“On my Panvel farm, I tried growing cherry tomatoes using hydroponics but faced difficulties from day one,” says Siva Ramakrishnan, a farmer from Mumbai. He adds that the production was never up to the mark and in six months, the farm had to be shut down.
Following this disheartening stint at using hydroponics, the farmer got to know about a three-day training program that was being run in Coimbatore by a venture CityGreens.
The year was 2019 and Ramakrishnan moved cities to attend the program and eventually loved it so much that he decided to start his farming practice in Coimbatore itself. “I realized that hydroponics is a science and if you do it right it should work,” he adds.
However, life got in the way for the farmer and it was only in 2021 that he finally started farming by integrating hydroponic measures in his farm, helped by CityGreens.
The results that he observed were phenomenal. “The quarter acre farm’s harvest was more than open field farms. I started growing Indian greens here as advised by CityGreens experts, instead of lettuce which is a traditional hydroponics plant.”
Ramakrishnan was only one of the 5,000 farmers helped by CityGreens, co-founded by, Gaurav Narang.
A mission for better food
Narang, an alumnus of IIM Kolkata never imagined he would set up a venture that would one day provide Indian homes with good quality produce.
Prior to this, he worked in the pharmaceutical sector where he was involved in the supply chain of medicines. “We would provide specialty medicine and care services to patients suffering from chronic and life-threatening diseases like cancer, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, etc,” he says.
The correlation between the quality of food that people in cities consume and the diseases they are inflicted with was precedent enough for CityGreens to start their research.
“We realized there is a dearth of good quality vegetables on the production side, and low farm yields due to the traditional way of growing produce,” says Narang.
So, in an attempt to solve this problem, Narang says he decided to set up a venture in which they would procure produce from different farms and then sell it. But, it wasn’t as simple.
“When I sat down to understand the market, I realized ‘organic’ doesn’t always mean ‘free of pesticides’. Simply trying to bring order to the chaos was not a solution, as the problem was of a larger scale,” he says.
This was when he started reading up about how western countries managed to get good quality produce during harvest, and stumbled upon the idea of hydroponics.
“Through further reading, I understood that this, although an attractive option, had once failed in India on its advent. I took it up as a challenge to start a venture that would ensure large-scale production of fresh, safe and healthy food for the masses, and do this through low-cost technology that we would share with farmers across the world,” he adds.
Taking this ideology forward, in 2017, Narang quit the pharma sector to start CityGreens with his wife Shwaita. The couple was joined by Rahul Indorkar, another IIM Kolkata alumnus, as a co-founder in 2020.
How does it work?
As Narang explains, the working of the venture is divided into a series of stages.
Once a farmer approaches them saying he wants to farm using hydroponics, the team at CityGreens first understands the crop in focus.
“We then conduct research and use our previous knowledge to see if the crop has a market and is viable. Many people are under the impression that hydroponics is limited only to leafy greens, but this is not true,” says Narang.
Once the crop is decided upon, the location is assessed by CityGreens experts and then climate patterns are mapped. “This helps us understand if the farmhouse should be climate controlled or naturally ventilated.”
The planning stage takes around a month. Following this, the team either sets up a polyhouse or integrates hydroponics technology on the farm and continues visiting the farmer at different times throughout the weeks to assess the performance.
“During these weeks, a dry run is conducted to check the technology, and then our agronomists visit the farmers to help them with transplantation of the vegetable saplings,” he adds.
By integrating their automation into the farm, farmers can ensure that human errors are eliminated, and productivity is increased.
Increasing efficiency of farms
CityGreens has four farms in Ahmedabad, out of which three are hydroponic and one is indoor, and another is a hydroponic farm in Bengaluru.
“The food we grow here gets supplied to companies like BigBasket. Milk Basket, Gabbar Farms, and retail stores, etc. through which the food is sold to end consumers,” he says.
The IoT technology suite that they have commercialized is being used in more than 20 farms across Indiaand their farm in Uttarakhand started in 2021 is the first fully automated farm in India for growing medical cannabis using aeroponic technology.
Along with this, the team has also set up several indoor vertical and polyhouse hydroponic farms for farmers across India. These include cities such as Almora, Haridwar, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Selam, Coimbatore, Hyderabad and more.
“We have set up more than 25 farms in the last couple of years,” says Narang.
Something for everyone
While their aim is to make every farm in India ‘smart’, CityGreens has ensured that through their offerings, everyone benefits.
“We provide kits, nutrients, lights, and other inputs for hobby growers,” says Rahul, adding that these kits are developed and manufactured by them. “We have more than 600 cities in India using our products to grow food for their consumption,” he adds.
He mentions that they help commercial growers in the setup of hydroponic and indoor vertical farms, including the concept, design, set-up, agronomy and sales support to the farmers for a period of 1-year post setup.
But for the three co-founders, success tastes sweeter as they began by having no knowledge about agriculture.
Working closely with farmers
“Coming from a successful entrepreneurial background and then trying to get our hands dirty by growing food ourselves was not something that was encouraged by many,” says Shwaita, adding that people did not think of farming as a respectable profession back then, especially for a woman.
However, this never stopped her or the other two founders from achieving what they had set out to.
“Today, people are more aware of health, the prices and acceptance for hydroponic food which is quite good. This ensures good profitability and income for CityGreens and also for other farmers who are early movers and adopting these technologies,” says Narang.
For their work, CityGreens was awarded a Rs 65 lakh grant from the Government for their venture.
Last year the venture saw a turnover of Rs 8 crore and the trio could not have been happier.
“Everyone is looking to work and make money to survive. But we are lucky that we are able to do this while helping farmers and doing our bit of good in the world,” says Narang.
Edited by Yoshita Rao