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Hydroponics: Is the Future Green?

Hydroponics is the technique of growing plants in water instead of soil. It leads to more than 90% savings in the use of water.

Shruti Kandwal
Gaurav Narang, the founder of CityGreens
Gaurav Narang, the founder of CityGreens

India, a country where farmers make up around 58% of the country’s population, is still struggling in the agriculture sector due to climate change, unpredictable monsoons, poor infrastructure, poor soil, and seed quality, and less use of farm technologies.

This is where smart farming technologies like Hydroponics comes in as a solution to help increase production and raise farmers’ income. But does Hydroponics really work? Is it for everyone? We decided to find out.

In our quest, we came across CityGreens, India’s largest and most successful Hydroponic Start-up. They are backed through financial grants by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs. Indeed a unique feat for a Startup which is barely five years old.

“So, is Hydroponics the answer to all problems faced by Indian Agriculture?” we asked Gaurav Narang, the founder of CityGreens. “No. Agriculture is a vast domain. There are multiple challenges and problems that are yet unsolved in India’s agri-ecosystem. Hydroponics is just solving a part of that problem by growing food in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner.” Says Narang.

For the uninitiated, Hydroponics is the technique of growing plants in water instead of soil. Hydroponics leads to more than 90% savings in the use of water. In addition, it increases productivity from a land parcel by 10 to 15 times. It reduces the use of other farm inputs like pesticides and nutrients, which are often recirculated in this kind of system, making them more sustainable compared to traditional ways of farming.

Hydroponics is not new in India and is not a recent phenomenon. Though it has taken up steam in recent years, a quick google search will show that there have been a few farms and localized experiments in hydroponics over the last decade, but none at a vast scale. This is different from the scenario now when newer farms are coming up every week, and the scales seem tilted in favor of Hydroponic growers. “So, what essentially has changed,” we asked Narang.

“Many factors have changed over the last decade, but if I have to pinpoint, two primary factors have made the difference."

The first one is the learning curve. Most of the initial experiments in Hydroponics were a copy-paste of models developed in the west, at a western price point, for the western palate and western climate. Copying them blindly in the Indian sub-context was bound to fail. No surprises here. Now things are different in terms of the learning curve. Many successful projects are running in different parts of the country. We as a nation have evolved in our learning curve. Having said that, there are still new things to learn daily as we are dealing with a life form here. In the case of CityGreens, we realized that we should not just copy-paste high-priced imported technologies and wish to succeed in India. So, we choose the difficult and time-consuming route of researching and perfecting the technology for the Indian context. For the first three years of our journey, we spent all our time on our research farm and did not take up any commercial farm-set-up activity. We had customers approaching us all the time, and we were telling them sorry, we are not ready. Only after perfecting the technology, Indianizing and developing many components in-house, we started taking up commercial farm set-up projects.

That was the first reason. The second reason is the change in overall market dynamics. Over the last decade, prices of veggies have increased manifold whereas the cost of hydroponic technology has come down. As such the price difference between inorganic, organic, and hydroponic produce has reduced considerably. Further, post Co-Vid there has been a visible change in people’s mindset and attitude towards health. People are comfortable spending more on their health, including on good quality food, then risk spending way more on diseases and treatments in future. Today, we have hydroponic farms that exclusively grow common Indian crops like spinach and coriander and are profitable. This was unthinkable of even a couple of years back.”

Indeed, the research focus and scientific way of taking up agriculture have produced rich dividends for CityGreens. It’s not a small feat to enter a failing industry, turn it around and achieve the industry-best success rate for their farmers.

“What would be your advice for farmers engaged in traditional agriculture who would like to switch to hydroponics or for budding entrepreneurs who want to catch the hydroponic wave.” We asked Shwaita and Rahul, Gaurav’s co-founders in CityGreens.

“Step in with your eyes open,” says Shwaita. “Hydroponics is a science, not an art. It’s a measured and methodical way of growing plants by taking care of different parameters like EC, pH, Temperature, Humidity, ORP, DO, etc. When you choose your implementation partner for your project, choose one who understands the domain and has been involved in farming for a long time. This will improve your chances of success manifold,” she adds.

“Understand that Hydroponics is not a fixed-income return scheme,” adds Rahul, who heads Finance at CityGreens. “Many customers wear an investor hat and approach us expecting magic. Quite a few expect to double their money in one or two years. These are generally the kind of projects that fail. Hydroponics is a business. Like any other business, it has its risks and rewards. One needs to grow the crops and sell the produce in the market to earn returns. If done right, one can easily generate upwards of 30% RoI, but they will need to invest their time and energy, as they would in any other business. Expecting to set up a farm and generating supernormal returns without any effort or involvement is a recipe for disaster.”

And this makes things clear. It seems that the industry is now beginning to take shape. India is getting ready for Hydroponics, following in the footsteps of many other developed nations where Hydroponics is already mainstream.  

Yes, the future of Hydroponics in India is bright, and let me say green too, if done the right way, the way CityGreens is doing it.

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