IIT-Bombay graduates Amit Kumar and Abhay Singh’s Kota-based startup, Eeki Foods, grows high quality, residue-free Indian staple vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, chillies and eggplants using hydroponics — growing of plants using nutrient-rich water.
Unlike the plethora of business ventures engaged in hydroponics, Eeki Foods is not primarily focussed on growing leafy vegetables, particularly of the exotic variety like arugula, lettuce or kale. Their focus is on traditional Indian staples.
Going further, the startup does not use coco-peat (husk) or any other growing medium. Instead, they employ what they call “an [Internet of Things] IoT-enabled, completely medium-less growing chamber’s technology”.
“Most startups engaged in the business of hydroponics in India are focussed primarily on growing leafy vegetables, particularly the exotic kind. There are a lot of hydroponic kits available online and leafy vegetables grown from them can fetch you good prices. However, most of these ventures have been relegated to boutique businesses. They haven’t been able to scale up because the demand for exotic vegetables is not as high as traditional Indian staples like tomato, cucumber, eggplant and chillies. A company that can grow high-quality Indian staples, as well as exotics, is more likely to scale up and have a much larger market,” says Abhay Singh, co-founder of Eeki Foods, speaking to The Better India.
To facilitate the scaling-up process, the startup has developed their soon to be patented ‘Growing Chambers’, which, they claim, offer better control over taste and nutrition value and the produce is cheaper than hydroponic companies that use mediums like coco-peat.
Their business model centres around commercial farm setups with individual farm partners. While individual farm partners put in the initial capital, the startup oversees the responsibility of growing and selling produce in the market. The farm owner earns a share of the sales.
“Our fully functional commercial farm in Bhilwara measuring 0.5 acres, for example, grows 7,000 kg of produce a month, which predominantly includes tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. We sell our produce at an average of Rs 50 per kg, thus clocking monthly revenues of about Rs 3.5 lakh per month from this farm. Today, we have about 300 B2C (business-to-consumer) companies in Kota, Rajasthan. During the lockdown, we were directly selling to customers in Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh, and a few stores in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Our vegetables are grown and sold locally under the brand of Eeki Foods, providing traceability and authenticity as well as the ‘farm-to-fork’ experience,” says Abhay Singh.
Incorporated in early 2019, the startup began its journey with a small 500-square-feet rooftop farm as a proof of concept, where they experimented with different hydroponic techniques. This needed an initial investment of Rs 15 lakh from their savings. Nearly a year later, they developed their first fully functional R&D farm in Kota. Aside from this farm, today they have a fully commercial farm in Bhilwara and are on the cusp of operating another one in Talera, while construction work has commenced on two more farms in Kota. Today, they currently have five different commercial farm partners in Rajasthan but are looking to enter the National Capital Region (NCR), Chennai and even Ladakh.
By the end of FY 2021-22, they are looking to set up 12 farms, catering to high-end grocery retail stores, establishing partnerships with local vegetable distributors and sellers and achieving a monthly revenue target of Rs 40 lakh.
From IIT to Growing Food
As students, Amit and Abhay were like many of their engineering peers. They were heavily involved in college activities surrounding robotics, automation and IoT, etc. After graduating with a B.Tech in Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science in 2014, they worked in the same domain. But after their last job, they wanted to do something which would have a lasting impact on civilisation. They wanted to figure out solutions to problems surrounding key cornerstones of human civilisation like transportation, communication, and eventually zeroed in on food.
For the first six months after quitting their jobs in early 2018, they were visiting farms, particularly organic ones, across different parts of India. In this period, they garnered some understanding of the limitations of conventional agriculture, particularly organic farming, like the lack of organic manure availability, market accessibility and successfully battling the vagaries of nature. They didn’t see conventional organic farming as a scalable option.
“We eventually landed on hydroponics sometime in the middle of 2018 and visited many of these farms in Chandigarh, Goa and Rajasthan as well. We realised hydroponics could seriously supplement the existing ways of growing crops. Both of us soon embarked on existing techniques of hydroponics like aeroponics, nutrient film technique (NFT), using coco-peat and indoor farming. We even bought hydroponics kits from all the major suppliers across different cities. After evaluating all the setups before us, we concluded that none of them could grow daily Indian staples on a large scale,” says Amit.
