Produce wastage during the lockdowns sees startups mobilising to aid farmers and vendors

With lockdowns in place across India, these homegrown startups leverage AI, IoT, data science and more to offer innovative solutions to fresh produce vendors and farmers, preventing wastage and revenue loss

Updated - May 28, 2021 03:42 pm IST

Published - May 27, 2021 10:19 am IST

 A fruits vendor wearing a mask on MG Road in Vijayawada

A fruits vendor wearing a mask on MG Road in Vijayawada

Mahabaleshwar’s farmers harvest strawberries in February. In Himachal Pradesh, apple farmers fill their baskets with glossy red, orange and green globes to be shipped across the country.

This year, gripped by the second wave of the pandemic and strict lockdowns, vendors are struggling to reach customers.

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Wastage is a concern; especially in searing summer months. Vendor GV Murthy in Kondapur, Hyderabad, was forced to dispose of nearly 40 kilograms of tomatoes and 10 kilograms of lady’s fingers in the second week of Telangana lockdowns alone. “Usually I sell produce worth ₹8,000 on a good week. But now I am barely making ₹2,000. I can’t refrigerate all of this produce and so much is going to waste,” he says. And he is not alone.

It’s all about quality

This issue has been on the minds of Bengaluru-based qZense’s team: Rubal Chib, an electronics engineer, and Srishti Batra, a PhD scientist, who met at Entrepreneur First’s first cohort. Srishti has always been fascinated by olfaction, and Rubal combined this interest with an Internet of Things (IoT) sensor to create Q-scan. This handheld device identifies a fruit and then detects if it is edible. It also predicts, using algorithmic data, how much longer a given fruit will stay fresh.

The Q-scan device by qZense scanning the freshness of a mango

The Q-scan device by qZense scanning the freshness of a mango

Soon, Rubal and Srishti got numerous requests from retailers to bring in Q-scan and Q-log — olfactory loggers for storage — to prevent food loss. Rubal believes that investment into such technology has to happen at the grassroots level. She says, “Retailers and sellers including Reliance have been early adopters of qZense’s tech on a large scale to meet the demands of transparency. Farms use it in clocking harvest times.”

QZense is operating largely within metro cities, but their tech has been adopted in Himachal by apple farmers and suppliers, as well as orchards in and around Maharashtra and Bengaluru.

qZense co-founders Rubal Chib and Dr Srishti Batra

qZense co-founders Rubal Chib and Dr Srishti Batra

“Though the agrarian community has been resilient (during the pandemic), the food value chain needs to be more agile,” AgNext’s CEO Taranjeet Singh Brahma insists, “so the demand for low-cost and real-time Artificial Intelligence (AI) assessment has been high.”

AgNext’s AI platform Qualix offers instant and on-field chemical, physical and ambient assessments for food safety, security and quality from farm to store. As an example, he points to the frequent problem farmers need to resolve — that of moisture in grains. The quality of grain reduces if the moisture content is too high, whereas if the humidity is too low, it leads to excessive drying.

Using image analytics and AI, Gurugram-based IntelloLabs is replacing the earlier method of manual quality checks that would be restricted to one sample per batch.

In the absence of real-time data, farmers tend to apply inputs uniformly throughout the fields, which causes costs to rise and unnecessary amounts of fertilisers and pesticides to enter the food supply chain. Similarly, with no insights on crop maturity, a farmer typically harvests all of his fields at one go.

Co-founded in 2016 by Milan Sharma, Nishant Mishra, Himani Shah and Devendra Chandani, IntelloLabs has several prominent brands like Reliance Fresh, Dole, and Ocean Spray on its roster.

The startup’s flagship Intello Track app offers mobility and remote access from a single source of operation, and provides relevant quality statistics (such as colour, size and visual appearance) to growers in real time, to reduce the chances of wastage. So taking a picture of a single fruit or vegetable will generate data on whether it is under-ripe, ready to consume, or damaged, and also analyse the quality of the entire lot.

“Our AI-based products help with quality grading, sorting and packing at various points in the supply chains, from the farm all the way down to retailer store. While the products can be deployed as point solutions, the system’s — mainly Intello Track’s — effectiveness increases manifold if all the players in a single supply chain use it together,” says Saurabh Job, Head of Global Marketing at IntelloLabs.

