Innovation and technology are the two buzz words today! More so when used to boost agriculture in India, something that has been plaguing our farmers for a long time. Software engineer Ajay Naik from Porvorim has been a pioneer in Goa using hydroponics commercially to grow pesticide-free vegetables at his plant Letcetra Agritech in Thivim Industrial Estate and is now set to launch home models of hydroponics the coming week.
NT BUZZ finds out more
Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
Ajay Naik, like most Goans, loves food and even more when it’s of top notch quality and tasty. Quite fond of salads, and other dishes, over time he found a drop in taste and quality of food being served on his plate. It was this inquisitive nature of his that led him to probe into the matter. What was shocking was that vegetables were the main ingredients affecting the preparations and that most exotic vegetables are imported into Goa.
This and his mundane engineering job got him thinking for want of doing something innovative and beneficial to the society. A former employee of the IT company Persistent decided to change his route and use his knowledge of engineering and science to start Letcetra (to mean lettuce etcetera).
He worked for 18 hours every day, did 2 months research and another two and a half months to set up India’s first hi-tech vertical hydroponics farm that is commercial and fully indoor.
Idea to reality
Ajay tells us that he and partners Sandeep Metri and Jagdish Naik conducted research and realised that the quality of vegetables wasn’t up to the mark. He says that the problem is aggravated as people are leaving the agriculture industry. “Since you mainly rely on weather, agriculture is a very risky business as you don’t know about the output. Also since there is no fixed market, farmers worry about fetching a good price and losses, which is why they look for fixed income jobs.” He goes on to say that those who still practice farming prefer to use harmful chemicals and pesticides to boost growth of the plants which has an effect on taste and is harmful to human beings and the soil too.
Knowing that the Indian soil has gone bad due to excessive use of pesticides and the effects will remain in the long run, Ajay was on the hunt for a solution. It was after stumbling upon several agricultural technologies, that he found the use of hydroponics to be best suitable as healthy food can be grown by minimising risks involved.
He was quite fascinated with the technology. He tells us that he realised people are reluctant to use the technology as many traditional farmers don’t consider this as farming. Secondly, the major problem is that the initial cost of this type of farming is very high. To set up the 150 square metres plant cost the trio Rs42 lakhs, but they are very confident of the returns in the future and say that hydroponics is very profitable as compared to traditional farming.
“There are many farmers who come asking me to take their fields on lease. I don’t want to get into traditional farming because it is very risky and is output is not guaranteed, I might have to resort to using pesticides, which I don’t use here at all,” says Ajay.
At present the vegetables produced are termed pesticide free as there is no use of pesticides. It is not called organic as there are a few chemical components that are used. “We are experimenting which organic fertilizers. If it works, we will apply for organic certification and sell it as organic produce,” informs Ajay.
Delving further into the benefits of hydroponics he says that since it is controlled farming, one acre of land has been utilised in 150 square metres of space. With his background in science he ensures various parameters are looked into for this kind of farming like humidity, hydrogen levels, minerals, etc.
The past seven months
At the farm he produces three variants of lettuce – lolo, romain and oakleaf apart from basil, zucchini, cilantro, parsley, cherry tomato and the Indian tomato. He tells us that they are also into research and development to tweak the formula to grow strawberries that are sweeter. “Once we know the life cycle we can set up the farm to grow a single crop,” says Ajay who now supplies the produce twice a week to about 20 restaurants along the northern beach belt.
It takes anything between 20 to 45 days for various types of vegetables to grow. While herbs take about 20 to 25 days, leafy vegetables can take about 35 days, while tomatoes first takes 3 months and then bear fruit every month. The seeds are bought from a dealer in Bangalore who imports them from Netherlands.
Having started in November 2016, Ajay doesn’t hesitate to inform that like any other business there were hurdles: “Since we are new in this field we had to learn certain things, since we don’t have an agricultural background. All of us have an engineering background so we had to learn a lot from scratch, through trial and error and experiments.” He says despite conducting a thorough market research it was difficult as demonetisation came into effect and the market grew sluggish but, slowly things picked up.
At present while Ajay dedicated more time to sales and marketing of the produce, Sandeep and Jagdish are at the forefront of production and operations. He tells us that on a normal day there is not much to do as everything is automated. “Our water pump runs for 24 hours so there’s not even observation required. From controlling the nutrients, to maintaining hydrogen levels, dissolved oxygen, there is very little manual work,” he says. The only time there’s work, is on the two days of delivery, where the harvesting is followed by sowing.
Towards making Goa self sustainable
While at present Letcetra sells vegetables at a rate slightly higher than the current market rate, but as production costs decreases, the prices will normalise, Ajay assures.
Besides, they are all set to launch small home models of hydroponics to be launched in the coming week. Now, people can grow their vegetables at home. The model is self running except where water has to be put into it. Ajay tells us that it is a self running system which has a water tank, timer, etc. There are different sizes of the models that can accommodate various numbers of plants.
Also, the other long term goal of Letcetra is to introduce community farming in residential societies and complexes in Goa. “We wish to set up dedicated farms in such complexes which can provide for all families living there. With this there will be no need to go to the market, and what we will offer is better quality, fresh and cheaper vegetables,” says Ajay who is soon going to start talks with builders and those managing societies.
Also, now since they have succeeded in their pilot project of growing vegetables of about 3 tonnes a month, there are plans in the pipeline to grow more vegetables like tomatoes, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and others on a large scale.
He believes that there is tremendous potential for their business model to grow as there is a demand. “About 200 tonnes of vegetables arrive in Goa everyday so there is huge demand and we want to start by entering the market by selling between 100-200 kilograms every day.”
While there might be resistance from wholesalers, Ajay believes it won’t be a big problem as vendors mainly look for competitive prices. “If we are offering better a quality product at the same price, that is pesticide free and will be consistent in supply, I see no reason why dealers won’t purchase vegetables from us. What matters in consistent supply and get a good price which is what we can fulfil,” explains Ajay. They are also hopeful of collaborating with the government to have a tie up so that they can make Goa a self sustainable market for vegetables.
Hydroponics – the future
Ajay tells us that a lot of engineers are getting into agriculture. “Since food is very critical and India is importing food which shouldn’t be the case as we were an agricultural country – the reason we were conquered – we shouldn’t be importing pulses, rice and onions and potatoes,” says Ajay. He is happy that a lot of educated people are realising that there’s a lot of threat involved in importing basic supplies of food and hence are turning to modern agriculturists to make Indian self reliant. He says that the problem isn’t about availability of technology, but usage of it: “We don’t have to really invent a lot of technology. We just have to bring in the technology and tweak it according to our requirements.”