Small town expanding to big one’s

For a product now out of the reach of most farmers, Fasal, ironically enough, traces its beginnings back to the problems of a farmer in a small town of Uttar Pradesh. Co-founder Ananda Verma’s father, to be specific. With his family farm in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, struggling to cope with water scarcity, Verma decided to use tech to solve the problem. Together with Shailendra Tiwari, a colleague at the IT company he was working in at the time, he set about building a solution.

Moisture level

The duo built a rudimentary sensor to monitor the moisture level of the farm’s soil and instructed Verma’s father to irrigate the farm only when the sensor reading fell below a certain level. After a couple of months, Verma’s father was irrigating his farm once in three days, instead of daily. Soon, Verma’s father asked for 15 more sensors. Not for himself, but for his water-starved neighbors who were still coping with the arid conditions by hiring water tankers.

“Farming should no longer be done by following your gut instincts. Instead, it should have a logical approach. We want to provide the farmers with information at all stages involved from sowing to pre-harvest. Our aim is to maximize the per-hectare yield,” says Tiwari.

From its beginnings in smalltown Uttar Pradesh, Fasal has since come a long way. While its approach doesn’t differ greatly from the software solutions of other agritechs, it comes up trumps due to the quality of its input.

A small slice

Despite being a major producer of fruits and vegetables, India’s exports only account for 1% of the global market.

Typically, other agritechs collect soil from farms to analyze the nutrient composition, rely on satellite or meteorological data for weather conditions, and on the farmer herself for relevant local information. This data is then processed to draw up a farming schedule. These inputs, however, are susceptible to becoming dated. Soil conditions can change; weather can differ within the space of a few kilometers, and farmers’ inputs are prone to error.

Fasal eliminates all of this. Its on-ground technology provides an accurate, real-time reading of the micro-climate of the farm and crops, making its analysis more accurate. “What really matters to us is the micro temperature around the plants on our farms. More specifically, the microclimate that exists around the plants. The more data we have about this microclimate, the better the insights about the changes occurring in the plants,” says Akshay Baboo, viticulturist, and winemaker at Grover Zampa.

The sort of data Fasal provides offers a desirable advantage, sure. But since it’s out of the reach of small farmers, how is Wolkus to scale? Mark Kahn, the managing partner at Omnivore, explains that there is still a large market for Wolkus to target. Omnivore is an impact venture fund that invests in early-stage Indian agritech startups. The opportunity, Kahn explains, lies in horticulture.

Horticulturists grow fruits, spices, and vegetables. Since these crops run on a shorter growth cycle than cereals and pulses, multiple yields are possible each year, compared with the limited window for growing grains.

Change of lifestyle

India is currently in the midst of a horticulture boom, fuelled by lifestyle changes and a wave of health-consciousness. According to India’s agricultural ministry, horticulture production has outpaced foodgrain production every year since 2012-13, even though only 17% of India’s 140 million hectares of available agricultural land is dedicated to horticulture.

Horticulture farmers, including vineyard owners like Grover Zampa, earn more than a paddy farmer, making them willing and able to invest in technologies such as Fasal to improve their yield. All told, there are about 10 million horticulture farmers in India primed for Fasal’s technology, says Kahn.

As a company that is business-to-consumer (B2C) oriented, Wolkus’ current challenge is to convince this 10 million-odd base of farmers that Fasal, even with its above-average costs, provides a respectable return on investment. And the initial signs have been positive. Maaru claims he was able to increase his yield by 20%, primarily due to Fasal’s instructions on irrigation. He also claims to have made a return on his Rs 1 lakh ($1450.60) investment in the first season itself. He says 15 other horticulture farmers he knows have also benefited from Fasal.

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