India’s foray into hydroponics, will it usher in a new green revolution?

The technique of hydroponics is commonly underrated, even though when compared to traditional farming it has more benefits. Gradually it has been gaining popularity in India, and a number of business models around it are emerging in the market. To get a sense of what’s going on, we spoke with several business owners who have built their empires on hydroponics.

   
Indians building businesses on hydroponics, can it usher to new green revolution

The hydroponic technique, known colloquially as soilless farming, is widely accepted and is gaining popularity.

Research platform DataM Intelligence predicts that this market will grow at a CAGR of 13.53 per cent, during the period of 2021-28 in India. 

Big drug companies such as Himalaya, Dabur and Patanjali are already using hydroponically cultivated herbs in their concoctions. Simultaneously there has been a dramatic increase in new-age hydroponic farms and start-ups that are leveraging this technique and taking the agriculture industry to the next level in recent years. With a tech-based hydroponics setup, they are growing medicinal plants, aromatics, berries, leafy greens, micro greens and various other plants.

“Hydroponics means growing plants without using soil. In this process, water is utilised. A hydroponic setup is a protected environment, plants absorb nutrition from the nutrients present in the water, provided through NFT channels or plastic gullies. No pesticides are used. So, the produce is healthy, the yield is three to four times higher, and it utilises less than 10 per cent water, compared to the open field method,” explains Amit Kumar Verma on a Zoom call.

Verma is the CEO of Brio Hydroponics, an emerging agritech start-up based in Ahmedabad.

His firm is doing extraordinary work in modernising hydroponics. And they assist the next generation agripreneurs who are doing soil-free, nutrient-dense farming by providing hydroponic solutions to them. Currently, they are collaborating with an Israeli tech firm to bring rain protection technology to India, which will protect hydroponic crops during heavy downpours.

Doing agriculture with hydroponics has multiple advantages over the conventional methods, that’s why it’s gradually becoming popular among the agri entrepreneurs in India, he says.

What makes it lucrative

Using hydroponics reduces water usage by as much as 90 per cent, uses 80 to 95 per cent less land, and fruits and vegetables can be grown all year round. It supplies enough food in a sustainable fashion and frees up large tracts of land to revert it to its natural state, thus restoring the ecosystem. At the same time, it also offers a new strategy for conserving drinking water.

“It’s precision farming. It’s done within the greenhouse structure, under the best microclimate, which can be controlled. Agripreneurs can do crop planning according to the market requirements. They can even do it close to the point of consumption. So, logistics costs come down as well. In a nutshell, it’s a very sustainable business model for forward thinkers to address the growing demand worldwide,”

Verma elaborates.

However, there are other reasons as well that are driving new farmers and agripreneurs to adopt hydroponics.

It’s a problem solver

Hydroponics can be an alternative to traditional farming methods, remarks Rajesh Aggarwal, Managing Director, Insecticides India Limited. As an expert in the field, he feels hydroponics can solve some of the global issues.

For starters, we are staring at an impending food security crisis. Then, manmade disasters due to deforestation and climate change are also calling out for innovative solutions. Considerations like these are the driving force behind the emergence of sophisticated and water-smart technologies such as hydroponics.

Aggarwal explains, saying, “The world is gearing up to house about 9.8 billion people by 2050 and it is staring at increasing food production by at least 70 per cent. Globally, owing to unsustainable irrigation practices, 70 per cent of the water on earth is being used for agricultural production. About 38 per cent of earth’s land, except for the frozen parts, is used for growing food and by 2050, an estimated 593 million hectares of land, double the size of India, will be needed to meet the projected calorie needs of the global population. Therefore, it is feared that many ecosystems may vanish and manmade disasters due to deforestation and climate emergencies may be aggravated. In turn, the pursuit for food may end up threatening food security, especially in dry or water-stressed countries like India.”

In addition to this, various practical issues are also driving the growth of the hydroponics market in India.

Those issues are shrinking farming land and vanishing agriculture practices, says Verma. Elaborating on this, he comments that India is witnessing rapid urbanisation, which is causing the rural regions to shrink. Also, the traditional farming practices are not productive anymore due to their lack of technological innovation.

