AeroRoots- Using Aeroponics to Change The Future of Farming

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AeroRoots is a hi-tech agriculture company dedicated to providing a completely soil-less system to grow chemical-free vegetables. With a state of art Aeroponic technology pioneered by NASA, AeroRoots is the first of its kind in Nepal to produce fruits and vegetables that are fresh, organic, nutritious and pesticide-free.

1. Can you introduce yourself and Aero Roots?

My name is Biplove Singh and I am a resident of Kathmandu. I graduated with a Master’s degree from Symbiosis in Pune and started my career in a bank and worked in that industry for almost 6 years. However, I realized that this industry didn’t interest me much so, I decided to move on. I joined the academic field as a teacher at Ace Institute of Management and King’s College. I was offered a position as the Director in King’s College and was also part of the board of directors at Global IME Capital for almost 2 and a half years. Finally, I started my entrepreneurial journey with AeroRoots in 2016.

My partner and co-founder of AeroRoots is Ceasar Rana who graduated from Boston University, USA and has taken a diploma from Harvard in Engineering. He has about 14 years of work experience and has worked at The Kathmandu Post and as the head of the entrepreneurship department at King’s College.

AeroRoots was an idea that popped up over a cup of coffee while discussing the rise of rooftop farming. We had realized its scope at the time but we were clueless about it workings. So, we got a suggestion to look into aeroponic technology. This acted as a small seed that made its way to become AeroRoots today. Since both of us come from different backgrounds, we didn’t know a thing about agriculture. So, we decided to learn about the technology, bring it home and customize it to fit our needs since it is a NASA sponsored plant experiment.

We made multiple trials and errors in the 25 months of continuous work on understanding aeroponics. Moreover, we tried and tested different versions of the aero roof system and are currently on the 4th version of our system.

So far we have grown 25 different kinds of vegetables including tomatoes, bitter gourd (karela), 6 different types of lettuces and spinach like bok choy and lamb spinach (palang). However, we do not want to restrict ourselves to just vegetables so, in the future, we plan to extend ourselves to floriculture as well.

2. How does the system work?

The system works in line with the normal working of a plant. There are 3 key points in understanding how aeroroofs work. First, we do not require huge acres of land to cultivate our plants. We take very minimal space for the same amount of plants grown in traditional farming. Second, we do not need labors since our system is automated as opposed to traditional farming. Third, we provide water, air, and nutrition that a plant needs to grow in a more balanced and adequate way.

Our aero roof drum, made out of a simple water tank, has 60 different grow holes that plants can branch out of. These plants can be of one single type or different types categorized according to their nutritional needs.

We mix soluble nutrition and water and use the system to directly supply the mixture to the roots of the plants with the help of a pump. There are a few high-pressure nozzles that spray it on the roots in the form of mist so that the mixture is well absorbed. We time the supply of the mixture to fit the exact need of the plant according to its category. Finally, oxygen is free in the air.

So, when water, nutrients, and oxygen are given together in a balanced way, plants grow faster. Hence, this is how our system guarantees you more output.

3. What social problems are you addressing with AeroRoots?

Earlier we only aimed to provide chemical-free vegetables which were the main social problem we identified and were trying to solve. Similarly, we are also talking to 2 governmental organizations- the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of the Youth and their wings to transfer this technology to other places to increase their production and output.

But, when we thought about it later, we found that AeroRoots was solving other problems as well. First of all, vegetables currently being transported from far off farms which are prone to gas emissions. So, we are helping people consume fresh vegetables produced near them. Second,  we use only 1% of water for the same amount of plants as compared to traditional farming so we’re helping in water conservation too. Third, we are also promoting self-subsistent rooftop farming which saves a lot of time and money as compared to going to the market and buying vegetables.

In these ways, we are helping people become self-subsistent while minimizing the environmental hazards brought by pesticides and other chemicals.

According to data, we are importing a lot of vegetables from India such as tomatoes. But, if we produce enough for ourselves then we can contribute to the trade deficit of Nepal.

