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How Startup India can bring positive changes in agriculture sector

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By P.D. Rai

In India, many startup companies are actually happening in the organic agriculture space, but little is known of or heard about them.

They have not found space in Vigyan Bhavan during the inauguration of #StartupIndia by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on January 16. Overwhelmingly the glitz of technology-led startups were there for everyone to see. They are the now famous ones in online marketing like Flipkart or those in transportation aggregation like Ola.

This is a fantastic initiative. It has the architecture of giving entrepreneurs the space to do what they do best, creating products and services from ideas and making them work – the startup ecosystem. After making them work, curating them to be able to monetize it, before ramping it up in terms of scale.

This will take away the ‘babu’ or small time bureaucrats who have no clue as to what entrepreneurship is all about impeding the process. They do not even want to understand it. They just want to get in the way. They add friction and costs. All counterproductive.

If I am writing all this, believe me, I have had the opportunity to go down this road myself. But better, I have had the opportunity to listen to thousands of young people who have had to contend with this ‘harassment’. In one sweep our prime minister has gotten rid of this. Thumbs up to that.

Making it easier to register and get loans is the next big thing. Creating a tidy Rs. 10,000 crore ($1.5 billion) fund for startups is also a great initiative. If the ministries all ensure that there is minimum government, then I am sure the #StartupIndia will lift off.

Why should this be limited just to technology-led startups? What we need to do is to connect it to agriculture. Make AgriTech startups cool. This is where the real fun is going to be because India’s teeming millions of young people will have to be part of the food security apparatus. This needs careful handling as there is a message in the startup plan that only tech startups are in. Agro-startups will enhance our ability to grow our food locally and build the largest food basket in the world. Such startups will have the resilience to adapt to the vagaries of weather induced by climate change.

Will NABARD be up to the task? Can it leverage the fundamental momentum that is being given by Prime Minister Modi in solving the key issue of young people leaving their farms and going elsewhere?

Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, played host to an agriculture ministers’ meet which was flagged off by union minister Radha Mohan Singh and Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. The keynote speech was by Dr. Ramesh Chand, a member of the NITI Aayog. He is a long-time professional in the field of agriculture. What he said was remarkable. How can we make #StartupIndia available to the farming sector? It is not just about giving sops but turning to making farming profitable once again with cheaper input costs.

Critically, technology is available for the farms. Many young and tech background people have found solace and their calling in buying poor and degraded land and making it into vibrant Agri businesses. There are many instances out there. Take, for instance, Lumiere Organic, headed by Manjunath and headquartered in Bangalore. It started with just growing what is now known as organic food and vegetables. It now has a roaring organic food restaurant. Guess who are its main customers? Technology-fatigued souls from Bangalore’s millions working in the hi-tech industries! All looking for the organic balm.

Manjunath wants to source products from far away Sikkim. So what is required? Get young entrepreneurs to do just what Manjunath and many others have done. Young people need to get the space to start and, if need be, fail. This is what entrepreneurship is all about.

Sikkim, under Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, has created a state that is fully organic. Sikkim is the brand; Sikkim needs to be leveraged. Can we now marry Prime Minister Modi’s #StartupIndia with #OrganicSikkim and field 1,000 young entrepreneurs? This is a challenge worth taking. This is a partnership worth exploring.

This perhaps is the opportunity of the decade before us. What it needs is to be able to have a quick mechanism like an incubator in Sikkim to leverage the full potential of #StartupIndia. (IANS)(Photo: http://corporateethos.in)

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The Future Farmer is Here and He is A Robot

The heavy lifting on Iron Ox’s indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another,

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Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander gives a tour at his robotic indoor farm in San Carlos, California. VOA

Brandon Alexander would like to introduce you to Angus, the farmer of the future. He’s heavyset, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pounds, not to mention a bit slow. But he’s strong enough to hoist 800-pound pallets of maturing vegetables and can move them from place to place on his own.

Sure, Angus is a robot. But don’t hold that against him, even if he looks more like a large tanning bed than C-3PO.

To Alexander, Angus and other robots are key to a new wave of local agriculture that aims to raise lettuce, basil and other produce in metropolitan areas while conserving water and sidestepping the high costs of human labor. It’s a big challenge, and some earlier efforts have flopped. Even Google’s “moonshot” laboratory, known as X, couldn’t figure out how to make the economics work.

After raising $6 million and tinkering with autonomous robots for two years, Alexander’s startup Iron Ox says it’s ready to start delivering crops of its robotically grown vegetables to people’s salad bowls. “And they are going to be the best salads you ever tasted,” says the 33-year-old Alexander, a one-time Oklahoma farmboy turned Google engineer turned startup CEO.

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The temperatures of some two dozen plant varietals are monitored at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

Iron Ox planted its first robot farm in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in San Carlos, California, a suburb located 25 miles south of San Francisco. Although no deals have been struck yet, Alexander says Iron Ox has been talking to San Francisco Bay area restaurants interested in buying its leafy vegetables and expects to begin selling to supermarkets next year.

The San Carlos warehouse is only a proving ground for Iron Ox’s long-term goals. It plans to set up robot farms in greenhouses that will rely mostly on natural sunlight instead of high-powered indoor lighting that sucks up expensive electricity. Initially, though, the company will sell its produce at a loss in order to remain competitive.

During the next few years, Iron Ox wants to open robot farms near metropolitan areas across the U.S. to serve up fresher produce to restaurants and supermarkets. Most of the vegetables and fruit consumed in the U.S. is grown in California, Arizona, Mexico and other nations. That means many people in U.S. cities are eating lettuce that’s nearly a week old by the time it’s delivered.

There are bigger stakes as well. The world’s population is expected to swell to 10 billion by 2050 from about 7.5 billion now, making it important to find ways to feed more people without further environmental impact, according to a report from the World Resources Institute.

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A robotic arm lifts plants being grown at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

Iron Ox, Alexander reasons, can be part of the solution if its system can make the leap from its small, laboratory-like setting to much larger greenhouses.

The startup relies on a hydroponic system that conserves water and automation in place of humans who seem increasingly less interested in U.S. farming jobs that pay an average of $13.32 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly half of U.S. farmworkers planting and picking crops aren’t in the U.S. legally, based on a survey by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The heavy lifting on Iron Ox’s indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another, as-yet unnamed robot, which transfers plants from smaller growing pods to larger ones, using a mechanical arm whose joints are lubricated with “food-safe” grease.

It’s a tedious process to gently pick up each of the roughly 250 plants on each pallet and transfer them to their bigger pods, but the robot doesn’t seem to mind the work. Iron Ox still relies on people to clip its vegetables when they are ready for harvest, but Alexander says it is working on another robot that will eventually handle that job too.

Also Read: Asian Farms Tackle Drug Resistance with Apps and Dictionary

Alexander formerly worked on robotics at Google X, but worked on drones, not indoor farms. While there, he met Jon Binney, Iron Ox’s co-founder and chief technology offer. The two men became friends and began to brainstorm about ways they might be able to use their engineering skills for the greater good.

“If we can feed people using robots, what could be more impactful than that?” Alexander says. (VOA)