Farming does not leave much room for working part-time
The future of farming in India can only be improved when skilled people get back to it
Shameek Chakravarty, 40, is the CEO and founder of the start-up Farmizen. Much like the popular Farmville game that allows players to cultivate a virtual farm, the Farmizen app enables its users to run their own “mini farms" in the real world through natural farming techniques, with real-time updates on what is happening on the ground.
From techie to farmer: About two and a half years ago, when Chakravarty was working as the director of product management at Yahoo!, he decided to try his hand at terrace gardening at his Whitefield, Bengaluru, residence. “Even if something was labelled organic, there was no way of knowing if it really was because one couldn’t trace it back to a particular farm. That’s when we (with his wife Gitanjali Rajamani) started growing our own vegetables," Chakravarty says.
Due to space constraints on their terrace, Chakravarty leased a 600 sq. ft plot from a farmer near Whitefield. “The understanding was that he would water the plot, while I would go on weekends to tend to the plants," he says. The problem arose when he couldn’t make time every weekend. The plot would be in bad shape, overrun with weeds. That’s when Chakravarty realized he couldn’t be a “part-time farmer". “Also, there was this realization that we needed a service that would enable working professionals and families, who lacked the space, time or expertise, to start farming in a small way," he says.
This eureka moment turned into a business plan. Chakravarty, his wife, and former Yahoo! colleague Sudaakeran Balasubramanian joined hands to launch the Farmizen app in June.
Doing the homework: The next order of business was identifying farms to partner with. In addition, since the emphasis was on growing organic produce, the founders attended several workshops on zero-budget natural farming and permaculture.
A model business plan: Through the Farmizen app, customers can book a 600 sq. ft plot for a monthly fee of Rs2,500 in one of the nine partner farms Farmizen has tied up with around Bengaluru. Once the plan is final, the farmer in charge prepares the beds. Typically, there are 12 beds on each plot and a different vegetable can be grown on each bed. Farmizen grows a mix of exotic as well as regular vegetables such as spinach, beans, carrots and zucchini. The monthly fee covers seeds, fertilizers, pest-control mechanisms, labour, water, utilities as well as regular deliveries of the harvest. Farmizen currently has 750 customers and Chakravarty says they will break even by next month.
The new worklife: It’s a far cry from the 9-to-5 schedule that was choc-a-bloc with board meetings, Excel sheets and product design, but Chakravarty still has a fair amount of technology work since they are an app-based start-up. “The difference is that now I carry my laptop, USB dongle and portable chair to the farms and do my work from there. We also prefer to hold team meetings in one of the farms instead of our office," he adds.
The good, the bad, the ugly: Chakravarty says one research paper has shown that certain microbes in the soil can regulate serotonin and stress levels in humans. “There is a reason why older, retired people who take time out to garden seem so calm," says Chakravarty. On a more serious note though, he enjoys the fact that Farmizen is helping people to lead healthier lives. “There are several cancer survivors among our clientele. Kids, who have never seen vegetables outside of a supermarket, are discovering nature," he adds. Another big pay-off is helping farmers transition to a model that helps them earn a regular income—Farmizen is run on a revenue-sharing basis with the farmers who own the land. “A farmer ends up making profits of Rs40,000 per month per acre," Chakravarty says.
Insights: “When it comes to farming, be prepared for hard work," he says. “Sure, there are a lot of success stories one reads about, and it can be profitable, but what these stories won’t tell you is how it takes five years of losing money to see what works." But he also believes that the future of farming in India can only be improved when skilled people get back to it.
Green Thumb is a series that aims to understand why people with corporate lives give up their jobs to become urban farmers.