Severe droughts have drained rivers and reservoirs across parts of India, and more than half a billion people in the world’s second-most populous nation are estimated to run out of drinking water by 2030.
Signs of this are apparent in farms, which consume the vast majority of total water supplies. Farmers have been struggling in India to grow crops, as they are still heavily reliant on rainwater. Those with means have shifted to grow crops such as pearl millet, cow peas, bottle gourd and corn — essentially anything but rice — that use a fraction of the water. But most don’t have this luxury.
If that wasn’t enough, Indian cities are facing another challenge: The level of harmful chemicals used in vegetables has gone up significantly over the years.
A Hyderabad-headquartered startup, which is competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield this week, thinks it has found a way to address both of these challenges.
Across many of its centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore that look like spaceships from the inside, UrbanKisaan is growing crops, stacked one on top of another.
Vertical farming, a concept that has gained momentum in some Western markets, is still very new in India.
The model brings with it a range of benefits. Vihari Kanukollu, the co-founder and chief executive of UrbanKisaan, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup does not use any soil or harmful chemicals to grow crops and uses 95% less water compared to traditional farms.
“We have built a hydroponic system that allows water to keep flowing and get recycled again and again,” he said. Despite using less water, UrbanKisaan says it produces 30% more crops. “We grow to at least 30-40 feet of height. And it has an infinite loop there,” he said.
Kanukollu, 26, said that unlike other vertical farming models, which only grow lettuce and basil, UrbanKisaan has devised technology to grow over 50 varieties of vegetables.
The bigger challenge for UrbanKisaan was just convincing businesses like restaurant chains to buy from it. “Despite us offering much healthier vegetables, businesses still prefer to go with traditionally grown crops and save a few bucks,” he said.
So to counter it, UrbanKisaan sells directly to consumers. Visitors can check in to centres of UrbanKisaan in Hyderabad and Bangalore and buy a range of vegetables.
The startup, backed by Y Combinator and recently by popular South Indian actress Samantha Akkineni, also sells kits for about $200 that anyone can buy and grow vegetables in their own home.
Kanukollu, who has a background in commerce, started to explore the idea about UrbanKisaan in 2018 after being frustrated with not being able to buy fresh, pesticide-free vegetables for his mother, he said.
Luckily for him, he found Sairam Palicherla, a scientist who has spent more than two decades studying farming. The duo spent the first year in research and engaging with farmers.
Today, UrbanKisaan has more than 30 farms. All of these farms turned profitable in their first month, said Kanukollu.
“We are currently growing at 110% average month on month in sales and our average bill value has gone up by 10 times in the last 6 months,” he said.
The startup is also working on reaching a point within the next three months to achieve $150,000 in monthly recurring revenue.
The startup has spent the last few quarters further improving its technology stack. Kanukollu said they have cut down on power consumption from the LED lights by 50% and reduced the cost of manufacturing by 60% per tube.
Kanukollu said the startup works with five farmers currently and is working out ways to find a viable model to bring it to every farmer.
It is also developing a centralized intelligence atop convolutional neural networks to achieve real-time detection to find more harvestable produce, and detect deficiencies in the farm.
UrbanKisaan, which has raised about $1.5 million to date, plans to expand to more metro cities in the country in the coming quarters.