The protected environment of the greenhouse lowers costs on pesticides, while increasing yield to nearly 60 tonnes of capsicum a season, compared to the earlier 22 tonnes an acre in the open field
Like any farmer, A.R. Aswatha has a number of things to worry about—the weather, pests, fluctuating prices, and so on. But last year, he slept better than his neighbour in Anur village of Sidlaghatta taluk in Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka.
Capsicum is the main crop of both farmers. But while his neighbour sold his capsicum at rates ranging from ₹12 to ₹28 per kg, Aswatha was assured of the ₹30 a kg in his contract with Bengaluru agritech startup Clover that picks up the produce from his greenhouse. He knows the market rate can go up to ₹60 a kg when there’s a shortage, but he’s happier with a steady price.
He’s also less vulnerable to the weather and pests than his ancestors who grew vegetables for consumers in Bengaluru 65 km away for aeons. He adopted precision farming with greenhouses three years ago. An agronomist from Clover visits the farm periodically to advise him on cultivation schedules and crop maintenance, as well as introduce new vegetables like zucchini.
Clover wasn’t Aswatha’s first brush with agritech. Earlier, he had engaged with FoodTechIndia, an Indo-Dutch venture. “I had a tie-up with them for two crops but the problem was support. Clover’s regular visits help," says Aswatha.
The protected environment of the greenhouse lowers costs on pesticides, while increasing yield to nearly 60 tonnes of capsicum a season, compared to the earlier 22 tonnes an acre in the open field. He expects to recover the cost of the greenhouse structure in three years. Most of all, he likes the new predictability of his farming.
His produce is collected from the farm and he gets weekly payments. He doesn’t have to take the produce to the government APMC market in Chikkaballapur, 18 km away, haggle with middlemen, or chase delayed payments.
“Assured returns give me the confidence to go ahead with cultivation without compromising on input costs," says Aswath.
For Clover, the ring of greenhouses it supports around Bengaluru helps it tackle the fundamental issue of predictability and consistency of horticulture output to match urban consumer demand.
“We do the orchestration for our network of farms," says Avinash B.R., co-founder of Clover. “We know which farmer is going out of cycle for a crop and the appropriate time for another farmer to plant the crop keeping in mind the demand for that SKU."
Avinash is from an automotive background, having been a manager for Bosch before diving into entrepreneurship. He likens Clover’s approach to that of Toyota specifying quality and quantity of components from vendors and supporting them to produce the parts. “That’s the kind of industrial approach we are bringing to a volatile entity like farming," he says.
For consumers, Clover wants to build a brand that promises quality in perishable vegetables. “We pick up produce and sell to consumers, which makes the supply chain agile and fast," says Avinash.
They have been rattled by the pandemic. The startup was serving hotels, restaurants and retailers who had predictable demand until covid-19 struck. Then it scrambled to a B2C model, reaching out to kirana stores and apartment complexes. The next step will be a website and app for consumers to order directly. “We were looking at B2C down the line, but covid has advanced the timeline," says Avinash.
The switch to B2C isn’t easy. B2B sales teams had to be redeployed, and new systems built. All this while ensuring farm produce was picked up and distributed in time amid lockdowns. One of its warehouses was in a quarantine zone in Bengaluru; half the workers showed up at the other. Two of the co-founders pitched in, sorting, grading and packing. “The first three or four weeks were intense," says Avinash.
Direct to consumer
A positive outcome from the pandemic was a spike in enquiries from farmers, including floriculturists, affected by traditional sales outlets shutting. But that meant managing a doubling of SKUs from 40 to 80 and rolling out best practices for farmers in new areas.
Avinash and his co-founders, Santosh Narasipura, Gururaj Rao and Arvind Murali, are childhood friends who grew up and studied engineering in Bengaluru. They came together to create an experimental farm near Nelamangala in Bangalore Rural in 2018. Then they started getting other farmers to adopt the model.
They got seed funding from Accel and Mayfield while they were in stealth mode. In February, just before the pandemic, Omnivore led their series A round of $5.5 million, and last month it got debt funding of nearly $1 million from Alteria as its progress was accelerated by covid. Clover has expanded to Hyderabad with its hub-and-spoke model.
Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at email@example.com