Cover

Planting hopes in hydroponics

Meenakshi Verma Ambwani & TV Jayan | Updated on August 05, 2021

Uniform success: In hydroponic farming, the plants, mostly edible ones, are grown using nutrient rich water as well as copious amounts of sunlight

Smart farming with no soil and a controlled environment has a promising market

* At these centres, prospective buyers can learn everything they want to know about hydroponics

* Indian hydroponic market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 13.53 per cent between 2020-2027

* Prabhu Sankar has gone a step further and has set his eyes on aeroponics in which water and nutrients are sprayed on the suspended roots of plants

***

Late last year, actor Samantha Akkineni decided to don the hat of ‘Chief Millennial Farmer’ at Bengaluru-based hydroponic start-up UrbanKisaan.

She announced her association as an “investor, an urban dweller and a crazy plant lady,” with the start-up that operates several suburban greenhouse and vertical indoor farms in Hyderabad and Bengaluru.

Akkineni’s move clearly reflects the Indian consumer’s growing shift to seek fresh and sustainably grown fruits and vegetables. Even Venture Capitalists and Private Equity investors are sitting up and taking note.

Last month, BASF Venture Capital GmbH (BVC) decided to make an undisclosed investment in UrbanKisaan, its first in an early-stage business in India. Apart from selling hydroponic fruits and vegetables the start-up offers home kits starting at ₹16,500 promising consumers “the joys of farming, minus the mess.”

Hydroponics is the art of growing plants without soil as medium. The plants, mostly edible ones, are grown using nutrient rich water as well as copious amounts of sunlight. It is seen that plants grow a lot better in water provided nutrients are provided in adequate amounts.

If you are bitten by the hydroponic bug, but do not know how to go about setting up one at home, don’t worry. Help is at hand. Come August 15, a Gurugram-based hydroponic start-up Barton Breeze is launching two hydroponic experience centres in Noida and Gurugram. Calling it the first of its kind in the country, Shivendra Singh, founder of Barton Breeze, says, “Consumers can walk into these centres where they can experience the home kit before buying it.”

Picture perfect: Hydroponic and aquaponically grown vegetables create the perfect environment for plants, reducing the unpredictability of changing climates

 

Home gardening kits

The firm that combines sustainable technology and modern farming techniques, set up shop first in the Middle East before moving to India three years ago. It plans as many as 25 such store-level centres across metropolitan or Tier 1 cities by the end of the current financial year. “These centres will not only have home kits for buying, but also consumable boxes containing seeds, nutrients and growth medium. At these centres, prospective buyers can learn everything they want to know about hydroponics, even purchase produce grown hydroponically, helping them to know the quality of such produce,” says Singh.

The outfit plans to use the franchisee model for these experience centres. “Anybody can open a franchisee centre with a fee of ₹9 lakh. They can choose from three models with an estimated area of 200, 500 or 800 square feet. These centres should either be in malls or high-footfall areas. They could also be close to areas where you have a good number of residential societies. We give them a plan with a guarantee that they would be able to recover the investment in three years,” says Singh. Subsequently the firm plans to penetrate Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities and towns.

The start-up, which describes itself as a Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) specialist company, introduced home kits in August 2019. Now it has eight different models in the price range of ₹2,800 to ₹35,000. While the smallest kit can support eight plants, the biggest can accommodate 108 . The firm is also planning to launch four more models in the current quarter, Singh says.

Through research and development, Barton Breeze has designed systems that meet different requirements of customers. “For instance, there are models for people who want to keep them in the balcony. If you do not have a balcony, we have a different system for you. Similarly, there are kits that can be kept indoors where plants can be grown using artificial light,” Singh says.

In their home segment, Barton Breeze has offers 28 varieties, of which 16 are fruiting crops and 12 include varieties of leafy vegetables. These include tomatoes, lady’s finger, brinjal, chillies, and several types of leafies.

“Each cycle lasts around two months. Ideally, we do not recommend growing leafy vegetables and vines in the same kit. Growing them together poses many challenges, particularly due to nutritional imbalances, and thus leads to sub-optimal results. So, we advise buyers of home kits to grow one type of vegetable at a time. They can switch between crops (either fruiting or leafy crop) in alternate cycles,” Singh remarks.

