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The Urban Vision : Capture the BIG Picture
Name: Vikram Adige
Bio: Vikram is engaging in the arena of social entrepreneurship and venture capital in India. He has previously been a consultant and an IT professional since 1995 in the US. He received his MBA at INSEAD and later also led the India market entry for a niche real time payments marketing firm.
Posts by vikramadige:
Hunger and water scarcity are but two sides of the same coin, both in urban India as well as in farming communities depleting their reserves of arable land. We desperately need for traditional practices of soil-based agriculture to be complemented by more productive and ecologically-sustainable forms of modern agriculture. These modern practices need to be cognizant of our modern day challenges of de-forestation, overly complex distribution of perishables, overuse of water for irrigation, excessive use of transportation fuels, and the rising menace of food price inflation.
Hydroponics, a technology for soil-less farming of fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers in a specially formulated nutrient-mix substrate, is now ripe for use in back-yard, roof-top, greenhouse, and commercial farming. The practice has been around for a number of decades, but recent innovations have allowed this technology to grab the discerning eye of green-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The value proposition is abundantly clear, especially in land and soil deprived urban areas. It is a mode of agriculture that does not need soil and hence can be practiced just about anywhere with the right tools, that needs 90% less water than soil irrigation, that can grow in-demand non-native produce, that can grow them faster with significantly higher yields and therefore revenues, that can be productive on a year-round basis, that is less prone to soil borne diseases and micronutrient deficiencies, that needs less growing area per unit of organic output, and finally, that if practiced well enhances the flavor and nutritional content of food. Much like in the renewable arena, hydroponics is a form of agriculture that enables distributed production, where farmer/producer and consumer are brought closer to one another while eliminating wastage.
So the key feasibility questions remain: What early successes have proven the solution? How costly and available are the hydroponics options? Which hydroponics business models may be attractive in places like India?
There are diverse examples of hydroponics projects across the globe, with varying levels of innovation, scale and success. Relevant to hydroponics to urban locales, Changi General Hospital in Singapore uses rooftop farming to now meet most of its fresh food needs. Gotham Greens prides itself as New York’s first commercial rooftop ‘closed loop’ hydroponics operation, in which plants are being grown directly in nutrient-enriched water that is carefully cleaned and recycled back into the system, and solar-powered pumps are feeding nutrient-enriched rainwater to an acre of greenhouse space. ProMedica Health System network of clinics has used the roof of a hospital in Toledo, OH, to grow using hydroponics more than 200 pounds of vegetables and then serve them to patients and a nearby food shelter. This project led to the setup of eight more vertical gardens throughout underserved areas of Toledo. The Woman of Hope Project in Hyderabad, at the Center for Promotion of Simplified Hydroponics, shows different ways of setting up hydroponics for generating livelihoods for women. Atul Kalaskar uses hydroponics to grow strawberries, and believes that as small and marginal farmers become more competitive by moving up the chain of activities such as drip-irrigation, poly-houses and cooperatives, they will eventually aspire to going soil-less in hydroponics. The Pet Bharo (meaning “fill your stomach”) project in India, affiliated with the Institute of Simplified Hydroponics, provides training, consulting services, agricultural inputs and testing services for setting up simplified hydroponics as well as commercial hydroponics.
Some of the more capital and technology intensive projects are AeroFarms, which is building hydroponics farms in containers stacked on top of each other in warehouses and old buildings, lit by LED lamps that also provide pest control when set to emit certain wavelengths. Cityscape Farms in San Francisco is developing rooftop organic greenhouses that use hydroponics along with aquaculture, in which the nutrient mix for the hydroponics is organically fertilized with fish waste produced from tilapia fish raised on-site. The water is then cleaned and recycled back into the fish tanks to complete the loop. One of the most technology-intensive hydroponics projects, and one that was voted one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 Best Innovations of 2009, is Valcent’s ‘Vertical Farming Technology.’ His VertiCrop innovation grows non-GM plants in rotating rows one on top of another, feeding them precise amounts of light and nutrients while using the vertical stacking to use far less water than conventional farming. And, by growing upward instead of outward, he can expand food production without using more land. He claims to be able to increase production volume for field crops up to 20 times over, while using as little as 5% of the normal water supply. One final examples of very large scale operation is Eurofresh’s 274-acre hydroponic greenhouse in southeastern Arizona, where more than 200 million pounds of tomatoes were produced in 2007.
