Field marshals: Meet the team behind the award-winning agro initiative Kheyti

Feb 24, 2023 07:54 PM IST

The Hyderabad-based start-up has been helping small farmers set up low-cost greenhouses that use less water, keep pests out and boost harvests. This flagship idea recently won Kheyti the 1-million-pound Earthshot Prize. For the team, it’s a much-needed boost. There’s much to be done, they say.

Hyderabad-based startup, Kheyti, is eight years old. But it’s dreaming big. Their flagship project, Greenhouse-in-a-Box, is a farming-management system aimed specifically at small holdings, plots of land not big enough for labour-saving machines, but which have much to lose as the climate destabilises the farming economy.

Kaushik Kappagantulu, Saumya Sahay, Ayush Sharma and Sathya Raghu V Mokkapati of Kheyti. (HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja) PREMIUM
Kaushik Kappagantulu, Saumya Sahay, Ayush Sharma and Sathya Raghu V Mokkapati of Kheyti. (HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

The greenhouse kit is simple but elegant: A modular structure, drip irrigation, high quality seeds, and fertiliser. It’s half the price of a regular greenhouse, uses 98% less water for fruits and vegetables, attracts fewer pests, and has delivered as much as seven times higher yield on the same acreage.

It’s also caught the attention of the world. Kheyti recently won Prince William’s Earthshot Prize, an award worth one million pounds, and often referred to as the Eco Oscar. Kheyti founders, Sathya Raghu V Mokkapati, 37; Ayush Sharma, 37; Kaushik Kappagantulu, 36 and Saumya Sahay, 33 have installed their greenhouses on 1,000 farms in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. With the Earthshot money, they plan to set up 50,000 by 2027.

If they’ve got this far, it’s largely because they started early. “I think the first time I was moved by the crisis of farmers in India was when I was 17 and saw a farmer eating mud in my village in Telangana,” says Raghu. “Until then, I’d only heard about the plight of farmers. This was the first time it hit me. I was full of rage.”

He was studying commerce and accountancy then. But he read up about rural India and farming at every opportunity, and travelled to remote villages across the country to find out why agriculture was such a burden on whose who practise it.

“I thought I would get an answer if I travelled more but it was hardly making sense,” he says. By 2009, at 23, he realised that the only way to solve that problem was to become a farmer himself.

Raghu, along with Sharma, a friend from school, planted guar seeds in Karnataka’s parched Raichur district and met with initial success. But with commodity prices rising globally, and the market getting volatile, it was hard to sustain. In Telangana, they set up a co-operative with vegetable farmers to sell produce to urban buyers. “We worked on it for three years,” Raghu says. “That is when I realised how unpredictable farming in India is. The farmer who made the most money one year could simply disappear from the scene the next year.”

The bigger lesson: Open-field farming was no longer enough to secure farmers a reliable income. The two teamed up with Kappagantulu, an IIT Kharagpur alumnus who was working on the same problem from the other end. He’d been setting up initiatives to upskill school drop-outs from villages. He knew how much the rural economy depended on farming. They drafted Sahay, straight out of the Kellogg School of Management, and hoped to build a solution from the ground up.

WATCH: How Kheyti helps small farmers stand stronger

Nothing comes easy in agriculture. The team travelled across six states and spoke to more than a thousand farmers. “We realised that those growing one crop on less than five acres of land constitute over 85% of the farmer population,” says Kappagantulu. “They’re also far more vulnerable to the weather. One bad hailstorm could destroy all their crops.”

They also drew on new farming practices from as far away as Israel, Australia and the United States. “We knew that solutions existed, but they were expensive,” Kappagantulu says. “The challenge was to find something that could be used in India. That is when we zeroed in on the idea of protected farming or the use of greenhouses.”

Greenhouses are already in use across Indian farms. They allow for round-the-year crops, keep pests at bay, and give growers more control over resources like water and fertiliser. But they’re expensive, which is why they’re typically used for rare flowers, exotic vegetables ad out-of-season fruits. No small farmer, with an annual income of less than 1 lakh could afford them.

Kheyti’s 240 sq m model now costs 65,000. “The way farmers look at it is that it is like buying a cow or a buffalo,” says Raghu. It can also be adapted for several kinds of farming. For vegetables such as brinjal or cucumber, farmers can lower the structure’s height, bringing costs down without compromising the yield.

The start-up’s connection to the farmers doesn’t end at selling the greenhouses. They also offer support on using them better and use their inputs on how to fine-tune an already developed product. “In Indian villages, monkeys are a big issue,” says Raghu. “We had to ensure the plastic covering on the structure could not be torn by monkeys.”

They managed it too. No wonder farmers, and the prince, are pleased.

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    Dipanjan Sinha is principal correspondent, weekend features in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for seven years now and worked on the desk, news and features teams

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