Home >News >Business Of Life >For this startup, the contest is in the shrimp tank

The sound of shrimp feeding, magnified many times, would be much like us munching kurkure. On India’s modern shrimp farms, hydrophones record the tiny marine creatures crunch away inside ponds. Software analyses the sound real time to control feeding. This is among the many uses of IoT in aquaculture.

The long coastline of Andhra Pradesh is dotted with ponds growing shrimp for world markets, contributing to India being the world’s top shrimp exporter. Not surprisingly, startups have been wading into these ponds with technology to improve their productivity and reduce risks.

Among the early starters is Vijayawada-based Eruvaka, whose ShrimpTalk IoT device monitors the sound of shrimp eating and provides inputs to another device, called PondMother, that uses AI-based analytics to calibrate feeding based on appetite. This not only reduces wastage but also leads to better growth of the shrimp by providing feed at optimal times.

The first user of Eruvaka was Hanumantharao Duggineni, who grows shrimp in 27 ponds in Tangutur village near Ongole on the Andhra Pradesh coast. His father took up shrimp farming, while Duggineni studied engineering in Coimbatore, and then joined a construction firm in Hyderabad. What brought Duggineni back to the shrimp ponds was a disaster that wiped out the crop in 2012 and caused losses of 1 crore because of a power cut one night.

Cutting losses

Ponds such as these with a high concentration of shrimp depend on aerator machines to maintain their dissolved oxygen (DO) levels. Generators come on during power cuts but the aerators had to be switched on manually. A few hours without the aerators can kill the shrimp, as on that night of December 22, 2012, on Duggineni’s 85-acre farm.

The date is imprinted on Duggineni mind. “The power went off around midnight but the operators and supervisor slept through it. The next morning, we saw tonnes of dead shrimp."

The next year he started looking into technology for aquaculture and came across Eruvaka, founded in nearby Vijayawada in 2012. The startup had launched its first device, PondGuard, which provides real-time monitoring of DO and pH levels in shrimp ponds. Today Duggineni and others get alerts on their mobile phones when DO levels drop, which helps avoid shrimp deaths. It also reduces power bills by automating running of aerators.

“It was a learning curve for both of us," recalls Sreeram Raavi, CEO and founder of Eruvaka. “Not many farmers would have tried a new device. But Hanumantharao was tech-savvy and took a chance with us. It’s not technology alone but ground-level knowledge and feedback that go into a product like this."

After PondGuard, Duggineni used Eruvaka’s ShrimpTalk and PondMother devices to automate feeding. The auto-feeder system has twin benefits, he explains.

PondMother spreads feeding through day and night, unlike the traditional manual way, which is to dump large amounts of feed four or five times a day. The auto-feeder reduces wastage and input costs, by providing shrimp with the right amounts of feed when they’re hungry.

“A human food dispenser will put out 20kg of feed in 10 minutes. The active shrimp will grab it, the less active ones will miss it. The uneaten food pellets settle at the pond bottom, spoiling the water and causing diseases," says Duggineni.

In contrast, the auto-feeder dispenses 20kg of feed in 4-5 hours. Think of it as drip irrigation. It brings down the amount of feed required by 40-50%, which is a significant saving given that feed accounts for half the expenditure on a shrimp farm. Shrimp farmers calculate expenses on the basis of feed consumption ratio (FCR), or the amount of feed used for every unit of shrimp harvested. Duggineni has an FCR of 1.6, while manual feeding takes it to 2.8.

Insights from shrimp behaviour also go into calibrating the auto feed. Shrimp are gluttons in the summer months when temperatures are warmer, but extra feeding doesn’t contribute to growth. It’s the opposite in the winter when they tend to eat less than they should for optimal growth.

Covid-related challenges

The second benefit of the auto-feeder is reduced dependence on farm labour, which has become even more uncertain in the post-covid scenario. Shrimp farmers are facing several covid-related challenges, such as disruption of cold storage and exports. But technology is helping them manage aquaculture better.

Duggineni points out that the number of live shrimp can be accurately estimated right up to harvest, whereas earlier the output of a pond was anybody’s guess. This helps everyone from the farmer to buyers and others on the supply chain to plan better and conserve resources.

“If a buyer comes to the farm expecting a five-tonne harvest and gets only three tonnes, he will bargain with us to lower prices to cover his wasted expenses on transport and storage," he says.

Although Eruvaka ran its first pilot projects on farms in India, like the one in Tangutur, it was on larger shrimp farms in Ecuador that it found a stronger product-market fit. “A farmer from Ecuador found us on Facebook and ordered two devices. He tried those for a month and then ordered 300 devices," recalls Raavi. Bulk orders such as this were a godsend for a fledgling aquaculture IoT device maker.

In 2018, Netherlands-based aquafeed-maker Nutreco invested in Eruvaka, whose first backer was Indian agritech VC Omnivore. The Nutreco connection helps it to scale and expand across Latin America as well as Southeast Asian shrimp-producing countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.

The Eruvaka devices have gone through several iterations and improvements over the years. One of the early challenges for the startup was figuring out why sensor data was going erratic after a couple of weeks. It turned out to be a buildup of algae on underwater devices. Initially a manual cleaning protocol was introduced, but later a self-cleaning mechanism was built into the devices so that they could run for six months without the need for human intervention.

“What differentiates us from other players on the ground is the thought that has gone into the detailing of these devices since we started in 2012," says Raavi. The breakdown of auto-feeders because of power fluctuations in rural areas prompted Eruvaka to adapt their machines to use solar power. That has lowered the breakdown rate significantly.

New requirements keep arising as Eruvaka enters new markets. Shrimp farms in the US that use certified organic feed want the analytics engine to look out for traces of various chemicals. In India, the focus has been on avoiding the use of antibiotics which used to be the usual practice to make shrimp grow faster—until the rigours of the export market made it a no-no.

Malavika Velayanikal is a consulting editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu

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