With regard to cost, here are some initial resources for gathering information. Vincent Dessberg, a rooftop hydroponic farmer in Sarasota, FL, growing fruits & vegetables, says he spent $25,000 to set up his facility, including the cost of his 6,000 plants growing vertically in 180 hydroponic planters. One could visualize his capex and opex needing to be much higher for a commercial setup that needed to pump water through sophisticated sensors that automatically adjust nutrient and acidity levels in the water. Dinesh Rao, a relatively new hydroponics practitioner in India who carefully manages his water and nutrient mix, says a capex of ~Rupees 100,000-150,000 ($2,200-3,300) was required to set up a 1000-plant capacity, giving 10 tons of annual tomato output. The cost of a high-end hydroponics greenhouse, using state of the art technologies for lighting, water, nutrients and so on would probably need to be offset by sales into premium organic retail channels such as a Whole Foods, and export markets. Lower-end simplified hydroponics farms, which is the focus of my study here, is usually based on a static solution culture (compared to a continuous flow solution culture, or an aeroponics culture) or a solid-medium culture, and a powder (rather than liquid) nutrient mixture, and would also get the job done though at lower yield. Low-cost greenhouses and polyhouses would be key to designing a sustainable hydroponics model for growing affordably priced foods. Another convenient benefit of running such as project in tropical India, where greenhouse heating and humidity is not as much of an issue, is that less energy is required for the operation. In general, key cost drivers would be availability of affordable nutrient mix, access to training and quality analysis, and technology-level that is matched to the buyers’ requirements.
Low-cost hydroponics greenhouses (along with grading and packing area), built around distributed production with close proximity to consumers, can be a stabilizing factor in food production and retail. The model would need to capitalize on the predictability of producing year-round nutrient-rich vegetables, extract cost savings from increased yields, and adequately market the health benefits of pesticide-free produce. But this would make sense only if an affordable and stable price point is achieved for the produce. In urban India, one business model possibility would be to build a showcase hydroponics greenhouse on the rented terrace of a chain of hospitals, much like in some of the examples provided above, prove the model for a select range of fruit-bearing and leafy crops required by the hospital and the nearby community, and then franchise out the model across the rest of their network. The initial phase of this project would need to involve R&D into technology and the nutrient mix requirements for different families of crop. Over time, the business could then be expanded to co-locate (I’m using this term loosely) greenhouses with farmer’s markets and restaurants that need fresh produce, animal farms that require fodder crops, and specialty retailers that need flower/ornamental crops and condiments. Another more scale-oriented model would be to develop a high-tech vertical farm, expressly to supply large-format quality-sensitive food retailers such as Reliance Fresh. All of these models could provide employment to low-skilled labor, and stay true to their mission of local consumption by not entering into the logistics heavy export market.
On the related topic of quality, there is something to consider on the ‘organic’ versus ‘inorganic’ hydroponics front. With food inflation continuing to rise, one can imagine shoppers who spend more needing more alternatives to expensive, imported and organic vegetables. They may gladly gravitate towards the next best thing – fresh vegetables grown hydroponically, and locally by farmers right in their community. Note: hydroponic farms can use both organic and inorganic (i.e. artificially-made, the more popular) nutrient mixtures, and it is unclear as to whether the former option provides adequate yields and other benefits. I am therefore reluctant to suggest that going the more expensive organic-fertilizer route is worth it for affordable hydroponics.
In closing, did you know that more than half of the world’s plants already grow hydroponically? I’m referring to the oceans, where there is no soil and plants draw their nutrients directly from the sea water around them. It is worth appreciating that hydroponics is simply taking a cue from nature and applying it to our life on land. It is now up to our innovators and financiers to make this commercially viable on a grand scale.
photo credit: 陈霆
Imagine our beloved city of Mumbai if our hundred thousand ‘waste-pickers’ / ‘rag-pickers’ suddenly vanished! Our neighborhoods would be awash in waste, in excess of what the municipal authorities can handle. Our massive recycling industries, such as in slums like Dharavi, would lose a chunk of their raw material inputs. Our city’s greenhouse gas emissions would significantly increase, with landfills and their harmful effects ballooning further. Our commercial purchasers of recycled products would find costs rising. And most unfortunate of all, our most poor and vulnerable members of urban India would lose their one and only opportunity to earn a meager 100 rupees a day while contributing to our social development.
This is the great irony of urban India. Our most active ‘green collar’ workers are invisible to us though they perform a critical service to us all. These rag-pickers, many of whom are women and children, are driven as a final resort to the only job left for them in the city… the filthy and dangerous job of roaming the streets for hours on end, scavenging for solid waste, manually segregating it into paper, plastics, glass, e-waste and so on, and then selling it to traders and middlemen who supply the recycling and reuse industries. And all the while enduring a number of health hazards, abuse at the hands of local thugs, and a continual assault on their dignity.
And what do these ultra low-cost workers get in return for their services? No identity, no rights and protections, no access to public services, and not even the vaguest possibility of rehabilitation. As a relative of mine once opined: “India is a rich country with poor people.” And he was not referring to our population bracketed under ‘Below the Poverty Line.’ He was referring to our prosperous middle and upper-middle classes that continue to legitimize the plight of groups such as the rag-pickers… in the name of karma, the caste system, and an ingrained sense of apathy toward a corrupt and wrecked socio-economy.
