Will Hydroponics Scale In India? While hydroponics helps in saving water, land and water resources, experts believe using the right tech to negate the impact of higher upfront costs is the need of the hour
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The increased demand for fresh and chemical-free food in cities has led to a boom in urban farming in India. Hydroponics, a method of farming that involves growing plants without soil, in particular, is today being used by many startups including Barton Breeze, UrbanKisaan, Pind FreshTriton, Living Food Co and Kaze Living Agro2o, among others.
Many venture capital firms that invest in agritech startups have shown heightened interest in these startups lately. A key reason is hydroponics uses 95 per cent less water, and claims to be 20-40 times more efficient.
Problems hydroponics addresses
With the increasing population, the water usage in agriculture is also constantly increasing. Around 70 per cent of the world's freshwater is today being used for agriculture. Moreover, in India, more than 50 per cent of the population doesn't have access to safe drinking water and because of the same, about 200,000 people die every year. The world's population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 and water scarcity is expected to increase. Hydroponic technology claims to keep up with food production by offering a sustainable way to grow crops without soil and using vertically stacked layers while reducing water usage by about 90 per cent.
Hydroponic technology, according to experts, can save water, land and labor resources. Especially, in an urban and peri-urban context, where space is available at a premium, hydroponics goes a step further and solves for this constraint as well since it eliminates the need for available soil, and allows multiple layers of farming in a relatively confined space.
"Part of the success of any farming operation has historically been linked to the ability of a farmer to respond to biotic and abiotic influences during the crop cycle. Examples of biotic influences include disease and pathogens, and examples of abiotic influences include temperature and sunlight. Protected farming, of which hydroponics and aquaponics form one part, deals with the challenges posed by external stimuli by choosing to control biotic and abiotic parameters instead of responding to them," said Reihem Roy, partner, Omnivore.
He added that by controlling the physical environment in which a crop is grown, and by controlling its exposure to biotic agents it would otherwise be subject to in the open field, farmers can focus more on crop yield and crop quality, and less on crop survival and crop damage. "While specific objectives might differ as per strategy, this encompasses the core upstream solution that every protected farming startup is trying to offer," said Roy.
Additionally, as our economy moves upwards of $2,000 per capita GDP, focus on quality agri output will be naturally in demand and hydroponic technology solves the quality problem.
"Hydroponic method of agriculture is gaining popularity because traditional farming is becoming non-remunerative, water is increasingly scarce, and soil less fertile. Many new-age startups have entered into this space as supply and logistics infrastructure developed in the last couple of years in India. The market opportunity is huge as India's hydroponics market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13.53% between 2020 and 2027," said Abhishek Agarwal, managing partner, Rockstud Capital.
Need for India-centric approach
While hydroponics seems a good option to keep up the food production despite the water crisis, experts feel that to make it a viable business model, it is important that startups don't blindly replicate Europe or North America. "Hydroponics can work in India but not without adapting to localized needs. While western hydroponic research has focused on replacing sunlight, which is admittedly scarce in many parts of Europe and North America, this is less of an issue in India where sunlight, for the most part, is abundantly available," said Omnivore's Roy.
Allowing hydroponics to focus on crops where they have a proven advantage is the keyword. "This should be added with encouraging both open field cultivation and orchards to focus on crops where they have an advantage (i.e. staples, tubers, pollinated crops, and fruits) will ideally result in an optimized food production strategy for a country like ours," he said.
The cost and maintenance factor
Hydroponics technology has often been criticized for its high setup cost compared with normal farming as one needs to purchase all the necessary equipment. For instance, the temperature controlling system requires cooling pads, temperature sensors and fan systems. Additionally, it requires huge maintenance, unlike soil-based gardens.
According to Barton Breeze, the final cost for setting up a hydroponic farm in one acre of land will be INR 110 lakh to INR 150 lakh, excluding the price of land.
"Historically, the set-up cost has been very high considering lack of innovation to Indianize the technique. The majority of the set-ups have been done by importing the key raw materials required for setting up the farms thereby driving the cost high, leading to growing only high-value crops like lettuce, basil and other exotic herbs," said Vihari Kanukollu, co-founder, UrbanKisaan. The Hyderabad-based hydroponics startup claims to have brought down the set-up cost by almost 90 per cent, making it almost the same costs as traditional farming.
"We can grow crops such as brinjal, carrots, gourds and more due to the proprietary germplasm suitable for such a technique of growing which never existed before. We are working towards bringing this technique to mainstream agriculture by adding more crops and lowering the costs so more farmers can have access to alternative techniques of farming," he added.
These startups also do not agree that the maintenance cost is higher than traditional farming. If the right technology is used, the cost can be brought down, they claim. For instance, UrbanKisaan claims that its farms are managed through its proprietary technology and nutrient content, pH levels, atmospheric humidity, CO2 concentration, light concentration and other important parameters are controlled and adapted to the needs of the particular plants with an app, thereby it requires the same amount of resources as traditional farming.
Similarly, hydroponics R&D often assumes space is a constraint that in turn demands stacking in hydroponics farms, which is often not as pressing a constraint in a setting like ours. "When combined, this allows for hydroponics farms in India to rely on natural light, while also allowing for fewer stacks; this results in significantly cheaper capital and operational expenditure," said Omnivore's Roy.
Startups and VCs also say that maintenance in hydroponic farms can be planned in advance and both automated as well as optimized. A smart hydroponics operation, once installed, can be run with little effort and little cost if on-farm SOPs are implemented and followed with discipline.
Omnivore's Roy believes that while any protected agriculture setup requires higher capital expenditure than open field cultivation, the results that protected cultivation generates in terms of yield and crop quality (reduced losses), often compensate for this. "Financial products that allow farmers to defer the impact of the higher upfront costs of protected farming, till the aforementioned benefits can offset them, are the need of the hour," he sums up.