While insect farming is at an experimental stage, the startup has made headway with its main thesis, which is to enable farmers to diversify into animal products that have a global demand but underdeveloped supply from India
It was hard to find the farm in a forest area near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. But an entrepreneur looking for it got plenty of directions from locals, because everyone there had heard of the idiosyncratic farmer growing black soldier fly larvae. The protein-rich worms make for a great poultry or fish feed.
The flies grow in a confined space where their larvae feed on copious organic waste. Bucketfuls of worms are taken out before they grow into flies. Only some remain to continue the cycle.
What left a lasting impression on the visitor, more than the sight of such a unit, was the smell. “It’s just as well that it has become customary to wear a covid mask," quips Prasanna Manogaran, founder and CEO of Aqgromalin, a Chennai-based startup that wants to help farmers diversify.
The visit to the fly farm led to Aqgromalin setting up a similar unit in Chennai for research and development. The startup is collaborating with a European insect feed company to explore scaling this up in India, where the tropical climate is ideal for these flies. “Two-thirds of the cost of aquaculture is the feed, most of which is imported," points out Manogaran.
While insect farming is at an experimental stage, the startup has made headway with its main thesis, which is to enable farmers to diversify into animal products that have a global demand but underdeveloped supply from India. These include quail, duck, various kinds of fish and even delectable mud crabs.
A lion’s share
Shrimp accounts for the lion’s share of aquaculture export from India and an ecosystem of hatcheries, technology and market linkages has grown around it. Far less developed is the farming of other gourmet creatures like mud crabs that are highly valued in Japan, Europe and the US.
Ironically, neighbouring Sri Lanka is known for its mud crab provenance, whereas one of the main varieties, scylla tranquebarica, derives its scientific name from the Tamil Nadu coastal town of Tharangambadi, formerly known as Tranquebar.
Chennai also houses the Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture. What’s missing is a channel for small mud crab farmers to get the know-how, inputs and global market links. Aqgromalin aims to fill that gap in mud crabs as well as its other products.
It’s too early for the startup to link up with exporters for its diversified produce. That will happen once it has enough farmers in any product line to ensure a substantial supply. Right now, it’s working with 120-odd farmers to validate the concept and build linkages.
It launched an app called Aqai this month, which lets farmers in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka place bulk orders for live inputs like fish seeds, quail chicks, ducklings and mushroom spawn. This cuts out middlemen and provides farmers with assured quantities.
“Currently, the problem a farmer faces in a Krishi Vignan Centre is that he has to stand in a queue waiting to see how many quail chicks are rationed out depending on how many farmers show up," points out Manogaran.
The app isn’t confined to those with Aqgromalin micro farms, but it’s not for hobbyists who want to get some Aseel Cross chicks for their garden or grow some murrel fish in a tank.
Manogaran’s first venture, Axiom Academy, which provided training to engineering students, was acquired by Nexus Capital Ventures-backed recruitment startup TalentSpring in 2013.
After leaving TalentSpring in 2016, Manogaran wanted to work at the grassroots level to raise the income of small farmers. His initial idea was to connect them to exporters of agricultural commodities. But as he went deeper, he realized the untapped scope of diversifying into aquaculture and animal husbandry.
Along with co-founder Bharani C.L., who left research firm Frost & Sullivan to join him in 2018, Manogaran came up with a “micro farm" concept. The idea was that the farmer could continue with what he was growing but set aside a small area for something new.
“We kept three things in mind. The investment should not exceed ₹1 lakh, the farmer should get returns in four to six months, and it should not be labour intensive," says Manogaran.
Apart from helping set up the micro farm and providing inputs like fish seeds, ducklings or mushroom spawn, Aqgromalin has a unique buyback option.
The startup commits at the outset to buy the micro farm output at a predetermined price 25% lower than the market rate. The farmer is free to sell the output in the open market if he gets a better price later, but can fall back on Aqgromalin if prices fall or some of the output is unsold.
Sales are a fly in the ointment for small farmers and that’s just one of the problems with diversification that Aqgromalin is trying to solve.
Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org