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Startup Saturday: Tech sows plant healthcare into global fields

Farmers can share opinions, problems and solutions on Swasti Agro’s Android application ‘Happy Crop’.

pune Updated: Jun 16, 2018 14:55 IST
Namita Shibad
Namita Shibad
Hindustan Times, Pune
Pune,Startup Saturday,Happy Crop
Abhay Shendye (fourth from left) of Swasti Agro interacts with farmers of Dharur, near Solapur in a pomegranate field.(HT PHOTO)

Swasti Agro,which was founded in 2011 by Dr Abhay Shendye, is involved in building healthcare system for plants. This involves disease prediction, pathogen detection and plant physiology analysis. The start-up is also collaborating with tech-people for developing android applications, Internet of things based sensor tools and analysis cum advice software.

Swasti Agro has an Android application ‘Happy Crop’ which supports implementation of plant healthcare. Farmers can also avail plant health monitoring and disease diagnosis tolls.

The Happy Crop app is a forum where farmers can share their opinions, problems and solutions. They can post pictures of a disease that the plant on his farm has developed. Swasti Agro scientists will then respond with a solution. The farmers apart from chatting with experts in the company, can also chat among themselves. The app currently is available in Marathi, Kannada and English.

As a child, Abhay Shendye would visit his grandfather’s fields and help milk cows or sow rice. This childhood activity led to a passionate love for agriculture that years later resulted in Swasti Bio and Agro Products in Pune.

“I did my PhD in molecular biology from national chemical laboratory (NCL) and was primarily on research. My work focused on preventing crop diseases. Initially, I thought I would focus on research and transfer the technology to some company to take it forward. That did not work out as people wanted to maintain status quo. So, in 2011 I decided that I would manufacture products that I researched on.”

Though Abhay’s research was on agriculture and related products, they were quite different from those available in the market.

“Whenever you hear a word ending with ‘cide’, it means that you are killing something. There are plenty of pesticides available in the market. I thought why not create something that would prevent disease in plants? Much like our vaccines. You take a vaccine for typhoid or TB so that your body develops immunity towards that disease. So, much like that, I developed some polysaccharides that would help prevent disease in plants,”said Shendye.

Abhay found out later that research and business were two different things. “I studied all about funding and how to manage finances of a business. I knew what financial path to take. Initially we needed funds, which incidentally we need even today, but for different reasons. I guess I was lucky that BIRAC gave us our initial capital of Rs 50 lakhs which was to do a proof of concept,” he says.

“I first worked on the pomegranate crop. I developed a vaccine that gave 100 per cent disease free crop. I had done some initial tests. So, I went to the Pomegranate Board Association and told them about my vaccine. They asked me for guarantee. I asked them what guarantee they had when they used the pesticide. One of the members told me that he had lost 70 per cent of his crops to disease despite using pesticide. I told him that I can give him better results but not guarantee. I walked out. They called me back and I gave 50 free demos. Later that year I sold my vaccine to 600 pomegranate farmers,”he adds.

Abhay was lucky to receive funds in the initial phases and he allocated Rs 25 lakhs to marketing. “It was Kharif season and we started selling in May. In three months, I reached break-even,” he says.

Given the cyclical nature of agriculture, Abhay encountered what every entrepreneur does, a challenge for maintaining status quo. “As a start-up, you learn to make money but to figure out how to get to the next stage is difficult. I didn’t know how to grow from there. How to continue this growth that I achieved. By August, I had made Rs 25 lakhs and the next year, the revenue was only 50 per cent. Agriculture is very dependent on the weather. Today I can manufacture goods worth ₹10 crore but am selling for only Rs 1 crore, which means I am not utilising my full capacity. There are different challenges at every stage. Earlier it was to raise funds. Today, I have to see how I can grow my market and utilise my capacity,” he continues

Abhay got further fund infusion from the Millennium Alliance that has 11 bodies that includes the USAID, Technology Development Board, India, FICCI, UK Aid, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, of another Rs 60 Lakhs. “Whatever money I get, I apportion part of it to research and then to business.”

As of now, Swasti Agro has developed 10 such vaccines that are available to farmers.

Swasti was incubated at the XLR8 an incubator powered by the Govt of Andhra Pradesh, FICCI and the Institute of the University of Texas. XLR8 took Swasti Agro’s proposal to the Texas University last year. They did a thorough study on his new theory of vaccines versus pesticides. Says Abhay, “Texas University presented our work to 27 different companies across the globe and asked for their opinions. These included global biggies like Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer etc.

“The opinion of these leaders was that while the vaccine concept was really good, it needed to be more specific. It needs to focus on one crop, and a particular disease afflicting that crop. So say the American farmers are facing problems with soya bean so I should focus on that and develop such a vaccine. Then there are chances of seeing the company succeed. Else start ups like mine can perish. Moreover the recommendation was that I would also need funds to make it a global brand. Moreover these companies would not touch my brand until I had worked on at least One Million acres. Of course the smaller companies are ready to work with me for a smaller acreage but even that is One Lakh acres. Regarding funding I think I may have to dilute my equity”

To that end with the Millennium Alliance Abhay is working in Rwanda and Kenya to reach out to small famers with his vaccine. “I am currently working with the Govt to do the registration and paperwork and have met with a few people who are interested in tying up with Swasti Agro to manufacture our vaccines. Let’s see how far we can take this.” What started with milking cows and planting rice has grown onto global fields. As Abhay says, “As a start up I first needed money to establish proof of concept, then to go to market, now I need it to become a big daddy. All that may go on, but I will never give up on my research. That will always be needed.”

Voices from the fields

Krishna Phule, has five acres of farm at Phaltan

“I am an organic farmer and am pretty informed about various products that we use. For example I make a solution of cow dung, cow urine, gur and chana atta and keep it for seven days. This helps maintain the health of not just the plant but also the soil. But then I came across Swasti Agro. I tried it out and have found the results pretty encouraging. I have five acres of land on which I grown two types of pumpkin, bitter gourd, pomegranate wheat and sugarcane. Swasti’s INA4 and Culture4 help keep diseases away from my crops. It increases the resistance of the plant. Moreover even during climate change the plant stays steady right from 30 degrees to 42 degrees, the heat does not affect the plants. Preemptive use of this vaccine works out 50% cheaper since it prevents crop damage.”

Sunil Kolavale, pomegranate farmer at Sangola:

I have 3200 pomegranate trees and even have a store that sells pesticides. But ever since the Govt has banned chemical pesticides as they are more poisonous I have switched to this organic one. Not only is it safe for human consumption but it is also good for the plants. Earlier I used to get those diseased spots on the fruit but now I don’t see them at all.

Pravin Baban Chaudhary of Junnar

I have 10 acres on which I plant tomatoes and cucumber. Earlier I used to use chemical pesticides and the results were not good. I could see the bacteria grow despite spraying the pesticide. And these bacteria would not let the plant grow. But with Swasti Agro’s products I get 100% results. I did a comparison on my field. On half I used chemical pesticide and the other half Swasti’s vaccines. With Swasti’s vaccine I got 100% results and with chemical sprays I lost 90% of my crop. In fact now all 2000 farmers are using Swasti Agro products.

Tushar Shende of Indapur

The chemical pesticides I used earlier would help control the disease after it had affected the plants but this product helps prevent the disease itself. This is great. I now get about 70 to 80% better output from my 1500 pomegranate trees.

First Published: Jun 16, 2018 14:54 IST