“However, with developing agritech, IoT, ML and AI hydroponic setups are becoming an alternative to the conventional methods. More farmers are becoming aware and even urban people are adopting this technique and are setting up greenhouses and hydroponic setups together. For instance, I have noticed many IT, IIM guys and even NRIs working on hydroponic projects and developing business models out of it,” he avers.

Hydroponics is the new business model

Because of the opportunities that this technique can bring to the table, you will be amazed to see the number of new start-ups and MSMEs that are coming up with business models around hydroponics.

For instance, Ramveer Singh from Bareilly is an agriculture enthusiast and has turned his three-storey home into a giant hydroponic setup.

“At present, the farm is spread across a 750 sq. meter space, hosting over 10,000 plants. I grow all seasonal vegetables with hydroponics. The system is designed using PVC pipes and circulates the water with the help of gravity. This arrangement ensures that about 16 nutrients reach the plants by introducing them in the flowing water,” he says.

Besides that, he also trains people under his firm called Vimpa Pvt Ltd and has been developing hydroponic systems for others. From this business his turnover is around 70 to 80 lakhs.

Meanwhile, this technique is not limited to just the farming community, unlike what most people tend to believe.

Inside article-Indians building businesses on hydroponics, can it usher to new green revolution

Gardening through apps

One such app is the Agro2o, which provides a personalised and cloud-connected plug-n-play indoor smart garden based on hydroponics.

“Everybody loves greenery. But it’s a hassle to take care of it and nobody wants to come home to dead plants after a long day’s work or a weekend’s vacation. On the other hand, I was fascinated with hydroponics due to its many advantages. It’s a clean technology which has lot of potential to resolve all the current practices which are not sustainable in the long run. I wanted to integrate this idea. So, I started Agro2o in 2018 with a focus on technology as a tool to bring hydroponics into the mainstream and make it accessible to anyone, not just farmers,”

says Yash Vyas, it’s founder over a call.

Vyas’ company has created a data-driven platform that uses intelligent automation and data to make hydroponic farming possible. “We have devised a smart garden, Renaissance—a software, hardware integrated device for the B2C segment. It’s an app operable platform and with it anyone can grow plants, even kids. And the other plug & play, data driven solutions are for the B2B segment i.e., hydroponic farms,” informs Vyas.

Vyas heavily invested in R&D, patented and launched Renaissance in July of this year which is priced at Rs 20,000. And he is getting a great response, he told us, even though fewer people are aware of hydroponics and Agro2o. They are developing marketing strategies to raise awareness. “We are the first company to come up with such a product. It’s easy to operate, just like an electronic appliance, and it’s best for urban setups. And it makes growing plants a hands-on experience. While the produce you get is fresh and nutritious. Going forward we want to make our solutions more affordable, whether it’s for B2B or B2C,” he further elaborates.

Currently, his start-up is experiencing a robust revenue growth month on month. His roadmap includes initiatives around hydroponics and to increase his outreach, which he says he is working on currently and he remains steadfastly positive about the potential and future of hydroponics.

Eating mindfully

Another business model that’s using this progressive technique in a different way is Gurugram based Tokarii. It’s a cloud kitchen that was launched this year in October.

Talking to us on a video call, its founders Aditya Kapoor and Jatin Katyal explain the concept and how they have incorporated hydroponics into their business.

“We were following hydroponics for a long time and are quite vocal about it. And then COVID-19 accelerated the trend of healthy consumption. When we started working on our brand Tokarii, we consciously decided that whatever we offer, must be ethical. As we were clear about the clean sourcing of our ingredients, we decided to use hydroponically cultivated produce in our cloud kitchen,”

says Kapoor who left his corporate job this year to operate Tokarii.

“After returning to Delhi, I pondered over the idea of starting a venture. So, Aditya and I decided to do something in the F&B industry. As my father is into the global organic food industry since the past 25 years, we got multiple insights from him as well,” Katyal, a musician turned entrepreneur and partner in Tokarii adds in.

