It’s safe to say that we all know the basic components of farming. Seeds, water, sunlight and most importantly, soil, which forms the base for any successful harvest. But what if I told you that there exists a technique that allows you to grow plants out of thin air? Yes, that’s right. I am talking about aeroponics.
Aeroponics is a cultivation method in which the roots of the plant remain suspended in the air and the plant grows without the use of soil as a medium. This technique was first discovered in the West in the 1940s.
Perhaps the biggest merit of this farming technique is that it is not subjected to the vagaries of weather conditions like excessive rain or no rain, along with factors like pest attacks.
Although aeroponics may have caught on in the West, in India, it is still in a nascent stage. However, a Coimbatore-based Agriculture Engineer has mastered the technique after over 10 years of research and development!
Meet Prabhu Shankar who has grown over 18 types of different vegetables using Aeroponics. Additionally, by following his version of aeroponics, one can achieve a level of productivity that is 15 times more than conventional agriculture. Also, as for water, his aeroponic setup uses only 10 percent of what is used in traditional farming methods.
So, Why Aeroponics?
“Small farmers do all their work on their own. But, in the case of farmers who are into commercial agriculture, farm size is a problem. Managing different aspects of agriculture in big farms like crop selection, irrigation, applying fertilisers can be a difficult task. Also, these farms need large amounts of water when we are already facing water shortage,” states the 47-year-old.
However, the best feature of this controlled agriculture technique is that it allows you to grow seasonal crops all round the year!
To make this technique more accessible to commercial farmers, Prabhu launched his startup ‘Neoponics’, under his company Neoponics Projects India Pvt. Ltd, in January 2019. Neoponics provides the services of setting up customised aeroponic farms, known as ‘neo farms’, to commercial farmers.
A Passion for Agriculture
If you ask Prabhu about his work experience, you will perhaps get an idea of how his life has revolved around agriculture from the beginning.
He graduated with a degree in Agriculture Engineering from Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth located in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra in 1995.
Fresh out of college, he joined as a consultant at an irrigation company. He managed projects, helped his firm commercialise their technology, supervised the installations and trained people working in the company.
Hailing from an agricultural background, Prabhu wanted to innovate in this space to make farmers’ lives easier. Thus, in 1998, he quit his job and started his own proprietary firm – IAC Agro Inputs. He had a team of about six people, all with expertise in the field of irrigation.
“Under this firm, my objective was to leverage the irrigation tech which was already existing with farmers, for additional benefits. We came up with something called the ‘fertigation injection’ tool where one could integrate liquid fertiliser in their irrigation system, a technology that wasn’t available in India at the time,” he explains.
The impact of this company was that IAC ended up managing farms on a project basis and this technology impacted over 100+ farmers in Coimbatore.
Ten years into the business, Prabhu realised that the operations for this venture couldn’t really be scaled as they were deep into managing each farm project and they did not have the resources to grow bigger. So, he dissolved the company in 2008 and decided to work henceforth in technologies that could be scaled continuously.
“During this time, I got increasingly interested in controlled agriculture practices. My observation was that in conventional agriculture, the farmer does not have full control over the production processes and the yield,” he says.
In the course of working with farmers and in the field of irrigation, Prabhu came across aeroponics and began reading about it.
His research finally saw the light of day ten years later in the form of his startup Neoponics, the operation for which started in June 2019.
Growing Produce From Just Air
When Prabhu was conducting R&D, he was sure about the objectives his innovation had to fulfil. The first thing he wanted to achieve was to be able to grow crops without worrying about the environmental factors.
Secondly, all the produce had to be toxin-free and lastly, the production should be able to meet the market demand.
His 26-acre farm in Thalavady that he bought in 2001 became the field of Prabhu’s experimentation. Here, Prabhu was already growing sugarcane, bananas, capsicum, cucumber, and tomatoes for commercial purposes. This ensured that there was a steady flow of income during the 10 years of his research into aeroponics.
Over the years, he mastered the climate control technology which involves growing produce in a closed and controlled manner. He developed special nutrient solutions needed for each crop, free of any kind of pesticides. He also created the mineral compositions for at least 20 crops and everthing was completely organic.
To test his agricultural technique, he set up a 10,000 sqft aeroponics farm where he grew a total of 15 crops like tomatoes, potatoes, brinjal, beetroot, carrot, onion. Subsequently, he also developed the devices needed for the aeroponic farm set-up:
- Thermo Hydro Plant that controls the grow-room humidity, temperature, and sterility.
- Process solution temperature control plant, which controls the temperature of water
- Mineral Dosing Plant, an intelligent mineral injection for plants
- Modular crop production platform, the structure where the crop is planted
These are the systems that come with the ‘Neo farm’ set up. The farm set-up usually takes about three months to be installed and the startup is still working towards standardising the costing. Currently, it depends on the size of the farm and the customised requirements of the customer. Also, the tech involved in the set up helps in online monitoring of the farm through sensors integrated into devices.
Neoponics first does a site visit for their clients to understand the topography to establish the farm. The first month is the dry run period where they fix all the system features and the first commercial crop cycle starts in the fifth month. For two years, there is complete hand-holding from the startup’s end where the staff is present at the site to monitor all the processes.
Currently, Neoponics has two corporate client projects, one of which is a pilot project that is under wraps. While the other client is a Pune-based client whose farms are located in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district.
Entrepreneur Arindam Paul started his venture, KVB Nutra Products Pvt Ltd in 2018, which manufactures toxin-free medicinal herbs like moringa and turmeric for the nutraceutical industry. The entrepreneur had a chance meeting with Prabhu back in 2013 through a common friend in Coimbatore.
“When I first met Prabhu, the whole idea of growing plants out of thin air sounded crazy to me! But, when I saw the productivity in his farm and the benefits in relation to productivity and conservation of resources, I was sold!” says the 48-year-old.
The entrepreneur got the aeroponic set-up installed on his one-acre plot even before the startup was formally started.
“For me, it is important that my produce is toxin-free because of the nutraceutical sector that I am supplying to. The water use is extremely minimal, almost 1 per cent of what I would have perhaps needed in the case of conventional agriculture. The yield too, is 10 times more and I can produce these crops throughout the year without having to worry about any failure or pest attacks. What’s better than that?” he smiles.
Challenges of the Agripreneur & Looking Ahead
Although the startup is relatively new and it hasn’t been too long since operations began, Prabhu has had to overcome many challenges to reach this point.
“The 10 years of research and development was a challenge in itself. There were so many times when I would experiment with crops and it would fail. Also, when a client approaches us for a farm set up to grow a crop where we haven’t standardised the nutrient composition, the R&D for that takes a lot of time,” he explains.
Regardless, after 10 years of struggle, Prabhu truly believes that no challenge is difficult and that with persistence one can achieve anything they set their mind to.
So, what lies ahead for Neoponics?
Prabhu mentions that currently, they are working on integrating artificial intelligence into their farm setup. This would help in reducing human effort required in the management of the farm operations. Additionally, they are also working towards making the farm set-up be easily adopted by smaller farmers by reducing the cost of manufacturing and making the concept easy to understand by simplifying the processes.
“I hope that by scaling our aeroponic farm set up, we help farmers in meeting the food demands by reducing the environmental costs. This means more productivity on a smaller piece of land with minimal use of resources like water and no involvement of pesticides. The idea is to make agriculture a sought after venture for future generations,” he says signing off.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)