A professional using Qualix, AgNext’s innovative platform benefitting agriculture trade for better food quality, food safety and food security

A professional using Qualix, AgNext’s innovative platform benefitting agriculture trade for better food quality, food safety and food security

Transport and storage woes, resolved

Punjab-based AgNext is currently testing a low-cost cold storage solution that is in line for a patent. “We can plan to give it to farmers as a corporate social responsibility or as a rental to prevent wastage from the start,” says Taranjeet.

Meanwhile, Pune-based Ecozen has been mobilising to leverage green energy for cold storage for the agrarian community, especially during restricted transportation during lockdowns across India. “Lockdowns pushed us to work at a larger scale,” shares Vivek Pandey, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, adding, “and leasing cold storage became a demand all of a sudden. We ramped up production to adapt.”

Farmers from Mahbaleshwar are using Ecofrost to precool strawberries

Farmers from Mahbaleshwar are using Ecofrost to precool strawberries

Despite being so agriculturally diverse, Indian farming is hampered by an antiquated and inefficient supply infrastructure that leads to the wastage of at least 25-30% of fresh produce. “It happens at three points: the farm, inefficient supply-chain management where produce can get damaged during handling or transport, and at the retail level,” says Shobit Gupta, co-founder, and CEO of Superplum, the Silicon Valley-backed startup based out of Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

Currently working with 230 farms (where the soil, fruit and water are tested for over 80 product-specific pesticides and contaminants) in over 15 states, Superplum has more than 320 stores in Delhi-NCR and Bengaluru. “Cold transport plays a big role in our operations. We don’t store much, except in the farms, but our whole transport system is refrigerated, right up to the distribution level. That’s how we ensure freshness and quality,” says Shobhit.

Superplum’s Fresherator cold storage solution for fruit transportation

Superplum’s Fresherator cold storage solution for fruit transportation

Its low-cost Fresherator cold chain transport solution controls high-temperature, humidity and ethylene levels of fresh produce, by automatically adjusting to ideal settings depending on the fruits being carried from point A to point B. “While cherries and strawberries are traditionally the most perishable, mangoes are most difficult to transport because they keep ripening, and we have to manage the process until delivery,” he says.

Into the data

For companies like Superplum, data science is invaluable; quality supervision, prediction models and using more advanced technology such as IoT is mandatory. Superplum’s cloud-based management system gives consumers food safety, pesticide, and quality information through the brand’s app.enables shoppers to cross-check lab test reports, the temperature the fruit was transported at, as well as farm-level quality parameters.

Similarly, analytics tech has been integral to Ecozen. “In Shimla, it is cherry season and they are typically sold off to a middleman,” says Vivek.

“But with our cold storage transportation and shelf-life prediction tech, farmers can aggregate good quantities and send directly to a market, making the most out of the produce’s lifetime.”

New Delhi: A fruit vendor holds an umbrella during a mild shower near ITO, in New Delhi

New Delhi: A fruit vendor holds an umbrella during a mild shower near ITO, in New Delhi, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (PTI Photo/Vijay Verma) (PTI05_19_2021_000071A)

Ecoconnect, Ecozen’s green energy storage solution for produce, results in 60% logistical cost reduction for highly perishable commodities such as strawberries, cherries, lychees and coriander. Meanwhile, Ecofrost, the company’s portable, solar-powered standalone cooling system, prevents food loss by pre-cooling within six hours and being directly deployed at farms, wholesale markets or packhouses. Ecozen has deployed more than 200 units across India.

From February to March, Ecozen worked with a group of 30 to 40 strawberry farmers in Mahabaleshwar. “Strawberries have a very low shelf life and leasing out storage units lets these farmers collaborate, sharing the cost and lease to minimise food loss,” explains Vivek.

But it has to be a collaborative process. As AgNext’s Taranjeet observes, “The world needs the multiple technologies that are coming in to ensure that food wastage is stopped. However, we also need to respect our food, our farmers and our vendors by improving daily practices. We are all working in silos and we need more collaboration, not just in innovation but implementation too.”

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