But the tide is turning, and turning is it rapidly. More and more people share my sense of outrage, and want to find ways of alleviating some of these waste and human rights issues. For our cities are now bursting at the seams, these issues are spiraling out of control, and we all share in the same ecological destiny. Fortunately, hidden in this quagmire are a host of opportunities for businesses, non-profits, and of course the larger community. Businesses and social entrepreneurs are moving into professional waste management, waste-to-energy and recycling, and require low-cost labor and access to segregated waste. Non-profits that support waste-picker communities can enhance their ecological initiatives by hooking them into a sustainable waste value chain. Designers and retailers are beginning to see value in marketing and selling products made out of degradable and recycled materials. Educators are introducing reduce-recycle-reuse programs into their student bodies, and using student empathy as a powerful platform for spreading awareness on these issues. Housing colonies are beginning to see value in not just managing their own waste but also donating some of it to local waste-pickers. Corporates are seeing a good fit between their corporate social responsibility programs and some of these waste, water and conservation programs. And finally, even the media and entertainment industry is pitching in to sponsor and support awareness and fund-raising campaigns.
So where does this leave each of us? As each us connects with one or more of these avenues to alleviate our waste crisis, we need to simultaneously ensure that the fragile livelihood of our waste-pickers is not compromised or marginalized. We need to build a personal relationship with these courageous green collar workers. We need to furnish them with basic tools for their trade, provide them greater and safe access to solid waste, enhance their ability to earn, and encourage corporates to bring ultra low-cost utilities and healthcare to their communities. And finally, for the workers that then have a few new hours available to them in the day, we need to provide them re-skilling/education that promises new options for livelihood.
A noteworthy non-profit in this area of waste management, recycling and advocacy is ACORN Foundation India’s Dharavi Project, led by advocate Vinod Shetty. This non-profit utilizes a number of volunteers from the professional sector to help secure the livelihoods, working conditions and dignity of the above mentioned waste-pickers (many of whom are women and children). They conduct awareness and advocacy campaigns to increase public and private involvement in this community. They help recyclers increase the throughput of their value chain, and by essence that of the waste-picker. They work with dozens of schools on waste and recycling projects. They organize eco-fairs and musical concerts and workshops, targeted at kids from neighboring slums and municipal communities. And most recently, they have starting advising townships on their waste management programs. Their work and repute is growing, as evidenced by coverage in the Hindustan Times, Mumbai Mirror, and Times of India national edition.
A friend recently threw out the juicy question of how we can help improve government transparency and accountability in India. Here are my thoughts on how Indian democracy needs improvement towards that end. And raising the ugly head of corruption in this discussion is all too inevitable.
Oh, before we start, it’s worth noting that an imminent management guru C K Prahalad and his team have estimated through some “back of the envelope” and therefore dubious analysis (see this) that on an annual basis, political corruption costs India about 250,000 crore Rupees, which comes to roughly US$60 billion. I take offence to this number because it seems like a gross underestimate. How could only 15% of our GDP be mis-appropriated and mis-used? Transparency International rated each Indian state in its corruption index and found that the police topped in corruption followed by forestry, land records, registration & housing, electricity, banking, education, water supply and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Considering that this covers all major ministries, and when just simply looking around at decrepit Indian systems like the Public Distribution System that experiences so much leakage (refer supreme court’s order), and you know that this C K Prahalad number needs to be revised upward to at least 30%. For those who’d like an idea of the scale of political or politically-connected corruption unearthed just last year (and of course this would be the top of the iceberg), see this. Even our Prime Minister has gone on the record that corruption is now endemic in India . And a lot of this is traced back to lack of government accountability on one hand, and over-government on the other.
Starting by electing the right people would help, through a process that is protected and free.
We need to ensure that voters in poor and easily subverted communities are provided their democratic right to secret ballot. The idea is to mitigate avenues for thugs buying votes through strong-arm tactics. This will happen only when social-impact projects put sustainable livelihoods and consumer power in the hands of poorer people; who are then less liable to be coerced by thugs posing as politicians.
We also need to revisit campaign finance reform, especially private hard and soft money cash contributions. At minimum, this business of disgusting Mayawati being garlanded with a Rs 2 crore worth of currency notes simply has to stop; not least because she comes from a beleaguered Dalit background which is supposedly more frugal with resources.
Then we need to create transparency and a nomination and selection process for the head of political parties; disallowing discretionary selection by powerful leaders. Sonia Gandhi cannot be allowed to bend the rules and nominate whomever she pleases; todays its the puppet Sikh, tomorrow it’ll be the prodigal son.
