“On my farm in Panvel, I tried growing cherry tomatoes hydroponically, but faced difficulties from day one,” says Siva Ramakrishnan, a farmer from Mumbai. He adds that production never caught up and within six months, the farm had to be closed.
After this disappointing period in using hydroponics, the farmer learned of a three-day training program being run in Coimbatore by a CityGreens company.
The year was 2019 and Ramakrishnan moved out of town to attend the program and eventually loved it so much that he decided to start his farming practice in Coimbatore. “I realize that hydroponics is a science and if you do it right, it should work,” he adds.
However, life got in the way of the farmer and it was only in 2021 that he finally started farming by integrating hydroponic measures on his farm, with the help of CityGreens.
The results he observed were phenomenal. “The harvest from the quarter acre farm was greater than that from the open field farms. I started growing Indian vegetables here on the advice of the experts at CityGreens, instead of lettuce, which is a traditional hydroponic plant.”
Ramakrishnan was just one of 5,000 farmers helped by CityGreens, co-founded by Gaurav Narang.
A mission for better nutrition
Narang, an IIM Kolkata alumnus, never imagined he would create a company that would one day provide Indian households with good quality products.
Prior to this, he worked in the pharmaceutical sector where he was involved in the drug supply chain. “We would provide specialized medicine and care services to patients suffering from chronic and life-threatening diseases such as cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, etc.,” he says.
The correlation between the quality of the food people in cities eat and the diseases they suffer from was enough of a precedent for CityGreens to start their research.
“We realized that there is a shortage of good quality vegetables on the production side and low agricultural yields due to the traditional way of growing the produce,” says Narang.
So, in an attempt to solve this problem, Narang says he decided to set up a company in which Acquire products from different farms. and then sell it. But, it wasn’t that simple.
“When I sat down to understand the market, I realized that ‘organic’ doesn’t always mean ‘pesticide-free.’ Simply trying to bring order out of chaos was not a solution, as the problem was on a larger scale,” she says.
It was then that he began to read about how Western countries managed to obtain good quality products during the harvest and he came across the idea of hydroponics.
“Through further reading, I understood that this, although an attractive option, once failed in India at its advent. I took it on as a challenge to start a company that would ensure large-scale production of fresh, safe and healthy food for the masses, and to do so through low-cost technology that we would share with farmers around the world,” he adds.
Carrying this ideology forward, in 2017, Narang left the pharmaceutical industry to start CityGreens with his wife Shwaita. The pair were joined by Rahul Indorkar, another IIM Kolkata alumnus, as a co-founder in 2020.
How does it work?
As Narang explains, the operation of the company is divided into a series of stages.
Once a farmer approaches them saying they want to grow using hydroponics, the CityGreens team first understands the crop in question.
“Then we conduct an investigation and use our prior knowledge to see if the the harvest has a market and it is feasible. Many people are under the impression that hydroponics is limited to only green leafy vegetables, but this is not true,” says Narang.
Once the crop is decided, CityGreens experts assess the location and then weather patterns are mapped. “This helps us understand whether the farmhouse should have climate control or natural ventilation.”
The planning stage takes about a month. After this, the team installs a poly house or integrates hydroponic technology into the farm and continues to visit the farmer at different times throughout the weeks to assess performance.
“During these weeks a drill is carried out to verify the technology and then our agronomists visit the farmers to help them with the transplant of the vegetable seedlings”, he adds.
By integrating their automation into the farm, farmers can ensure that human error is eliminated and productivity is increased.
Increased farm efficiency
CityGreens has four farms in Ahmedabad, of which three are hydroponic and one is indoor, and one is a hydroponic farm in Bangalore.
“The food we grow here is supplied to companies like BigBasket. Milk Basket, Gabbar Farms, and Retail Stores, etc. through which food is sold to final consumers,” he says.
The IoT technology suite that they have commercialized is being used in more than 20 farms across indiaand his farm in Uttarakhand which started in 2021 is the first fully automated farm in India to grow medical cannabis using aeroponic technology.
Along with this, the team has also set up several polyhouse and vertical indoor hydroponic farms for farmers across India. These include cities like Almora, Haridwar, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Selam, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, and more.
“We have established more than 25 farms in recent years,” says Narang.
something for everyone
While its goal is to make all farms in India “smart”, CityGreens has ensured that through its offerings, everyone benefits.
“We provide kits, nutrients, lights and other supplies for hobby growers,” says Rahul, adding that they develop and manufacture these kits themselves. “We have more than 600 cities in India that use our products to grow food for their consumption,” he adds.
He mentions that they assist commercial growers in setting up indoor vertical and hydroponic farms, including concept, design, installation, agronomy, and sales support to farmers for a period of 1 year post-installation.
But for the three co-founders, success has a sweeter taste since they started with no farming background.
Working closely with farmers
“Coming from a successful business background and then trying to get our hands dirty growing food ourselves was not something that was encouraged by many,” says Shwaita, adding that people did not think of farming as a respectable profession at the time, especially for a woman.
However, this never stopped her and the other two founders from achieving what they set out to do.
“Nowadays, people are more aware of the health, prices and acceptance of hydroponic food, which is quite good. This ensures good profitability and income for CityGreens and also for other farmers who are pioneers and adopters of these technologies,” says Narang.
For his work, CityGreens received a grant of Rs 65 lakh from the Government for his company.
Last year the company posted a turnover of Rs 8 crore and the trio couldn’t have been happier.
“Everyone is looking to work and earn money to survive. But we are lucky to be able to do this. while helping farmers and doing our little bit of good in the world,” says Narang.
Edited by Yoshita Rao