Planet Healers of Hyderabad

Engineer your kitchen garden

Sharmila and Manvitha with Ajay of HomeCrop, an organic urban gardening enterprise

Sharmila and Manvitha with Ajay of HomeCrop, an organic urban gardening enterprise   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

Hyderabad-based HomeCrop takes a structured approach towards kitchen gardens, with grow kits, user manuals and maintenance follow-ups

Four engineering graduates from Hyderabad believe that if you want to eat and live healthy, it’s best to grow your own vegetables. They tried this in their own homes and now, through their entrepreneurial venture HomeCrop, have helped more than 600 people to follow suit.

Manvitha Reddy, Sharmila Reddy, Krishna and Sai Krishna did their engineering from Vellore Institute of Technology, before pursuing their respective Masters. Manvitha pursued Business Management in London, Sharmila worked in the insurance sector in Hyderabad and Singapore, Krishna specialised in techno entrepreneurship and worked in Singapore, and Sai Krishna did his Masters in robotics in the US. They weren’t in the same stream or batch but destiny brought them together a few years later.

Manvitha first met her senior college mate Krishna and his wife Sharmila. The trio then met Sai Krishna at an organic food expo. When the four of them came together in 2015, wanting to be entrepreneurs, they discussed several ideas in the tech space. “Sai Krishna suggested other ideas. Ultimately, the organic food segment caught our attention,” says Manvitha. The market for organic produce was growing in Hyderabad, and the idea got further impetus for personal reasons. “My niece was born in 2015 and I saw my sister-in-law trying to find organic food,” Manvitha recalls.

What can you grow?
  • Begin with leafy greens, which can be harvested in 20 to 25 days. Then, try growing local vegetables such as brinjals, tomatoes and okra. Once you are confident, try growing creepers that require more care. A vegetable calendar on the website lists crops ideal for each season.
  • For small terraces, the team suggests the square foot gardening principle. The soil bed is divided into sections of one square foot to grow different crops. In one square foot, it’s possible to grow 300 to 350 grams of spinach, or one plant of tomato, carrot or radish.
  • Urban farmers are taught how to water the plants, test moisture levels, look for signs of plant health, identify common pests and use bio-pesticides.

As the friends began researching on organic food, they had doubts about several products in the market that are labelled organic. Sai Krishna’s family has a farm in Zaheerabad. Through those involved in the farm and by listening to others in the agriculture sector, they learnt that only small pockets of land in and around Hyderabad are under organic cultivation. “We felt strongly about food quality and safety. The vegetables we source from the market are laden with pesticides, the effects of which cannot be nullified by cooking. We felt the only way to counter this is to grow our own vegetables,” says Manvitha.

Their self-funded venture, HomeCrop, is an urban farming enterprise that was incubated at a-IDEA (Association for Innovation Development of Entrepreneurship in Agriculture), the technology business incubator hosted by ICAR-NAARM (Indian Council of Agricultural Research; National Academy of Agricultural Research Management) in Hyderabad. Manvitha and Sharmila are the co-founders, Krishna is the strategist and planner, Sai Krishna is the director and the brain behind HomeCrop’s soil-less grow mix. The group then hired Ajay Beerla as manager, sales and business development.

Soil-less grow mix

The team began experimenting. Since terrace farming was their priority, they tried growing vegetables in small spaces in their own homes. They chose a soil-less mix to reduce the load on the terrace. HomeCrop uses a mix of coco peat, vegetable cakes, oils and compost to balance the micro and macro nutrients. “With soil, apart from the weight, there were quality issues and weeding,” Sharmila points out.

Initially, the team had outsourced its soil-less grow mix but found that the crop yield wasn’t satisfactory. They began doing it themselves to ensure quality control and help came from Sai Krishna’s farm. The plants began to grow faster.

One of their earliest terrace gardening modules resembled mini greenhouses — metallic structures with canopy and shade nets. These were heavy and cost ₹15,000 to ₹20,000 for 15 square feet. They then introduced smaller, lightweight garden kits. For beginners, they are kits priced at ₹2,000.

HomeCrop uses ‘smart grow bags’ made of biodegradable geotextiles. “Geotextile is breathable and the roots grow better. When roots hit the plastic surface, they turn sideways. In geotextile bags, the root tips branch into finer roots. This enhances absorption of minerals from the grow mix,” says Krishna.

The square foot principle

The square foot principle   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

The organisation has an online presence (HomeCrop.in) and sells kits pan-India through Amazon. Outstation buyers are given video tutorials and WhatsApp support. In Hyderabad, HomeCrop conducts workshops for beginners periodically at its office in Manikonda and gives customers user manuals, and a structured service option. Customers can sign up for a monthly or bi-monthly visit from HomeCrop for troubleshooting. “Beginners seek help during the first crop cycle of four months, after which we encourage them to do it themselves. When they see a good harvest, they are motivated to grow more vegetables,” says Manvitha. Top-up nourishment for the grow mix and replenishment after every crop cycle is provided.

The next leap

The organisation is in talks with schools, corporates and real estate firms that are keen to introduce urban farming to encourage students, employees and residents to get their hands dirty and forge a stronger connection with food. HomeCrop is working towards expanding operations in other cities of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh through partnerships.

In addition, the Zaheerabad farm plans to grow millets and quinoa, involving farmers from the neighbourhood. “At a later stage, in partnership with ICRISAT, we will work on developing millet-based consumer products,” Krishna sums up.

(Planet Healers celebrates eco-conscious initiatives. If you know an eco-warrior, write in to hydmetroplus@thehindu.co.in)

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 1:31:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/hyderabad-based-homecrop-takes-a-structured-approach-towards-kitchen-gardens/article27115418.ece

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