Unlike most other sectors, startups, specialising in urban farming, in Hyderabad have witnessed a big growth post Covid-19 outbreak. And the word of mouth is continuing to grow…
Among the many changes that city-dwellers, especially in Hyderabad, have witnessed in the past few months, perhaps rooftop gardening and urban farming is bound to have the most impact in near future. It’s one of the hottest new trends of the year, and several families are joining this bandwagon to grow fresh greens, micro-greens, and other vegetables at home. Thanks to a slew of startups, like Urban Kisaan, Zeptogreens, and Homecrop, it’s easier than ever before to do all this. While some of them are banking on the popularity of hydroponics, other companies are relying on a few eco-friendly techniques which let the consumers grow a wider range of vegetables.
The Big Hyderabadi Challenge
Urban farming as a concept has been around for almost a decade in India, although it’s only in recent times that it’s finding many more takers. And one of the biggest challenges which companies like Zeptogreens and Homecrop have faced over the years was the lack of awareness about urban farming in Hyderabad. Homecrop’s co-founder, Krishna recalls spending most of his time trying to create awareness and convince people to take up urban farming for almost four years. “We started the company in 2016 and launched our products in 2017. Until March, 2020, we spent a lot of time trying to engage with people and get them interested in urban farming. We even tried to talk to resident welfare associations in apartments; however, it’s quite challenging to build a consensus. Some people thought that it might lead to leakage issues on the rooftop, and we came up with a solution for that too. On the whole, Hyderabad took quite a long time to warm up to the idea,” Krishna recalls.
Zeptogreen’s co-founder Ragini too has a similar story to share. The company has been functional for the past one year, and prior to that, they had invested quite some time in research on microgreens. “Compared to other cities like Bangalore and Chennai, we lead a laid back lifestyle here in Hyderabad. In recent times, people have been talking about organic farming; however, it hasn’t become the most preferred choice yet. And it’s more or less a similar story with urban farming,” Ragini says.
Then, there are some really peculiar reasons behind why some people didn’t want to take it up immediately. One of them is compliance with vastu! Apparently, some house owners weren’t too keen on roof top gardening because, as per Vastu, you shouldn’t put too much weight in certain corners of a house. While this might be the case with some people, the biggest turning point for urban farming in Hyderabad came in March, 2020. Soon after scores of Covid-19 cases were reported, the nation went into a lockdown and the supply chains were disrupted.
The Big Boom
Unlike hospitality, tourism, manufacturing, IT, and several other industries which bore the brunt of the lockdown in summer, 2020, it had the polar opposite effect on the urban farming startups. The lockdown, due to Covid-19, made urban farming a good alternative for people who were willing to be more self-reliant when it comes to food. “The biggest change after the lockdown was how quickly people embraced the idea. As a company, we don’t have to try too hard to convince them to take this up. Now, the conversation is only about what is the surface area the customers have to grow vegetables and greens, and how soon we can deliver the equipment to them. Moreover, people themselves are willing to get trained in how to grow the vegetables,” Krishna says, adding, “Our revenues in summer this year were almost 10 times more than what they were before the lockdown. I can definitely see a lot more interest in this field.”
Around the same time, a few celebrities like Samantha, Nagarjuna, Shilpa Reddy, among many others began talking about urban farming and how they are growing their own produce. Prior to the lockdown, some of these startups had been growing fresh produce in their own farms, which would then be home-delivered based on the orders. However, once the number of Covid-19 positive cases continued to increase, a lot more people began preferring growing vegetables in their own homes. “Samantha’s posts on Instagram about farming have definitely helped increase awareness. When the lockdown was first announced, we stopped our operations for sometime, but we resumed soon after the restrictions were lifted. During the early days of the lockdown, there was a lot of confusion about whether the supply of vegetables could be disrupted and how fresh are the veggies in the market. All those factors have encouraged people to grow their own produce. Urban farming is the solution for a lot of problems in cities, and it’s definitely going to grow big in near future,” Ragini adds.
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Hydroponics And Organic Farming
These days the limelight is on nutrition and a well-balanced diet, and a lot more people seem to be eager to add microgreens, and other exotic greens in their food. Consumers can choose from a wide range of seasonal vegetables, microgreens and exotic varieties, and based on the area you can dedicate to grow all these, the startups would come up with a plan to set up the DIY kits and hydroponic kits. Few days ago, Samantha had stated that she has been able to grow a wide range of exotic greens, which she often adds in her salads, through hydroponics, which conserves water to a great extent. However, there are pros and cons with this tech. First things first, there’s a limitation on what you can grow through hydroponics, and it’s best suited for exotic greens and a few other plants which don’t grow beyond a certain height. If lettuce varieties, leafy greens like kale, arugula, mustard greens, and herbs like basil, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and rosemary are you preferred choices, then hydroponics works best for such exotic greens.
On the other hand, conventional farming through organic methods, where soil is replaced with coco peat, neem cake, and vermicompost, lets you grow most of the vegetables and greens like chillies, tomatoes, among many other things which suit the Indian palette. A major challenge with this is the yield that one can expect on a regular basis, and it’ll be inconsistent.
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Pest Control And Costs
While everyone understands the importance of organic food, which is chemical and toxin-free, the technical know-how to grow them at home is still a big challenge for many. That’s one of the reasons why even the concept of urban farming has gained prominence among the upper middle-class and rich segment of the society. “A big challenge is that of pest invasion. Let’s say if you are growing your produce organically, and if there is a pest invasion, you have to address it immediately. Otherwise, there is a chance that it’ll eat away the entire garden. And reviving it becomes really tough,” Krishna reveals. Then, there’s the whole aspect of how much you are willing to spend on your food. The amount of money you are likely to spend on buying vegetables in the market is going to be less than the investment that hydroponics or organic farming will require. The DIY kits themselves come at a premium, although efforts are being made to make them a lot more affordable.
The Road Ahead
As the awareness about vertical and urban farming increases, more people are likely to take it up in future. But what’s even more interesting is how Homecrop is trying to shape the food habits of school-going children. Last year, the startup had teamed up with a few schools in Hyderabad to make ‘Garden based learning’ an integral part of the curriculum. “We started it as an experiment last year, where we tried to use the garden as a tool to teach maths and science to kids. We got them to learn everything, right from seeding, pest control, and harvesting. They learnt so much about nutrition, and kids at that age are more open to learning. What we realised over a course of few months is that the fruit and vegetable content had increased in their diet because the kids had become a lot more aware of what they were eating. In fact, a lot more schools evinced interest to collaborate with us to introduce something similar in their schools too,” Krishna reveals, adding, “This concept of kitchen gardens is common in more developed nations. And now, even the Government of India has introduced guidelines for starting nutrition (kitchen) gardens in school.”
Interestingly, urban farming has also become a tool for parents to keep their kids engaged, especially during the lockdown. “Kids are so invested in how a plant is growing that they almost end up spending an hour in the garden. It’s a good time-pass activity and it keeps them engaged. Besides, it’s really therapeutic and a soothing activity,” Krishna says.