We also need to disallow convicted felons from ever running for public office; public records now show that a massive proportion of our Indian political system is criminalized (and we still call this the world’s largest democracy; what an utter farce). There cannot be loopholes in this provision, especially for criminals who have apparently served out their prior punishments.
And finally, I believe we must enact law to require all able-bodied and working citizens vote or else explicitly abstain, failing which there is some symbolic fine (as in Australia) . Arguments against compulsory voting are as pathetic as those made by a 50-caliber gun-toting nut job in the US saying that gun control goes against their fundamental right to bear arms. Middle and upper class Indians are especially apathetic to their nation’s woes, though they carp on about how this or that needs to be fixed. How about you start by the simple act of casting your vote? And taking at least some responsibility for the condition of the Indian ‘banana republic.’ Other resources on compulsory voting are here .
Fixing governance processes and providing for adequate oversight is the next area needing help.
Encouraging more decentralized governance, down to Panchayati level, is important to push toward. Providing more budgetary autonomy to states within a federal system of standards and laws is a must; else we will move to a mis-managed system like in the US where abortion law (arguably a less significant issue than many other things) become so federally interfered that it completely distracts the polity from the real work at hand.
We also need to hand over program management of government projects to experienced firms like TCS, and use performance metrics to track and manage public works projects that are prone to capital siphoning which is now affectionately called “leakage”. Procurement and supplier selection processes also need to be improved, and irregularities investigated. It is encouraging that the Nandan Nilekani -led UID (universal identity) project for giving everyone in India a well-authenticated identify (for financial inclusion and other purposes) is being received well across the states and center, and now he is chairman for the TAG (Technology Advisory Group) which will advise the government on all of its major IT transformation projects.
We need to encourage activists and whistle-blowers to more actively use the Right to Information Act and other tools to safely expose and embarrass politicians and lobbyists who are engaged in corrupt and illicit activity. And not just to have politicians and fraudsters use the act to target their enemies and busy the system in even more paperwork. Initiatives like Shaffi Mather’s BPO to report bribes and fight corruption ; Karmayog’s website, and Karnataka’s Fight Corruption efforts must be encouraged. More specifically, we need to strengthen our supposedly independent bureaus (such as Karnataka’s Lokayukta, who have done some amazing and daring work such as unearthing illegal wealth of Rs 317 crore from 198 raids in the last 3 years alone) so they can continue to independently uncover undeclared assets of public servants, and immediately impound such undeclared assets. And finally, we need to build upon the grassroots insights of reports such as the India Corruption & Bribery Report such as “77% of all reported bribe demands in India are related to the avoidance of harm, including securing the timely delivery of a service” and “a whooping 91% of reported bribe demands originate from government officials in India”, especially the police and then the central government officials.”
There is also a dire need to disentangle the tentacles of the public sector and government from the private sector. Because the supposedly “private” sector filled a huge governance void post-independence, and because we started out as a heavily socialist leaning republic, we are now weighed down by the government that interferes in all our major enterprises, many of which are oligarchic conglomerates that thrive on gross amounts on undue political favor. This invisible tax on our economy can rightly be termed Licence Raj 2.0. A decent analysis of the scale at which big government has stymied our economic freedoms, while not self-regulating and instead allowing for massive illicit wealth creation, is provided here
We must also impose strict penalties and criminal justice on political and religious leaders and that incite religious or social tensions. In an ethnic tinder box like India this public protection from hate-mongering is a must have. Else we allow a new generation of Hafiz Saeed -like terrorists to take root amidst us.
And of course, in support of all of the above activities, we also need to use advances in IT to convert paper trails, more prone to misuse, to more traceable electronic trails. And all government payments and receipts must be made available to the public readily, if not by resorting to the Right to Information Act.
And finally, rewarding and instilling excellence in the performance of public servants and their projects is the final area requiring significant attention.
This will help encourage positive participation in government. Publicly awards (including monetary sums) must be allocated for those public servants who excel in meeting specific project expectations. The media must be used to actively market a career in public service to young aspirants in a more compelling way, Youth Congress style.
Additionally, now that the Foreign Education Bill has been passed for allowing more FDI, somebody big in the education (or investment) sector needs to bring to India i.e, franchise Peter Eigen’s Transparency International -inspired Governance School and Center for Civil Society (based in Germany). This will help build more ethically competent civil society leaders, and build on top of our Indian Administrative Service and other similar programs.
Finally, grassroots civil society’s liberties and protection groups must be encouraged to organize and have a legal voice, and they must be granted recourse and a forum to prosecute class-action suits against fraudulent government funded programs.
It would be interesting for us to track advancements in each of these areas, such as through the Corruption Free India groups like this . Anyone having information on initiatives that are stemming mis-governance is encouraged to respond and participate.