Quality Produce at Lower Prices
The two issues that required addressal were scale and cost.
There are startups like Nature’s Miracle based out of Noida, which grows fruit-bearing vegetables as well. But these entities engaged in hydroponics sell their produce at a much higher cost than what consumers would typically find in their local retail market. This is because of the growing methods and technology they use.
Abhay explains, “Initially, we employed the same technology like using coco-peat as a growing medium for fruit-bearing vegetables like eggplants or bitter gourds, but it increased our total operating cost. This is because growers have to regularly replace the coco-peat, or other media like volcanic stones, every two years. For certain sensitive crops, these timelines fall to a four to six month-cycle to maintain steady PH levels under which these vegetables are grown. If you do not replace these mediums regularly, you have to treat them.”
What they figured out was that to decrease the cost of production, Eeki Foods would have to get away from any growing media for fruit-bearing vegetables. This is what they have been able to achieve with their soon to be patented Growing Chambers, which do not use any sort of growing media like coco-peat, volcanic stones or conventional soil.
“This enables us to lower the cost of growing. We can grow produce at, say, Rs 12 per kg, as compared to vegetables grown with coco-peat, which may cost you Rs 22 per kg, depending on the crop. We are growing high-quality produce at a much lower cost. Now, we can sell our produce at nearly the same price as vegetables sold at a conventional thelas. For example, if in a month, if tomatoes are selling for Rs 40 per kg in the retail market, we sell them for Rs 47.
He adds, “On an average, we are selling our fruit-bearing vegetables at 40 per cent less than our competitors who may use coco-peat or other growing mediums, depending on the crop. For example, we sell tomatoes at 20 percent less and cucumbers at 50 per cent less than our competitors.”
The startup spent two years developing these Growing Chambers for a variety of crops. Suffice to say, each plant family requires a different growing chamber. Tomatoes, for example, would require a higher root zone temperature than say bitter gourd. The objective of these Growing Chambers is to mimic what a plant requires in terms of temperature, humidity and everything else without the use of any growing media. They have nearly drafted a patent application and will file it very soon. They believe their patent application will come through within a year. Having said that, they are still working on further improving the system with Dr. Deepak Arora, an Associate Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT-Jodhpur.
“Within a year of filing the patent application, we hope to obtain it for each crop family, like Solanaceae [brinjal, tomato, chillies] or Cucurbitaceae [encompassing 800 species of plants like bitter gourd, cucumbers, melons], which requires their own specific Growing Chamber set up and design. In other words, on our farm, we will have exclusive growing chambers for different families of crops. For other standard leafy vegetables like spinach or lettuce, our method of growing employs the standard NFT system,” explains Amit.
When it comes to commercial farm setups, individual farm partners will have to invest the initial capital, which is determined by location, acreage and government subsidy. Eeki Foods takes charge of growing these crops remotely and selling them locally.
“For every crop, the returns change. Our farm partners will get their Return on Investment (RoI) in four years. We have currently five different farm partners in Rajasthan. To monitor them, we have built a farm IoT system, which helps us to remotely monitor and control all the critical parameters of growing. While activities like cleaning the polyhouse, pruning, cutting or plucking the fruit is done manually, the process of irrigation, fertigation and temperature management, and all other critical parameters of growing is automated, thus allowing the crop to grow in good health,” says Abhay.
Meanwhile, the future looks bright for the Kota startup engaged in hydroponics.
This month they raised Pre-Series A funding from GSF Accelerator, although they were unwilling to disclose the amount. Besides, they also have a multitude of other investors like Naho Shigeta, Founder and CEO of Infobridge Holdings; Shalin Sanjay Shah, Director at Core91 VC; and a Gulf-based Syndicate.
“Our objective is to demonstrate that our technology can be used to grow crops across India under different climatic conditions and at a much cheaper rate than other hydroponic ventures,” says Abhay.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)