By Sidharth Rath
IN CONVERSATION WITH DEEPAK SRINIVASAN, CO-FOUNDER – crofters.
Founded in 2016, Crofters – the Chennai-based food technology startup aims to localize food production by developing automated farms leveraging the strengths of IoT and aquaponics. The brainchild of NIT Trichy graduates of 2014 batch, Ashish Khan and Deepak Srinivasan, Crofters is among the few Green Tech startups in India.
The first product of Crofters is the Crofters Ecosystem, an intelligent living room farm. In the coming years, the startup aims to use the data and learning from the Ecosystem to develop larger vertical farming solutions.
Read the full interview below:
Sidharth Rath: How did it all begin? What’s the Crofters’ origin story?
Deepak Srinivasan: While working on a side project related to home automation we wanted to apply the core strengths of IoT on a more fundamental problem. As we saw an enormous scope of automation in agriculture- one of the oldest industries of mankind and being familiar to aquaponics, we decided to do small prototypes to validate our idea of small automated farms.
In the beginning of 2016 we started coming up with various small prototypes and then after months of designing and fabrication, we came with our first MVP in June 2016.
We started Crofters with the aim to localize food production.
SR: What is the problem that you are solving with Crofters?
DS: With an increase in urbanization and population, we often compromise on the quality of food by using harmful chemicals, pesticides, and preservatives to meet the growing needs of the people.
More than 50% of the food is wasted in transportation even before it reaches us, as the areas of food production are highly displaced from where the food is actually produced.
We at Crofters want people to know and understand where their food comes from by creating a system that can grow healthy organic food. We have built intelligent, self-cleaning, aquaponics systems that help people grow completely organic food in the comfort of their homes.
Crofters is for passionate gardeners living in crowded apartments without a backyard space or a terrace of their own.
We have combined nature and technology to build intelligent systems with a mobile app and sensor units which help control and monitor all ecosystem parameters remotely. And all this comes with zero-maintenance. Users can use the system to grow vegetables, herbs or small fruits.
With our technology, we are on our way to localize food production, so that the food we eat need not travel and can be locally grown.
SR: Why do you think this a problem that needs solving?
DS: In India only 30,000 hectares is under poly-house or covered cultivation. The national average vegetable yield is 17 tons/Ha, whereas in developed countries it is at least 40 tons/ha. As per the latest available 2014 figures, only 17% of agricultural land is used for horticultural crops, giving a total of 270.46 million metric tons of horticulture production.
The availability of vegetables per day per person is therefore just 374 grams. In a study performed by the National Restaurant Association of India and Technopak, the food services market in India is estimated at $48 billion. In five years, this value is estimated to rise to $78 billion – that is nearly what the Indian IT industry currently exports.
While volumes are picking up, restaurant owners are looking to cut import bills and chefs are exploring ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the dishes they create. Air transport of food implies higher energy consumption resulting in carbon emissions.
Exotic lettuce grown in India could be 30 per cent cheaper than the imported ones. Imported cherry tomatoes can cost 1,000 rupees a kg whereas the domestically produced ones could be priced at 200 rupees. Demand-driven exotic vegetable production is suitable for the farmers as they have an assured market through contract with consumers. This exotic vegetable market is increasing day by day, since India is importing more than 85% of its supply of exotic vegetables. This translates to a growth rate of 15 to 20% per annum. With Crofters Soilless Controlled Environment agriculture technology, we can fuel and enhance this growth. This is an exciting and robust sector!
SR: What is the Crofters Ecosystem? Why should I grow my own food?
DS: The Crofters Ecosystem is a living system.
At the intersection of hardware, software, and ecology, the Ecosystem is a thoughtfully crafted fun, educational, and rewarding experience.
In the Crofters Ecosystem, the user can grow a majority of leafy greens, vegetables, and herbs such as – broccoli, eggplant, cabbage, kale, lettuce, basil, oregano, chives, pak choi, mint, peppers, tomatoes, radish, strawberry, wheat grass and lot more. The Crofters App has the details of plants which we can grow in the ecosystem. The ecosystem has a 330-square inch main Grow bed with 7-inch root zone where you can grow 2 times more the number of plants compared to traditional systems.
The experience of growing your own food is one its kind, and the ecosystem makes it hassle free. It gives more control over your own body as what you eat makes you, by growing what one needs the person has full control!
Now Available for Preorder here. (Chennai/ Bangalore)
SR: Is the Indian household ready to embrace intelligent indoor gardening systems?
DS: Consumers’ increasing disposable incomes and growing urbanisation are driving the demand for premium products nationwide. People have become more conscious about health and fitness. The disposable incomes grew by 11.6% in 2015 compared to 11.1% in 2014, which propelled the growth of renovation sales for home and garden. And the organic food market growing at a rate of 25-30%. All these put together of indicators that Indian household’s are getting ready to embrace indoor growing systems as it helps them grow local fresh healthy food.
SR: Are you looking at future products with your technology that go beyond the household, operating at a larger scale?
DS: The Crofters ecosystem will be gathering user data on plant growth over a period, will set us up in the long term for doing vertical farming on a large scale. Thus, fulfilling our vision to localise food production in the country.
So in the next two years, we will be coming up with large scale solutions.
SR: What is your greatest challenge that you face today? How do you plan to overcome that?
DS: We found it difficult initially at creating world-class LED grow lights that mimic the sunlight for efficient growth of plants inside the homes. Through our continuous R&D, we have created Grow Lights that use an efficient system to mimic sunlight in an efficient manner.
And at initial stages, it was very important to find the right set of customers for initial testing of the MVP. At Crofters, we have been lucky to have a few great early adopters who have been patient and kind enough to give feedback which has helped us in shaping a better product.
We are working on creating better customer experience through our consistent R&D efforts.
SR: How is Crofters funded?
DS: We have raised a seed money of INR 25 Lakhs from Centre of Entrepreneurship and Development (CEDI) NIT Trichy. CEDI believes in our vision of localizing food production and empowering people to grow their own food. When we approached the CEDI team they saw the innovation in our product and a team which could make this product a reality and thereby went ahead in funding us.
SR: Could you talk about the role the startup ecosystem might have played in the Crofters story?
DS: When we were working on the MVP, the Chennai startup ecosystem played a very important role, we had pitched the early idea of the product in several demo days and got a lot of feedback. We even got few customers through networking at such events.
SR: What do you think about the government’s ‘Start Up India Programme’? Have you registered?
DS: We are working on being part of the program, though it is a great initiative, more clarity, and ease of access will be a welcome sign.
SR: What do you think the government needs to focus on for helping early stage startups?
DS: The availability of resources, funds, and the paperwork despite enormous efforts from the Government of India is still difficult. The online process must be streamlined with a better user interface for early stage companies to do all paperwork hassle-free. The efforts by Government on this front is truly appreciable, I just hope it becomes better.
Preorder the Crofters Ecosystem (Chennai/ bangalore):