Currently, the company is running on the start-up model. They have close-knit employees and are delivering food via their online food delivery partners—Zomato and Swiggy. “We are still investing as it’s a bootstrapped company. In two months, we will be launching our own website to market our salad boxes. In six to seven months, we are targeting to raise funds through either VCs, HNIs or friends and family,” says Katyal.

Tokarii’s main focus is sourcing, as their tagline, ‘Mindful Sourcing’ aptly states. Hydroponically grown vegetables and greens are used, cheese is sourced from Himalayan vendors, and other items are sourced locally to support local businesses. Some more reasons to source hydroponic produce are that it has a longer shelf life, is chemical-free, is more nutritious, and tastes better than regular produce. Tokarii has begun serving sliders, sandwiches, salads, and sides made from freshly procured supplies from a Delhi-NCR based hydroponic farm.

Hydroponics vis-a`-vis businesses

Similar hydroponic related businesses are coming up in various genres in India. And the experts we spoke to believe that it’s a healthy sign for the hydroponics market in India.

“I believe that this market has a vast scope, and it is growing at a steady rate in India and overseas. And it will continue to grow because the capital consumption in India is huge. And focus on healthy consumption is on the increase as well. Hydroponics is the right step in this direction. At the same time, it is precision farming, the produce has more nutritional value and a longer shelf life. Besides F&B, the nutraceutical vertical is also leveraging hydroponic technology, so the businesses that are into it are making more revenue than anybody could have imagined,” elaborates Brio’s Verma.

Still, in spite of this technique being so progressive, it continues to remain underrated.

Businesses and most Indian farmers need more persuasive motivating factors to adopt this technology. As there are some reasons that are making them shy away from it.

For starters, Indian farmers are still unaware of this technique. Despite the fact that hydroponic farming is a thriving start-up sector in urban India. Even if they decide to try it out, the process of micromanaging temperature and humidity is too technical for them. A single flaw in maintaining the ambient temperature can result in significant crop losses.

Secondly, hydroponic farming is capital-intensive. “The price increases due to the infrastructure required for it, as one needs to maintain lots of factors to do this kind of farming such as the pH level, temperature etc,” says Katyal.

Verma also weighs in, saying, “The process requires a lot more input in terms of money and time. Its protected cultivation done in a net house or poly house. Vertical slabs and a robust fertigation system are required. So, the input cost is higher than it is in the open field system. But if you compare the benefits versus the input costs, the benefits will outweigh the costs. And if a farmer can do it with good planning, within three and a half years they will get the best ROI out of it.”

To uncomplicate things and to motivate businesses to enter the hydroponics market, Aggarwal feels it will take more tax cuts and incentives to encourage people to adopt this technology, which has been done at an experimental level so far. 

“As an agricultural technology, hydroponics will need support to create an enabling environment to offset the initial high cost of setting up a hydroponic farm. With the right incentives and motivation, hydroponics may become a viable means for growing water-intensive crops like paddy. Until then, Indian agriculture will be reliant on micro irrigation systems (MIS) such as drip or sprinkler irrigation that have worked well for water-stressed states such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan,” he asserts.

The bigger picture

Hydroponics is a win-win situation not only for the consumers, who benefit from healthy, organic food, but also for the farmers. It’s a better way of doing agriculture, says Verma. “We need to focus on the bigger picture. Hydroponics has immense potential in India. And in the near future, it will be the answer for many challenges such as arable land availability and climate change. It’s not labour-intensive and is tech based, so everything will be a click away,” he elaborates.

Because you can control the environmental factors around them, hydroponic plants have a higher growth rate with a higher yearly yield and a higher nutrient quotient that is worthy of export.

Also, it has become more imperative for all of us to adopt hydroponic techniques post the pandemic. Due to which the agriculture industry was hit very hard, initially due to the halt on farming in the open fields and then due to the ensuing labour shortage, leading to a massive loss in revenue for most farmers. Moreover, countries also realised their over dependence on imports of food materials and hence began emphasising on internal and domestic production.

Considering these factors, experts believe that hydroponic farming can usher in the next green revolution and make a significant difference to the Indian agriculture industry.