The rows of lettuce, microgreens and herbs that Himanshu Aggarwal and his mother grow in an enclosed room in a busy New Delhi market began flourishing six months ago, just when the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in India.
It was not the best of times. A day after the Aggarwals launched their hydroponic venture, 9Growers, India declared a stringent lockdown, making them nervous about how they would sell their freshly plucked greens amid the pandemic.
Surprisingly, the situation helped grow their business. Worried about contracting the virus, people began to focus increasingly on healthful foods, and at the same time, shops became willing to stock their produce.
"Vendors were open to having good produce, specially during lockdown. They were not even getting basic necessities, and we were giving them fresh produce harvested on the same day," said Himanshu Aggarwal, 24, who was inspired to take up hydroponic farming after seeing the quality of fruits and vegetables during a trip to Europe. "Even our best produce could not match theirs. So I thought about how to achieve the same standards for a small community, and hydroponics seemed the answer."
Amid growing demand for fresh farm produce without pesticides, young entrepreneurs in Indian cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are turning their attention to hydroponic farming, where plants grow without soil and are fed mineral nutrients through water. Using much less water than conventional procedures do, hydroponics has won attention as a sustainable farming method in several countries, such as the Netherlands.
Some in Delhi have opted to put up their ventures in poly houses on the city's outskirts. Others are doing it in the heart of the city, in residential or commercial areas, where the plants grow in laboratory-like conditions under artificial light that simulates sunlight. Most of the young entrepreneurs learned about it on the internet and through trials and experiments in their homes.
Aggarwal's plants thrive on the top floor of a small building in an 800-square-foot room. Accessed through an electronics store, the unlikely space transports a visitor from the honking cars and traffic snarls to the surreal sight of the 18 varieties of lettuce and other leafy greens thriving in vertical panels in one of Delhi's most crowded markets.
"We are giving them everything they want - temperature, air quality, humidity. We are monitoring all the aspects for them so that they give the best result," Aggarwal said.
The appeal of greens growing in a clean, germ-free environment has grown during the pandemic as people focus more on eating healthful foods, according to shop owners. While the higher cost is a barrier for some, high-income consumers in cities are increasingly willing to pay the price for fresh produce.
In an upscale neighborhood in New Delhi, Mohinder Pal Singh, who stocks the hydroponic greens, said he gets repeat orders from customers who try them out. "Due to COVID, a lot of people have switched to greens to boost immunity. People have also become very conscious of eating nutritious food," he said. "So sale of such produce is increasing."
Optimistic about the growing demand for local produce in cities, some entrepreneurs are scaling up their businesses. Rohit Nagdewani, the founder of farmingV2, plans to expand to other cities - his seven farms in Delhi produce about 2,500 kilograms of hydroponic produce every month. "People are becoming increasingly aware of the source of the food and how many hands it is exchanging, so there is a big future in hydroponics, where supplies reach within a few hours of harvesting," Nagdewani said. "All that is fueling demand. That is why I have put my entire savings into it," he said with a laugh.
For another Delhi-based entrepreneur, Raghav Varma, 30, the inspiration to turn to city farming came during a visit to the hill state of Uttarakhand, where he saw hydroponic produce being grown for export. Back home, his experiments showed that he was able to grow a 300-gram head of lettuce in a small ice cream container on his windowsill. "It was really fresh and crunchy because it is grown in water. So I thought this was an amazing way to produce food for urban dwellers," said Varma, who has co-founded Farmstacks.
However, the entrepreneurs admit that consumer awareness about hydroponics needs to be raised. To do that, Varma allows people to choose the greens they want to grow for their own use at a small community farm in Delhi.
Most of the entrepreneurs do not have a farming background; Varma was a digital marketing executive, Aggarwal a corporate employee, and Nagdewani started his career as an automotive journalist.
They are proud of their new calling. " 'Urban farmer' is actually a very good tag. It's a new profession, I would say, and it gives us a sense that we are back to our roots from where we started," Aggarwal said with a smile.