4. What is the legal status of AeroRoots?

We are a 31 months old company since November 2016 however, we have been officially registered as an agro-tech company since June 2017 with 2 founding members; myself (Biplove Singh) and my partner Caesar Rana, and one angel investor.

5. How many people did you start with and what is the current staff strength of AeroRoots?

Caesar and I were the only two people working on AeroRoots when we began. Then, two of my colleagues joined last year. Gradually, more people started joining in our journey and now we’ve employed nearly 10 people directly and outsource people whenever we need additional help in the greenhouse installations.

6. How were the funds collected to start the company?

As Caesar and I met in Kings College, we started by investing our savings but soon realized that the capital injected wasn’t enough. So, we injected more funds along with another angel investor that I had mentioned before. We wanted to become self-sustainable so we started selling our drums in June 2018 through which we slowly started to generate revenue. We borrowed a sum amount of 15 lakhs from a microfinance company and were helped by 2 governmental bodies; the ministry of Agriculture gave us a grant of Rs.16.5 lakhs and Ministry of Youth and Sports (National Youth Committee) awarded us with Rs.5 lakhs interest-free loan and the payback starts from next year. This makes up 40% of our capital and rest are self-funded.

7. What challenges did you face?

One of the challenges was growing saplings of our own since we were buying it from local nurseries. Since our system is completely soil-less and a sapling needs soil to grow, we realized that we needed to find ways to grow them in our system itself.

We also naively thought that the nutrients are easily available in the market since Nepal is an agriculture-based country. However, we couldn’t find combinations of soluble nutrients and figured that the government was reluctant to import them as well. However, we have been informing them about its usefulness in our frequent meetings and seminar and hopefully, they will be easily available in the Nepali market.

8. Where do you make the AeroRoof Drums and grow the vegetables and saplings?

The drums are produced in our office in Baneshwor. However, we plan to shift our manufacturing unit to Godavari where our commercial farm will also be situated which has the capacity to hold 400 drums. We have two planting labs; one in Caeser’s house in Kalanki, and one in our office. Since we need to show our consumers the different plants at different stages so, we have 8 drums in our office rooftop lab and 6 drums in Caeser’s house.

9. Have you reached the breakeven point yet?

I think 2019 will be a superb year for us because earlier we only focused on getting our systems to work. However, now, looking at the market side as well, the indications look good as it has been only 5 to 6 months that we have started to work on our visibility by visiting colleges and participating in fairs and competitions.

10. Who are your target customers?

At the moment, we have two different categories of target customers; individual customers and institution or business customers. Some are farmers or people who want to grow vegetables in their rooftops and others are institutions like King’s College who have already ordered 4 drums for their rooftop.

We’re also trying to cater to another group of people who are involved in community farming. If you just go beyond ring road, you will see a lot of places where that’s done. We realized that the success lies in the interest of the customers, therefore, we’re also trying to target those who do gardening as a hobby. Till now, we have 7 customers and have installed 32 drums with a variety of 7 different vegetables.

Once you buy a drum from us, we’ll install it and we also want to run it for at least 6 months. We visit the customer periodically to clean and check the drum to ensure that the plants grow well. Besides this, we also have a fully detailed manual with which some customers are producing even better than we are.

11. What are the future plans of AeroRoots?

We want to focus on 3 things for the future. Firstly, we want to improve our research and development on system designing along with nutrition and sapling production to take a lead in the market.

To start this off, we’re going to introduce the Artificial Intelligence (AI) feature in our drums which will help us in getting access to the drums in the customers’ house from our office itself. They’ll give us data about the water level, temperature, humidity and the Ph level of the drums. This system can help us in solving a lot of problems that may arise without the knowledge of the customers as well.

Secondly, we want to improve our staff capacity through training. Lastly, we want to build our commercial farms.

12. Do you consider yourself as a social entrepreneur?

As our innovative product is making a social impact in not just one aspect but a lot of them including environmental conservation and self-sustained economy, we do consider ourselves as social entrepreneurs.

Connect with this innovative company on their Facebook or check out their website AeroRoots to know more about their services.

Interviewed by Priyadarshani Shrestha and Edited by Yangzum Lama