Measuring success

Barton Breeze has been receiving a good response for its home hydroponic kits, Singh claims. There are several ways to measure it. One way to gauge the popularity is the conversion of queries into actual sales. “Last year, for instance, we received around 5,800 enquiries about our home kits which resulted in the purchase of 380 kits — that is a conversion rate of 1:15. But in the current year, during the first quarter, we sold 210 kits. Good part is that the conversion ratio has come down to 1:11. We expect a growth of 300 per cent in home segment sales in the 2021-22,” says a confident Singh.

Apart from the home segment, Barton Breeze introduced an innovative bank guarantee scheme in its commercial farming segment. Under this scheme, aimed mainly at corporate houses and HNIs, the firm assures 30 per cent return on investment annually though bank guarantees signed with several nationalised and private banks such as SBI, HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank and IndusInd Bank. The scheme, Singh says, is an instant hit and the firm has been able to close many deals in a short span of time. “Our revenue from commercial farming segment in the first quarter of the current fiscal is more than the business we did during the entire year last year. We expect to grow six times in this segment in 2021-22,” Singh says

Given the growing number of small and established players that are jumping on the hydroponic bandwagon, the key question will be whether hydroponics will see a similar growth trajectory to what organically grown fruits and vegetables have seen in recent times. 

Nutrient lab tests have shown that hydroponic produce is either as good or even better than organic in many cases. But the cost of cultivation is high by nearly a quarter in case of organic farming. 

According to a report by DataM Intelligence, though still nascent, Indian hydroponic market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 13.53 per cent between 2020-2027. In comparison, the growth in the global market is estimated at just half of it at 6.8 per cent.

According to Akash Sajith, Founder & CEO, Living Food Company, a food marketplace, awareness about hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables is growing with so many new companies coming in and spending big marketing dollars. “In terms of health and planet benefits, hydroponic and aquaponically grown vegetables create the perfect environment for plants, reducing the unpredictability of changing climates,” he says. Aquaponic farming involves growing vegetables in clean, filtered water with fish as the main source of nutrition. Fish live inside clean water tanks and are fed organic food. As fish eat and produce waste, that becomes fertiliser for the growing vegetables.

Spray farming

While many start-ups turned to hydroponics, Prabhu Sankar, an agricultural engineer-turned entrepreneur, has gone a step further and has set his eyes on aeroponics, an advanced version of soil-less farming, in which water and nutrients are sprayed on the suspended roots of plants.

Sankar, who incubated his firm at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University campus in Coimbatore a few years ago, is currently setting up a centre of excellence in Coimbatore to perfect his aeroponic technique. Aeroponics, he claims, can increase the per area yield of crops substantially, by shortening the period required to grow the crop. Also the aeroponic farming technique makes it possible to grow many rows of plants in a vertical fashion, increasing the productivity several-fold.

Sankar already has two high-profile clients — one in Maharashtra and another one in Chhattisgarh. The one-acre aeroponic farm that he manages remotely in Maharashtra’s Nanded district belongs to a big corporate house in the country. His firm grows turmeric and chillies round the year for the client on an experimental basis. Once perfected, this farm will be expanded to 100 acres to produce the spices which will be used in the company’s downstream business, Sankar tells BLink. He insists on keeping the client anonymous as the project is still under wraps. “The project is still in pilot stage. As of now we have been able to increase the yield by six times, but the target is to achieve a 10-fold increase over what can be produced conventionally. The processes are getting further refined. We hope to hit the target by December this year,” Sankar says.

Sankar’s second customer, who has an aeroponic farm in Chhattisgarh’s Raipur district, grows vetiver (khus) plants, the oil of which is used in making perfumes. Sankar manages it remotely from Coimbatore using a cloud-based server.

Whether its hydroponics, aeroponics or aquaponics, the future of farming is an exciting field into which some bright ideas have just been sown. Reaping a good yield could take some patience.

Published on August 05, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor