Marginal farmers in India are on the brink of poverty due to low returns on their vegetable produce in the market and the rising costs of farm inputs such as chemicals, equipment, feed, and power.
The growth of urban cities has also increased the cost of land acquisition for agriculture. These developments have made traditional farming unsustainable for rural farmers.
Towards improving this situation for the country’s food-growers, Jalandhar-based startup Aarpun Farms began with aquaponics system and is looking to ensure safe produce, enhance nutritional enrichment, and improve farmers’ income.
Aquaponics is an existing integrated farming technique of aquaculture, which Aarpun Farms has modified for growing vegetables. It combines aquaculture, which involves rearing fish and other aquatic animals, and hydroponics or growing of plants without soil.
Aarpun Farms, founded by Rohit Gupta and his uncle Raman Kumar Agarwal, and cousin Saurabh Agarwal, offers exotic vegetables such as lush-green leafy vegetables including spinach, Romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, mint, and broccoli.
Farmers benefit through aquaponics with the fish and vegetable produce wherein the sale of fish is profitable for the farmer and fetches high value in local markets. Through the sale of vegetable produce, the farmer can gain additional income. Aquaponics systems can thus double the income of farmers through low-cost installations and high yield produce.
Aquaponics systems being economical and sustainable utilises less place and also improves the density/ end volume of fish produced thereby increasing the nutritional aspect of the produce
“Aarpun Farms was conceived as a solution to Punjab’s current agricultural landscape which has become unsustainable and non-profitable for farmers with small farmlands. Today, there is increased awareness and demand among both urban and rural households for safe, chemical-free, and nutrient-rich produce. In order to bridge this widening gap, our farm-to-fork model provides nutrient-rich vegetables and fish, with the supply to households being extremely fast.”
The startup provides the aquaponics setup to farmers and agripreneurs, according to the farmer’s capital and operational expenditure, and provides small hydroponics setups to hobby growers for rooftop farming.
How does aquaponics work?
Aarpun Farms is providing an integrated solution to the problem of unsustainable agriculture through its innovative business model. This model involves creating an entire ecosystem around sustainable farming to double and more the income of farmers and agripreneurs.
The founders state that they are committed to building a culture of food production that integrates self-sufficiency, new skills, and knowledge on eco-friendly and sustainable methods.
The startup’s technique of aquaponics works around a bio-system involving fish. The fish feed and excrete ammonia, which is s then converted to nitrite, which in turn is converted into nitrates through man-made processes. Plants absorb the nitrates which help them grow.
Freshwater is then recirculated to the fish from outside, ensuring their optimal growth. In aquaponics, fish wastes is thus used to provide maximum nutrients for plants, which ensures growth that is self-sufficient without the use of any chemicals or synthetic products.
Farmers employed in traditional farming and looking for higher efficiencies from their land will benefit significantly from this technique, say the founders. Rural farmlands that are most vulnerable to climatic conditions and where the yield gets negatively affected due to the vagaries of nature will also benefit greatly.
“With the quality of the produce that is being grown, whether it is vegetables or fish, there is no comparison, as the quality is very superior and fresh. One of the major benefits with the produce is the shelf-life of the products, which is nearly three to four times longer than those of regular produce,” says Rohit.
Starting up in Jalandhar
Aarpun Farms was founded in 2018 in Jalandhar. Rohit recounts,
“Our pilot farm was set up in Lambra village, which is near Jalandhar city. The location was chosen keeping operational and commercial advantages in mind. It provides our team an easy and quick access to the farm. It ensures that our produce reaches the customer fresh and nutrient-rich, without any delay.”
However, a major challenge that the team faced while starting up was the extreme weather in Punjab. “In summers the weather goes up to 50 degrees and in winters it goes down to 0-1 degree. Choosing the breed of fish which can survive the extreme weather and the types of vegetables that could be grown under these conditions was a major challenge,” adds Rohit.
The team also had to deal with numerous worm attacks initially. Eschewing the spraying of pesticides, the team safeguards the produce from cutworms, snails, and other pests using herbal products like fresh neem, mint, and lavender.
Rohit is an IT engineer from CT College of Punjab University. He has several years of experience in the IT services space across the functions of digital marketing, website development, and mobile app development, and had earlier run a web development and IT company, Adgati, in Jalandhar.
His uncle and co-founder of Aarpun Farms, Commander Raman Kumar Agarwal (retd), is a senior defence officer with vast administrative and operational experience. In the navy, he held various prestigious ops and administrative posts, including that of fleet administrator and administrative officer of Navy Nagar, Mumbai.
After more than 23 years of distinguished naval service, he joined the Merchant Navy as a captain and sailed around the world, before returning to Jalandhar and taking the path of educating and motivating the community’s youth to take up agriculture.
Saurabh Agarwal is an electronics engineer from the renowned Fr. Conceicao Rodrigues College of Engineering (Fr. CRCE) of Mumbai University. An ardent business development and marketing manager with more than five years of professional experience in client acquisition, business development, and market research, he has worked with various startups in Mumbai and with NGOs to provide relief to local communities in drought-hit regions of Maharashtra.
After realising the state of farmers in the state, the three of them decided to start Aarpun Farms.
At present, the startup has five members, including the founders.
The agritech market
Rohit says that integrated farming techniques like aquaponics are popular in countries abroad, including in the US (particularly in California), Israel, and Singapore. However, he says, there is a lack of awareness about the technique in India. He points out,
“There is one big aquaponics farm in Bangalore and one in Nainital. These farms cater to the local market and there is absolutely no competition as, geographically, the regions are very far. There are a lot of hobby-growers for the aquaponics system, but catering to a market is still a long road ahead.”
The agritech market in India is huge. Agri funding increased by 300 percent to reach $248 million in 2019 alone, according to NASSCOM.
Reaping the benefits, sowing for more
The founders note that, with the aquaponics system, the production is 10 times more than the production in traditional farming.
Aarpun’s major source of revenue is from the fish. The seafood harvested is close to 15 tonnes a year. The farm is also producing 200 kg of vegetables in a week. The sale of the farm’s produce is thus the major revenue stream.
“We have been commercially supplying our farm produce to the localities of Jalandhar. We also supply to local outlets or vegetable shops in Jalandhar. The fish that is being grown in our system is being sold to local fish vendors and some fast food stalls,” says Rohit.
The startup is also generating revenue from setting up a vertical garden system for rooftop farming for hobby growers. The price for the same depends on the number of plants the customer needs. Aarpun Farms charges around Rs 200 per plant.
Going forward, Aarpun Farms plans to set up similar projects around the city and spread more awareness among farmers and residents about the aquaponics technique. “Right now we are able to cater to just a small part of the city, so setting up more such farms will help us cater to a larger population and meet higher demand as well as increase the variety of the vegetables on offer,” adds Rohit.
(Edited by Athirupa Geetha Manichandar)