No garden-variety idea: Startups reaping dividends in urban farms

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Author: Shashwati Shankar
Posted on: india times | 5h of January 2018


BENGALURU: Urban farming is catching on in the country’s big cities with a handful of startups catering to the pursuit seeing orders double over the past two years.

Companies such as Khetify, Mumbai-based i-Kheti and Bengaluru-based Living Greens, which have sprung up in the past few years, say they are gaining traction. Consumers worried about the quality of food available in the market are gravitating toward growing their own food at home — on balconies, terraces or even up walls.
The urban farming startup ecosystem could be worth $1billion in India in the next two to four years and will become essential due to environmental concerns, said Naren Bakshi, cofounder of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) and an angel investor in Living Greens.»Mass migration from the villages to the cities makes the future of urban farming important,» he said. «In a few years, India will see progressive state governments ensuring that homeowners use their roofs for either urban farming or generating solar energy.»

ETspoke to over half a dozen urban farming startups that receive more than acumulative 800 orders a month. They said business is profitable, with most making .`3-5 lakh a month in revenue. Shraddha Bhansali, owner of Mumbaibased vegetarian rooftop restaurant Candy and Green, began exploring urban farming with i-Kheti nine months ago and now gets most of the herbs and green vegetables she needs from its terrace garden.

«I was concerned about the differing quality of food available in the market and then decided to use the empty space on our rooftop restaurant for a terrace farm,» said Bhansali, 25. «It is a way to ensure we are using high-quality food in our cooking. We now grow lemongrass, basil, spinach amongst other greens that are used everyday.»

In the past three to four years, more than a dozen urban farming startups have been launched in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Jaipur and elsewhere. They provide services such as setting up rooftop and balcony farms for independent homes and companies to vertical farming options for those with more wall space than floor area.

«I began with conducting farming and gardening workshops but in the last one or two years we have seen interest significantly increase,» said Kapil Mandawewala, founder of Edible Routes. «I get about 30 orders a month, with a majority coming from independent homes and the rest from community centres, educational institutions or corporates.» Edible Routes was registered in 2016 but was operational in the urban farming space for three years prior to that. Mandawewala began experimenting with farming on family owned land in Gujarat in 2008.

The space for terrace, balcony or farm gardening could range from 50 square feet in a balcony to 50 acres on a farm, with the initial pricing to start a terrace garden ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000. «The maintenance cost for most urban farms usually ranges between Rs 1-2 lakh in a year, whereas for the gardens it’s a few thousand rupees. This remains a challenge as 10 out of 20 requests from customers interested in setting up an urban farm are lost because of the initial investment,» said Mandawewala. Delhi-based Edible Routes has operationally broken even and makes revenue of Rs 3-5 lakh a month, he said.

Khetify cofounder Kaustubh Khare said urban farming is costefficient and sustainable in the long term. «An urban farm could be set up through modular boxes on floor space or through vertical farms on walls,» he said. About 90% of the company’s clients are individuals and the rest are corporates. The company was founded in 2016 by Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, alumni. It has 85 clients and charges about Rs 1,000 per square foot for gardening or farming services. Khetify has also created an Internet of Things-based drip irrigation system that waters plants remotely through a smartphone app. The company says it’s been profitable for the past nine months and has a monthly revenue of approximately Rs 4 lakh. Urban farming also addresses environmental concerns, specifically the urban heat island (UBI) effect.

«If there is rice husk burning in select parts of the city, which is in a hot and low-pressure zone, the smoke resulting from burning will spread across different parts of the city, just like vehicular pollutants spread,» said Pratik Tewari, founder of Living Greens. «Urban farming provides a way of cooling the buildings in the city, also producing oxygen, reducing the need for air-conditioning and is effective in reducing the UBI effect and impacting energy savings.»

The company, which was launched in 2013, went from barely getting a handful of orders to at least 15 a month in 2017. Globally, venture capital investors are investing millions of dollars in urban farming startups, with vertical farming startups being specifically popular in the US. San Francisco-based urban farming startup Plenty raised $200 million in a series B round led by SoftBank Vision Fund in July 2017. Besides several US-based urban farming startups getting venture capital recognition, many urban and vertical farming startups have come up in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.


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