Innovative agri start-ups take root

Pushing the growth of farm production is necessary not only to achieve a GDP target of 8%, but also to meet rising demand for food


Agriculture accounts for 14% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) and about 11% of exports. Photo: Mint
Agriculture accounts for 14% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) and about 11% of exports. Photo: Mint

Eliminating the middleman with a missed call

ULINK BIOENERGY PVT. LTD

Set up in: 2012

Founders: Shardul Sheth and Sitanshu Sheth

Shardul Sheth (left) and Sitanshu Sheth. Photo: Yogesh Joshi/Mint.

There are usually three or four layers of agents, dealers and distributors between farmers and the farm inputs they want to buy, each adding to the farmers’ expenses. To eliminate these intermediary layers in agricultural purchases, Shardul Sheth and Sitanshu Sheth developed a mobile commerce solution called AgroStar, in 2012.

The entire purchase cycle is triggered by a single missed call from a farmer’s phone. An AgroStar customer care executive returns the call and takes down the purchase order—anything from pesticides to fertilizers and manures—from the farmer.

The order is then delivered directly to the farmer through state transport systems or courier services.

The Pune-based start-up, registered under the company name ULink BioEnergy Pvt. Ltd, has its warehouse in Ahmedabad. The company is fully operational in Gujarat and has sold Rs5-6 crore worth of goods (gross merchandise value) since its launch. The company has more than 100,000 farmers registered with it and has received about 150,000 missed calls till date.

ULink, which raised a round of funding from social venture fund Aavishkaar early last year, is looking to expand to Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the next 12 to 18 months, said Shardul Sheth, one of the founders.

Making drip irrigation affordable

DRIPTECH INDIA PVT. LTD

Set up in: 2008

Founder: Peter Frykman

Peter Frykman. Photo: Yogesh Joshi/Mint.

Traditional irrigation needs high water pressure and costs about Rs50,000 per acre of agricultural land, but with Driptech, Indian farmers pay just about Rs15,000 per acre and can work even if the water pressure is low.

It all started when Peter Frykman took a course called Design for Extreme Affordability during his doctoral studies at Stanford University. He designed low-cost irrigation systems for developing countries such as Ethiopia and India. In 2008, Frykman dropped out of his PhD studies to help launch his drip irrigation system in India.

The Pune-based start-up provides drip irrigation solutions that suit the specific needs of small and marginal farmers—India is home to more than 120 million farmers with less than five acres of land each.

The laser manufacturing technology used in these systems works even under conditions of intermittent power cuts and low water pressure. The system can be installed by the farmers themselves without any technical assistance. The installation, otherwise, costs between Rs500 and Rs1,500 per acre.

Driptech India Pvt. Ltd, backed by private angel investors in the US and the Khosla Impact Fund, has helped irrigate around 21,000 acres of agricultural land across India, and the company plans to expand to other parts of Asia and Africa soon.

Developing organic traps for pests

BARRIX AGRO SCIENCES PVT. LTD

Set up in: 2011

Founder: Lokesh Makam

Lokesh Makam.

Farmers can suffer major losses while harvesting fruits and vegetables, as upwards of 30% of the produce can be damaged by fruit flies and other pests.

Barrix Agro Sciences Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore-based agriculture start-up, was founded in 2011 with the aim of finding solutions to this issue.

Lokesh Makam, founder of the company, decided to use his knowledge of pharmaceuticals in order to create a range of organic products. The three main products are fruit lures and traps, vegetable lures and traps, and a “magic sticker”.

The fruit and vegetable lures and traps are built on the concept of the male annihilation technique, where special pheromones (secreted or excreted chemicals that trigger a social response in members of the same species) are used to lure male flies and destroy them. The fly trap can hold up to 5,000 dead flies in a container. And the magic sticker is a bright yellow- or blue-coloured organic adhesive sheet, which is placed near the plant to attract flies. Each sheet can trap more than 7,000 flies.

Barrix’s range of solutions costs about Rs2,500 per hectare. Usually, traditional pesticides cost about Rs50,000 for a single crop. The company, which raised a round of funding from Omnivore Partners, a social venture fund, last year, plans to explore markets in Europe and the US in the coming year.

Enriching the soil

ANULEKH AGROTECH PVT. LTD

Set up in: 2012

Founder: Sagar Bhansali

Sagar Bhansali. Photo: Nayan Shah/Mint.

Chemical fertilizers and water are lost during the agricultural cycle through a process called leeching. This prevents crops from getting maximum nutrition from the fertilizers present in the soil.

To reduce leeching and destruction of nutrients in the soil, Sagar Bhansali has introduced a new technology called biochar-based organic soil amendment technology (BIOSAT). This organic carbon-based powder is spread along the roots of crops and acts like a sponge by absorbing water, nutrients and chemical fertilizers in the vicinity. It also increases microbial activity in the soil, making it richer.

Mumbai-based start-up Anulekh Agrotech Pvt. Ltd was founded in 2012, and the product was launched in late 2013 “after much research and development”. Bhansali claims that using BIOSAT helps decrease water requirement by 25-30% and chemical fertilizer requirement by 25-50%. Although the product is not a complete replacement for fertilizers, it is said to help increase production yield by 20-100%.

Anulekh, which has sold hundreds of tonnes of BIOSAT in Maharashtra and Gujarat, according to Bhansali, has not raised any external funding yet. The company plans to explore a few other agricultural states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana over the next few years.

Software touch for agriculture

FRONTALRAIN TECHNOLOGIES PVT. LTD

Set up in: 2010

Founders: Sreeram P., Jayaram Srinivasan and Ravi Mandayam

(from left) Sreeram P., Jayaram Srinivasan and Ravi Mandayam. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

Seeing mismanagement as a huge opportunity for technology to penetrate into the food and beverage sector, three former employees of software company SAPSreeram P., Jayaram Srinivasan and Ravi Mandayam—launched an enterprise software solutions firm called FrontalRain Technologies.

“Agriculture is an underserved market and requires very industry-specific solutions. Look at Oracle, SAP, etc. They are all expensive, and need constant IT management,” said Sreeram, one of the founders of FrontalRain.

The Bangalore-based start-up helps agricultural traders and farmers with the management of supply chain (logistics) processes. There are five different software solutions for five different processes: contract farming; quality control management; front-end distribution; large- and high-volume produce collaborations; and providing software solutions for agriculture-related non-governmental organizations.

FrontalRain has more than 100 customers across India, the Middle East, Africa and Thailand, serving more than 5,000 clients with various applications. The company, which focuses on 12 agricultural commodities, raised its first round of funding, of around $1 million, from social venture fund Omnivore Partners in 2012.

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