News Makers 2017

The future farmers

- BIBEK SUBEDI, Kathmandu

The founders of Aeroroots Pvt. Ltd. are now on a quest to realise their shared vision of a pesticide free tomorrow where the food will not be covered in harmful chemicals. Through innovation and out of the box thinking, they are pioneering a new way to farm vegetables and herbs with less than one tenth the water and no more than nine percent of the farmland required by traditional agriculture to grow the same quantity of produce.

Aeroroots employs a revolutionary new system of growing plants called Aeroponics. In this system, the roots of the plants are suspended in the air and are provided with all necessary water and food through a cloud of nutrient solution. The nutrient cloud is created by using ultrafine mist nozzles and a high-pressure pump carefully timed to turn on at predetermined intervals.

“There are many advantages to aeroponic growing,” says Caesar Rana, the director of Aeroroots,  “In addition to using much lower water and space resources than traditional agriculture, our system also eliminates the need for harmful pesticides, fungicides and insecticides when carefully maintained. Aeroponics also allows for faster than normal growth because nutrients and water are always easily accessible to the roots.” Rana explains that an easy way to visualise the ‘aeroponic process’ is by imagining that roots have tiny windows (pores) to allow water and nutrients in and the aeroponic system creates bite sized packets that can just pass through these windows. Nutrients and water, in soil -based and hydroponic plants are absorbed through a much slower process called osmosis.

Director Rana looks after the development of commercial Aeroponics farms that have yields of at least tens or hundreds of kilos per day and is currently overseeing the construction of a company-owned commercial farm in the Godavari area of Lalitpur district. “This farm will be the first Aeroponics commercial farm in Nepal and will be utilised to produce a variety of vegetables, greens and herbs,” Rana says, and informs, “But we will first start with tomatoes.”

Another Aeroroots director, Prakash Dahal, who leads the division dealing with standalone units for home and restaurants, explains how their company has now developed a standalone aeroponic system suitable for small-scale use. “Our standalone systems are called Aeroroofs and as evident from their names, are suitable for installation in roofs, balconies or small kitchen gardens. We have designed Aeroroofs for people who want to grow their own vegetables without having to handle any of the backbreaking and monotonous gardening related chores like watering, fertilising, weeding, tilling and even pest control.”

Aeroroots claims that only a pair of their standalone systems, when managed well, can produce enough vegetables to provide for a small family of three to four members nearly all year around. Each Aeroroofs system run on less than 20 watts of power and consumes water at the rate of 10 to 20 litres per week. “We use more than that each time we flush our toilets,” Dahal points out, and adds, “The systems are very easy to operate and comes with a detailed user manual. We have ensured that running the system is as easy as sampling the water, adding a pH adjuster and adding the required nutrient concentrate. The volume of the concentrate to be added, which is dependent of the water level in the system, can be looked up easily in the user manual.”

Although Aeroponics is often compared to hydroponics and even sometimes described as being its extension, there are major differences between these two related but distinct technologies. While Aeroponics provides necessary nutrients and water in mist filled controlled environment, hydroponics literally involves growing plants in water. “As plants grow in hydroponics systems, their roots are always fully or partially submerged in water. This constant exposure to water can sometimes result in the plants exhibiting the symptoms of being overwatered and also limits the number of plants that are viable in hydroponic systems. Aeroponics does not suffer from this problem so it is theoretically possible to grow any type of plant using this system,” Dahal explains. By comparison, hydroponics also uses up to four times the water and nutrients used by an Aeroponic system and may easily use more electric power. “The initial higher costs of Aeroponic systems is quickly offset by the significantly lower operating costs and easier maintenance of these system,” Rana adds. Aeroroots has already successfully tried and tested 19 different types of vegetables in the last six months of their ongoing research.

In addition to commercial operations and standalone Aeroroofs, Nepal’s only Aeroponics company is also planning to bring aeroponic vegetables, greens and herbs directly to the consumers. Biplove Singh, CEO of Aeroroots explains, “One of our goal is to start with a physical store in our office building in New Baneshwor. Once we start full scale production from our commercial farm in Godavari, we should be able to deliver on our promise to bring pesticide free produce directly to our consumers. We hope to show potential customers how great aeroponic produce really is in terms of taste, nutrition and quality.” Once established at their physical location, Aeroroots will next develop mobile apps and a delivery network that will enable customers to order fresh vegetables and herbs right to their doorsteps at their convenience. “As a company, we have always believed in employing technology to deliver super value to our customers while improving the efficiency of our internal operations at the same time.

Explaining the business model for Aeroroofs, CEO Singh adds, “We plan to provide a complete package to our customers whether they purchase our commercial systems or the standalone units. From greenhouses, to aeroponically germinated saplings, to customised nutrient solutions to suit all their needs, our aim is to become a provider of all our customers’ aeroponic needs. One of our major goals has always been to even the learning curve for our customers so that more people in Nepal can be a part of the grow at home revolution that is sweeping the world right now.”

Singh also mentions that one of the most common concerns about Aeroponics is whether it is organic or not and explains the answer as follows. “We only use high quality plastic and build our systems from materials that have all been rated food grade. Our nutrient solution is also composed of very simple rock mined minerals all of which are naturally found in very fertile soil. We also use organic seeds and do not employ a single drop of toxic chemicals and pesticides during our production. Therefore, I personally believe that our product is as organic as any organic produce that comes from soil.”

While brought together by their shared vision of a pesticide free world, the founders of Aeroroots come from very diverse backgrounds. From banking to journalism to academics to entrepreneurship, the varied experiences of the founders will no doubt come in handy during the establishment of their new company. “Our vision for Aeroroots extends far beyond just profits. We want to lead a revolution in Nepal in the way that we produce, sell and consume our food. We feel that it is ridiculous for us to be paying some of the highest food prices in the world, without a clue about how much our food is laced with pesticides, many of which are already banned in several parts of the world.  We want to bring the power back to the farmers and the final consumers, whose right to healthy and nutritious food is as fundamental as their right to vote,” the trio explain.

The efforts of Dahal, Rana and Singh are a prominent examples of how innovation and entrepreneurship can solve even the most pressing problems of today. Using Aeroponics, a technology originally pioneered by NASA to grow food for astronauts in space, they hope to directly address problems like high food prices, environmental degradation and pesticide contamination in food. But there can also be indirect implications of the existence of high tech farming companies like Aeroroots. They can help us mitigate problems arising because of other trends like rapid urbanisation and shrinking farmlands. As more people from rural Nepal settle closer to urban comforts like hospitals, schools, transportation and restaurants, we will be forced to either import even more food or produce a lot more with even fewer people. Only technologies such as Aeroponics and innovative companies like Aeroroots may be to feed future generations.

Published: 2017-12-31 13:34:22