Environment award in bag, Hyderabad agri start-up Kheyti aims to ease life of small farmers

Hyderabad start-up Kheyti's unique 'Greenhouse-in-a-Box' helps small and marginal famers become climate resilient.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Dec 14, 2022 | 10:56 AMUpdatedDec 14, 2022 | 10:56 AM

Kheyti - The greenhouse

The big highlight for Kaushik Kappagantulu’s family last week was an Instagram post from Virat Kohli congratulating him on winning an environmental prize backed by Prince William.

Kappagantulu’s Hyderabad-based venture, Kheyti, was named a winner of The Earthshot Prize, a British initiative dedicated to promoting environmental solutions globally, and his close circle was excited by the Instagram post by India’s former cricket skipper.

“Some people in my family were like — ‘Oh, so you do something important!’” laughed Kappagantulu, recalling their reaction.

“It is a great honour”, the young entrepreneur told South First, clearly equally thrilled by the recognition from an Indian icon.

The award, the project

Launched in 2020 by Prince William of Wales, heir apparent to the British throne, and noted English biologist-author David Attenborough, The Earthshot Prize aims to award five initiatives every year between 2021 and 2030 for contributing to environmentalism.

Kheyti Team celebrates

Team Kheyti celebrates after winning The Earthshot Prize. The award function was held remotely. (Supplied)

The five categories — each of which carries a £1 million prize purse — are Protect and Restore Nature, Clean our Air, Revive our Oceans, Build a Waste-Free World, and Fix our Climate.

On 3 December, Kheyti made history by winning the first category, with the other awards going to entries from Kenya, Australia, the UK, and Oman.

But this is not the first time an Indian entry has made the awards list; last year, a Delhi-based tech start-up Takachar, co-founded by Vidyut Mohan, won the inaugural edition of The Earthshot Prize in the Clean our Air category.

The company’s cheap technology innovation converts agricultural waste into fertiliser.

This year, also representing India was Ankit Agarwal’s “Phool”, an initiative to recycle floral waste. The IIT Kanpur-backed start-up was competing in the “Build a Waste-Free World” category.

“Ankit is a good friend,” Kappagantulu said. “We were happily not competing with Phool for the prize.”

Instead, Kappagantulu prefers to look at Kheyti’s win as an overall victory for climate action and environmental change.

“When me and my co-founders started working independently with farmers 13 years ago, nobody talked about climate action,” he said.

“This win brings us into the mainstream. We want to share this victory with other organisations working towards a similar mission of saving the planet.”

Start of something new

Early in their conversations after they met in 2015, the core team of four members — Saumya, Sathya Raghu Mokkappati and Ayush Sharma, apart from Kappagantulu — realised that no matter what “solutions” they designed to address the various challenges in India’s agricultural sector, the lives of local farmers were not getting transformed.

Kheyti - Founder Kaushik Kappagantulu

Kheyti founder Kaushik Kappagantulu. (Supplied)

So, they went back to the drawing board — this time, together as a team.

“We spent six months talking to some 1,000 farmers. We spent every day in the fields in Telangana and Maharashtra to understand what is the real challenge and how we can solve it,” Kappagantulu recalled.

In those conversations, the idea of starting Kheyti came in. “Every farmer would tell us, ‘no matter the hard work you put in growing crops, the weather decides whether you will succeed or not’. So, without knowing the word, farmers were already talking about climate change.”

The team received other feedback as well: Increasing pest attacks as compared to five years ago; drying water tables, a problem not faced by the older generations, and a shorter harvest season due to early summer onset.

“Our goal was to help farmers build climate resilience,” Kappagantulu said. They found the solution to this in greenhouses.

Kheyti founding team

The Kheyti founding team of Kaushik, Saumya, Sathya and Ayush. (Supplied)

“We liked the idea of greenhouses as they solve the problems we heard — help them grow crops in summers and rains, protect them from pests, and increase yields and make farming sustainable as they use less water and fertilisers,” he explained.

