India is the second-largest producer of onions in the world. In 2019-2020 the country exported 11,49,896 MT of fresh onions to the rest of the world. And 28.32% of it was cultivated in Maharashtra.
Though India produces large quantities of the crop, the price is always fluctuating, sometimes by 800%. For farmers growing this crop, it is either a jackpot or a complete loss.
According to news reports, since the last week of August, the prices have been on a steady rise owing to heavy rainfall in some states, and poor storage facilities in others.
Kalyani Shinde, a 23-year-old engineering graduate, who was born and raised in Lasalgaon, home to Asia’s largest onion market, is trying to change that with her startup. Godaam offers technology-based solutions to prevent onion wastage at the warehouse level.
“With Godaam, we aim to convert traditional warehouses into smart warehouses by installing sensors that can track micro climatic changes and help farmers identify any stock spoilage at an early stage,” says Kalyani.
The inspiration behind the startup
Coming from a family involved in farming onions and other crops, Kalyani had first-hand experience with the struggles a farmer goes through while trying to store crops.
When she was studying computer science engineering, in her final year, she had the opportunity to submit a project that outlined the issues a farmer cultivating onion faces, and provide technology-based solutions.
After doing some initial research, she realised the problem lies in storage. After the harvest, onions are usually stored in warehouses for a period of six to eight months. This when spoilage takes place. Kalyani noticed that when a farmer stores 10 kg of onions, around 40-50% of it rots.
“In January 2018, the project was picked up by Digital Impact Square, A TCS Foundation initiative, which also provided me with a team to develop the technology. The team and I spent the first three months doing ground research and interacting with farmers located around Nashik to understand the problems they faced,” says Kalyani.
During this stage, the team spoke with many farmers who had individual warehouses. These were constructed next to their farms, but, owing to a gap in communication between the farmers and government bodies, best practices were not used.
Kalyani says, “Farmers build warehouses that can store large quantities of the product, and do not focus on maintaining the quality of the crop.”
Another key finding she noted during the research stage was that farmers would identify spoilage in their crops based on a conventional method – noticing a rotten smell. But, this would be possible only after 30% of the produce was spoilt. Some would only notice spoilage when the stock, originally piled higher than five feet in height, sank below the mark. Which meant 70% of the stock was spoilt.
A solution to prevent onion wastage
To help the farmers identity spoilage at an early stage, and monitor their crop health at the warehouse, Kalyani and her team started to work on a technology that can identify microclimatic changes within the storage unit and alert the farmer if it was unsuitable for the crop.
The sensor, powered by electricity, would be placed among the onions to collect real-time data about the humidity levels and other predetermined criteria. It will also notify the farmer when the crop starts to spoil.
“Leveraging ‘Internet of Things’ technology, the sensors can pick up the kind of gases released by the onions. When it spoils, there is a spike in certain gases and sulphides. This real-time data can notify the farmer and help him identify which pile of onions are spoiling,” says Kalyani.
Finally, the farmer can either clear the spoiling stock or decide to sell his produce. Kalyani claims this can help a farmer reduce wastage by 20-25%.
To develop the technology, Godaam received funding from the Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research Centre.
In May 2019, the first prototype was installed at Dinkar Katkade’s warehouse. He owns a government graded warehouse and usually experiences 5% wastage during storage.
Inside a 5ftx5ft box in which the onions were placed, one sensor was kept to identify whether the onions were spoiling.
He says, “My storage unit usually holds 20 quintals of onions, and I usually have minimal wastage. The sensors were not as effective as promised as it could not identify the spoilage or the quantity. But the team was prompt with their work and would visit every week to check the status and take readings from the sensor.”
Kalyani says, “The first prototype did not work as planned. But the following versions had the necessary corrections made based on feedback from the farmers, and are installed at some individual as well as government facilities.”
To date, a few individual warehouses have tested the prototype technology, and a pilot test of the third prototype is underway at the DOGR.
If you wish to know more about the technology or the startup, you can visit their website.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)