This Y Combinator-backed start-up is playing Farmville in real life

UrbanKisaan co-founder and CEO Vihari Kanukollu
Remember the farm-management game Farmville that took Facebook users by storm a decade ago? The gamer ploughs, maintains and finally sells the harvest in the market, though all virtually. UrbanKisaan, a Hyderabad-based start-up is doing something similar in urban areas, leveraging technology and disrupting the age-old agricultural practices. 

The Y-Combinator-backed agro-tech start-up is setting up vertical urban farms on rooftops of commercial buildings using hydroponics to cultivate and sell vegetables and greens. Hydroponics is a process of farming without soil. The plants are grown on coco-peat pods that require a continuous flow of water and monitoring of nutrient, electric conductivity and pH levels (to measure acidity).

"Hydroponics is pesticide-free and uses 95 per cent less water compared to traditional farming. but the yield is 30 times more per unit area," said Vihari Kanukollu, co-founder and CEO, UrbanKisaan. During the lockdown period, Kanukollu says, the start-up's order volume increased by over seven times, which it is executing through delivery partners such as Swiggy and Meesho." “The safety associated with the farm-to-home model due to the absence of middlemen and organic practices is what is driving the surge in orders.”

The company has three revenue streams — selling produce from its own 15 urban farms, partnering with farmers who have greenhouses and also selling home kits where one can set up one's own farm on the balcony by spending just 10-15 minutes a week. The produce in the third case that can be captively consumption.

Urbankisaan is tapping internet-of-things (IoT) technology to optimise the production. "We control and monitor the micro-environment conditions such as temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, oxygen levels and pH levels in the farms remotely," said Kanukollu, who recently got featured in Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list. Also, the IoT data comes in handy in making demand projection and making harvest decision. "This is because our demand estimation should be always 30-40 days ahead."

The company is using image analysis to pilot the growing of several crops under different lighting conditions to optimise the yield. "There is a lot of trial and error involved in research and development as the technique is very new for some of the crops such as palak and methi that are mostly consumed only in India," he added.

UrbanKisaan was founded in 2017 by Kanukollu, Sriram Reddy and Srinivas Chaganti. It was part of Y-Combinator's Winter batch this year and raised $750,000 in seed funding from them last month, according to Crunchbase.
Hydroponics is relatively a novel concept in India where the vertical farms are set up in densely populated areas and can be catered to the households in the 4-5 kilometres radius. In India, there are a few firms such as Bengaluru-based Garden Guru and Punjab-based Pindfresh who sell only the ‘Do-It-Yourself (DIY)’ home kits.

According to a study by Pune-based research firm MarketsandMarkets, the overall hydroponics market is estimated to double to $16 billion by 2025, at an annualised growth rate of 12.1 per cent. The increasing drought, floods and climate change are also having an impact on agricultural produce and spurring adoption of indoor farming in the Asia Pacific, the report added.

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