City dwellers largely face two problems, if they don’t trust the produce available in the market and want to grow their own, observes Shameek: “There is either a space problem or a time problem or both.”
“Even if you live in a big house and you have a farm, you don’t have the time to take care of the farm. That’s what got me thinking about a new business model that could solve both issues,” says Shameek Chakravarty, co-founder of Farmizen, an app that allows Bengalureans to rent out a space on a farm for ₹2,500 a month for fresh, naturally grown, chemical-free vegetables every week.
“Before we started working on the model, I visited a few organic stores and spoke to people in the supply chain. That’s when we realised how leaky the organic food supply chain was, even if there is certification.”
He and his wife first tried to grow their own produce on a 600 sq ft patch of land and realised they could grow a lot of food there.
“It was quite a bit of space, which we didn’t realise as balcony and terrace farmers. We also found that getting produce depends on consistent effort. And when we didn’t have the time to visit the farm on some weekends, the yield would fall and we would end up buying from the market.”
Shameek and his cofounders-- CTO, Sudaakeran Balasubramanian and COO, Gitanjali Rajamani -- started working on their business model in January and launched Farmizen by June. “We stated with just one 1.4 acre farm and 79 subscribers. The way the app works is simple. Customers rent out a 600 sq ft mini farm that is divided into 12 raised beds which are fixed with sprinklers for drip irrigation. They use the app to figure out what they want to plant in each bed.” That’s just step one. They are then notified on the growth of their crops. They are also told what to do if and when there’s a pest attack by Farmizen’s farmers who also work through the app at the other end.
“The app helps customers stay updated with what is happening at the farm and participate in the decision making. They will be notified when the vegetables are ready to harvest so they can plan to visit the farm and harvest the produce with their family. And when they are not able to come to the farm, we deliver the produce.”
Consumers are able to get over five to six kgs of vegetables every week from the second month onwards since the first month is meant for set-up. “The monthly rental is inclusive of everything from delivery to seeds, saplings, labour and other set-up costs.” The method of farming that participating farmers use is natural farming, which does not permit the use of any chemicals including fertilisers such as urea.
“Our focus is on enriching the soil by using techniques such as multi-cropping, introducing microbes such as earthworms in the soil with natural mixtures such as jeevamrut and applying neem oil or ginger-garlic spray as pest repellents,” he explains.
“We believe this model is a win-win model. It is good for consumers because it is chemical-free and it is good for farmers because they are able to make money and earn a fixed income. It is also good for the planet and the soil because of the farming methodology that we are following. The raised beds do not allow for the compaction of the soil. Otherwise soil would need to be tilled, which kills the earthworms.”
The tilling, in the raised bed method, is done by the earthworms themselves. Raised beds also help safeguard the crops from being destroyed during heavy rains. In the seven months since they launched the app, Farmizen has expanded to five farms covering 10.5 acres. “We have over 450 (and growing) subscribers now. We are also making sure to build these farms at places where people can reconnect with nature. It means a lot if customers come to the farm rather than treat this just as another organic vegetable delivery service,” he points out.
“Every farm has 10 per cent set aside as a common area where anybody who visits the farm can harvest anything. We hold workshops at our network of farms, for families – everything from kids yoga to Lego workshops.
Customers want to spend time in a green space. The third part is tying up with fruit farmers, because fruits take more time to grow, so customers can pre-order fruits on the app, which will be delivered with their weekly vegetables, once they are ready to harvest. This way there is less wastage.” Once they begin to service 3,000 subscribers in the city, they plan to expand to other cities in India. But there are challenges in the way. “Some consumers are of the opinion that vegetables need to look good. We have put in a lot of effort to educate consumers. Most of the problems faced by Indian agriculture are not because of farmers, or the government. It’s because of consumers, who want their vegetables to be good looking, leading to a lot of wastage. This also encourages farmers to do what they need to do grow good–looking vegetables. The only way to do that, consciously, is by using chemicals”
Another challenge is dealing with the excess produce every week. Farmizen is solving this by helping consumers donate a part of their produce to NGOs. “We are also planning to roll out an option in the app that will enable hyperlocal consumer groups, in apartments, for instance, to barter.” For details, visit farmizen.com.