has revolutionised every industry over the years, and food and agriculture are no different. Machines are replacing labour work and organic farming is becoming the new culture.
Similarly, amid the tall buildings of Chennai’s neighbourhood, Perungudi is Sriram Gopal’s farm- FutureFarms. Unlike an ordinary farm, this is based on a newly popular and successful type of farming, hydroponics.
In a freewheeling conversation with The Blue Circle, Sriram Gopal, Founder, and CEO, FutureFarms discussed the hydroponics technology, the headwinds to the adoption of technology in agriculture, and the prospects in the near term.
Hydroponics is a way of growing plants by immersing the roots in water and nutrients, eliminating the need for a soil-base. Macronutrients like nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium nitrate, and micronutrients like manganese, zinc are added in the water solution and are directly fed to the plant, helping it to grow faster.
The process does not require regular monitoring as the water is required in a fixed quantity every 15-20 days. The focus is on providing the right amount of nutrients and water to the roots.
Controlled farming, feeding, and watering increase the yield significantly compared with the soil-grown crop in the same area. Since the plants are grown without soil, no chemicals are used and soil-borne diseases are prevented. Organic fertilisers are used in case of any bugs or pests. Gopal believes that any crop can be grown using this technology. With hydroponics, crops have a better chance of attaining their genetic potential.
“The best part of growing your own food is that I know what it contains,” said Gopal. “I can be assured that there are no pesticides in the food that my family eats,” he added.
It is a sustainable form of farming that uses limited resources without compromising the quality of plants. Wider acceptability of hydroponic farming can assure healthy and nutrient-rich food especially in times of crisis such as the Covid infection.
There are different versions or sub-parts of hydroponics such as aeroponics, aquaponics, deep water culture, and so on. The difference lies in efficiency and applications. Certain technology might be better suited for specific crops. For smaller root-based crops like lettuce and green leafy vegetables, the NFT hydroponic system could be the best method. Similarly, different technology might work better with deep-rooted plants.
An aeroponics technology could be more water-saving but one has to take other factors such as cost implications and the type of crops into account.
Gopal advised that if anyone plans to venture into hydroponics, he should not get carried away by the technology but understand the value chain and business really well. It’s imperative to get a hang of the ecosystem and customers’ needs.
An electronics and communications engineer by profession with a degree in business and marketing strategy, Gopal’s tryst with sustainability started way back when he launched his first IT product start-up in this space.
But, Gopal likes to call FutureFarms a knowledge company that provides solutions rather than a technology start-up. The idea is to convert technology into an appliance so that no expert is required to operate it. Gopal stumbled upon this fascinating technology on a BBC documentary on YouTube.
His family has been in the business of setting up photography labs, so he had first-hand witnessed how technology can be used to turn a highly skill-oriented business into a gadget-oriented process. Using hydroponic, he saw the possibility of making the same transformations in agriculture.
So, he along with his father built a few prototypes in their house and saw immediate results. Amazed by the progress, Gopal decided to set up a small vegetable farm in a 3000 sq. ft area behind his factory and kept nurturing the garden on weekends.
After working on the farm for almost six months, he understood that this concept is no rocket science and one doesn’t need to be an agriculturalist to venture into this set-up.
To his pleasant surprise, many people came on board and became part of something that he then called a project.
“I just wanted to sell the surprise factor of growing the plants only on water,” said Gopal.
An initiative that started as a Sunday project has rapidly grown into an experienced and well-trained team that has deployed over 50 successful farm installations since the launch in 2014.
“Within the next five years, we should be in the top 3-4 globally for this particular solution,” he shared.
The Issue with Indian Farming
Gopal doubts that being among the top producers of wheat and rice in the world is an achievement. His educated guess is that maybe India has been tricked into this. “The world has dumped this on us due to the high amount of water and resources used to grow these crops. Sugarcane, Rice, and Cotton are the most resource guzzling crops and we are depleting our natural resources faster than anyone else.”
“It’s cheaper for foreign countries to buy these crops from India as we are not accounting for the cost of resources in the prices,” said Gopal. “Whereas Holland and other developed countries bank on crops that give them high value per square feet area with less resource intake,” he added.
Also the issue of malnutrition is not only because of calorie deficiency but due to lack of nutritional content too. India is home to one-fourth of the total hungry people and an average Indian is shrinking.
Why India Lags behind in Agri-Tech
Gopal reckons there’s a policy mismanagement issue. “It is our inability as a nation to provide jobs and the person who gets pushed to the last stage of unemployment takes up farming. They are often non-professionals and constitute more than half of the country’s population.
“Which country proudly says that we got Indian technology and improved our farming process,” asked Gopal rhetorically. We have not focussed on innovation in agriculture as most farmers in our country are stereotyped to be poor and farming is believed to be labour-heavy.
There are all types of farmers in the country and the technology has to come from the top. Several countries run R&D centres and research institutes that perform cutting-edge work. Once they succeed, universities are mandated to implement the technologies on their campuses for students to learn and work. Post the testing, technology or knowledge is sent to the industries for commercialisation purposes.
Whereas, in India’s case, there’s a complete disconnect between research agencies and universities. We follow a reverse-cycle in importing most technologies from abroad.
“It’s been 6-7 years now and many agriculture colleges don’t even have hydroponics in their syllabus,” said Gopal with a concern.
Today, hydroponics suffer from a lack of scale. He bets that if hydroponics is applied to 20% of the current scale of production then its average price will be lower as compared with the average price of a crop grown traditionally over the year.
To make technology a part of Indian agriculture, one has to re-consider the entire process. For the sector to flourish, disruption needs to happen from the businesses. They should be allowed to form clusters and operate like any other industry which gives them a better-negotiating power as well.
From an investment point of view, India has been afraid to make the first-move in new technology. Most of it has been influenced by investments made in the foreign market in that technology. However, the future of the sector is bright and post-Covid, Gopal expects investor sentiment to go up.
Few Examples in Hydroponic Space
Globally start-ups in the hydroponic spaces have been flourishing recently. Plenty, a San Francisco-based company has raised almost half a billion-dollar investment; Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk has invested in a company named Square roots with a similar concept. Another Berlin-based start-up has closed $100 million Series B funding and there are many more such examples.
The adoption of hydroponic farming has increased in India also in the last few years. For instance, Linesh Pillai started Terra Farms in Manori as a pilot project before taking the idea countrywide. Delhi has Triton Foodworks, Noida has Nature’s Miracle, Chennai has Rahul Dhoka’s Acqua Farms, and Gurugram-based company, Barton Breeze, has six farms across Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand.
The multiplier effect is visible and it seems that the technology is here to stay. If not for all the crops, the method will become popular for certain plants from efficiency and earnings points of view.
“In India, if you can capture a 3% market share in this, you will be a billion-dollar company,” concluded Gopal.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)
- None Found