Subsequently, the team spent three months each in the US and Israel to identify technologies that could be brought to smallholding farmers in India.

Finally in 2017, Kheyti created a “Greenhouse-In-A-Box” — a low-cost modular greenhouse bundled with services to help farmers fight climate risk.

The first greenhouse came up in Siddipet in Telangana the same year. Today, these can also be found in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Orissa.

Big problems, small farmers

According to India’s 10th agriculture census of 2015-16 — the latest — its 146 million small and marginal farmers, with less than two hectares of land, account for over 86 percent of its total farmers.

Moreover, they occupy over more than 47 percent of India’s cropland. What this means is that climate change impacts a larger section of India’s farming community.

What is more alarming is that with each passing year, the consequences of climate change seem to be spiralling.

For instance, the county recorded its earliest and one of the fiercest heatwaves and incessant rains and cloudbursts this year.

Kheyti's low-cost, modular Greenhouse-in-a-Box.

Kheyti’s low-cost, modular Greenhouse-in-a-Box. (Supplied)

Worse, these unexpected weather events drastically shortened the harvesting period at a time when the world was already beset by food shortages.

“A recent survey mentioned that farmers need to do odd jobs to make a living as just farming is not suffice. The overall revenue for farming is less than the expenditure,” Kappagantulu said.

He also listed the problems that follow as a result. First, the erratic rainfall patterns end up wasting the seeds.

Then, he said quoting “a study”, excessive pesticide usage reduced crop yields by 10 percent almost every year. Crops have also wilted due to increasing heatwaves in the country.

Finally, there is the issue of decreasing groundwater.

“We overuse that water as there is no cost for it, and that ends up affecting the crops,” Kappagantulu said.

The Kheyti solution

This is where Kheyti’s solution comes to the rescue: Its Greenhouse-in-a-Box. In Kappagantulu’s words, it is “a simple, sealed structure” that he claims not only reduces water usage but also increases yield.

First, the greenhouse has coverings that address unique Indian problems: insect-netting on the sides to protect the crops from pests; an additional shade-netting to reduce heat by an estimated five degree centigrade in summers, and another plastic cover to protect the seeds in the rainy season.

Second, the drip irrigation technology placed in inside the greenhouse releases water in droplets rather than flooding the crops. “This way, the usage of water is reduced by almost 90 percent,” Kappagantulu said.

Kheyti founder Kaushik Kappagantulu.

Kheyti founder Kaushik Kappagantulu. (Supplied)

The result is simple — crops grow throughout the year and give seven times more yield. And as he argued, these greenhouses can be afforded by small farmers.

“We have a 240 sq m greenhouse. The farmer needs to invest ₹65,000 — an amount comparable to what he would invest in a buffalo or a few goats,” he said.

Moreover, Kheyti’s greenhouses cost far less than the regular, commercial greenhouses. Standard greenhouses of that size cost ₹3-3.5 lakh.

 Kappagantulu believes this investment of ₹65,000 can be recovered in about nine months.

“The greenhouse has a life of 15 years. After recovering cost, the farmer is in profit and can make Rs 1 lakh a year as an additional income,” he said.

Farming revolution

Greenhouses are meant for growing exotic vegetables. While Kheyti’s model can be used for that, it is also useful for growing regular crops like tomato, okra, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.

Some farmers were growing fruits like muskmelon and papaya as well.

Kappagantulu said maintaining a Kheyti greenhouse was relatively easy. Additionally, he and the team train farmers to help them get going on their own.

Kheyti also has an R&D facility that tests about 20 crops every year and makes them ready for farmers. “We started off with two crops and today farmers are equipped to grow 15.”

Until December 2021, Kheyti was only operational in Telangana state and working with 400 farmers. Today, it has spread across seven states and working with 1,000 farmers.

“But this is just the start,” Kappagantulu said.

“By 2027, Kheyti wants 50,000 farmers to have a Greenhouse-in-a-Box. And this prize will help us invest in a solid foundation for that ambition.”