Sarab lives in Mumbai, India. In 2017, she completed an internship in Canada at the In.Genius Farms, a small-scale vertical farm in Laval, Quebec. Mentored by Khaled Majouji, aka The Plant Charmer, she learned about the potential of vertical farming. Once back home, she decided to be the change she wanted to see in her country.
Inspired by her experience in Canada, Sarab started her own startup: Ecotwigs. With the help of her father, Gurmukh Singh, an entrepreneur in computer numerical control (CNC) machinery, they designed and developed a ready-to-assemble vertical farming system.
It can be produced on an industrial scale, delivered wherever it is needed, and easily deployed upon reception.
As in many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the mobility of agricultural workers in India, adding pressure to food supply chains and compromising the food security of the most vulnerable populations. The situation raised awareness on the importance of local farming and shorter supply chains.
Sarab vertical farming solution comes at the right time. It aims to solve a few problems at once:
- requires less land;
- reduces the workload and dependence on seasonal foreign workers;
- increases yields per square-foot;
- improves food salubrity;
- simplifies traceability;
- and fosters profitability.
Given the current pandemic, such a farming system, which also requires limited interactions and manipulations while operated, would be more than handy.
How it all started
Sarab studied sciences in Junior college. “It was the rational choice”, she said. However, her real dream was to become a pastry chef. She had always been fascinated by big wedding cakes, but convincing her dad about this career choice was challenging.
Nonetheless, while in college she started a side gig as a freelance pastry chef. She liked it so much that after college, she did a bachelor’s degree in Hotel and Hospitality Administration. While studying, she spent a semester working as an intern at the Danat Jebel Dhanna Resort on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi in Ruwais city.
Before completing her bachelor’s degree, a research topic on lifestyle diseases based on our diets shed a different light on her passion. “I realized that what I was loving [baking cakes] was making people diabetic”, she said. “I thought I was giving people joy, but I was giving them diabetes”, she added.
Sarab explained that although she still enjoys baking and has nothing against eating pastries, it may not be the purpose she wanted in life. When she graduated, suddenly she felt like she didn’t want to follow this path anymore.
One day, while waiting for a friend near a market, she was watching how the food was handled. Among other things, she noticed bunches of cilantro unloaded directly on the dirty pavement of a street in Mumbai. Given that cilantro is a garnish in almost every Indian dish, she thought that she could do better. She started to crawl Youtube and looked at hours of videos on how to grow food. The first thing she tried was to grow kiwis from seeds. “I never stopped after that”, she said.
She made a rooftop garden, but without any background in agriculture, she admitted her results were suboptimal. Nevertheless, she was determined to pursue this new path. In 2017, she was following Khaled, aka The Plant Charmer, on Instagram. When she saw a post about an internship opportunity at his new vertical farm, she jumped on it.
Although it sounded like a crazy idea to her parents, generating some fuss in her family, they ended up being supportive of her choice. “Going to Khaled’s farm was the best decision in my life”, she said.
When I was at Khaled’s farm it struck me: this is the future of farming. – Sarab
Sarab wanted to see the full cycle, from seedling to harvesting, including everything in between. “I was supposed to do a one-month internship only”, she explained. “But I was so fascinated on how the system works, I asked to stay longer”, she added.
At the end of her internship, another big decision was awaiting Sarab. She had to decide whether to stay in Canada and apply for permanent residence, or to return to India. “The greatest accomplishment in our country is to leave”, Sarab said. “With everything I learned, I felt like the right thing to do was to bring back this knowledge and do something for my country”, she added.
When she returned home, she faced a few challenges. The same as any small-scale urban farming entrepreneurs would encounter in India and elsewhere: access to land, in or near the city, is difficult.
The real estate in Mumbai and other major Indian cities is as expensive as any major city in North America or Europe. It makes farming possible only in remote and often deficiently developed regions. Moreover, a lot of lands in or near the cities and suburbs are highly contaminated, making agriculture beyond gardening nearly impossible. Luckily, Sarab’s uncle provided her with the opportunity to develop her project on an 18,000 sq.-ft plot of land he owns, only 20 minutes away from Mumbai’s suburbs.
Why vertical farming
A new climate report from the United Nations has warned that the world might face a food crisis due to climate change and overexploitation of land and water resources. The vertical farming infrastructure proposed by Sarab aims to enable growing food wherever there is place while reducing pressure on farmlands and fostering soil regeneration.
Without farming the land itself, the annual yields are still calculated in metric tons on less than an acre. By growing above the ground, pest damage and diseases are drastically reduced without the need for any pesticides or harmful chemicals.
For Sarab, vertical farming as she learned it at the In.Genius Farms makes organic farming way easier. “It reduces operational costs, requires fewer resources [human and natural], while increasing yields and margins”, she explained.
“Vertical farming with my infrastructure can be done by anybody because the hard work factors of conventional farming were removed”, she said. “There’s no kneeling, no bending, and no weeding”, she added. From her experience at In.Genius farms, Sarab thinks that 1 worker for every 100 units is more than enough (100 units cover about 10,000 sq.-ft.).
Once back from her internship at In.Genius Farms, Sarab realized something: she didn’t want to start a farm, she wanted to become the vertical farming infrastructure provider.
I want to be the person who set [up] vertical farms for others because that’s the future. – Sarab
Sarab explains that going through the process of figuring out vertical farming by yourself can be daunting. “Of course some could do it by themselves, but it would turn out to be expensive and time-consuming”, she said. “I want to make things simple and affordable to those wishing to start a vertical farm”, she added.
Her business model is to provide customers with a turnkey vertical agricultural infrastructure and technical assistance to ensure they reach the full yield potential. Therefore, land use and the time, effort, and money spent would be optimized.
As what IKEA does to home furniture, Ecotwigs does to farms by designing and selling ready-to-assemble vertical farms. – Sarab
Sarab’s main market for her vertical farming infrastructure will be existing farmers, but also a new generation of food entrepreneurs who own small plots of land and wish to start small-scale farming businesses. For Sarab, too many farmers in India (and elsewhere) are not treating their farm as a business, and when they do, it is often not managed efficiently. Thus, she wants to provide them with proper customer support to create lasting prosperity.
Vertical Farming Systems
As Sarab’s father noticed her enthusiasm for vertical farming, he decided to help her in her venture. He helped her design and engineer a new system following her experience in Canada.
This A-frame is made of inert material. Suitable for outdoor and indoor farming, it is lighter than wood and easier to assemble (or disassemble if needed). Moreover, it is made to last a minimum of 10 years.
A 100 units farm can be assembled within a week by 2 people. – Sarab
One unit can be assembled by 2 people in 30 minutes. Each A-frame unit includes 10 rammers that are 12 feet long (or 3.90 meters). There are 5 rammers on each side. Working 7.5 hours per day, it would take two people about 7 days to set up a 100 unit vertical farm on 10,000 sq.-ft.
Depending on the crop and location, each unit can generate from $400 to over $1000 in revenue per season. The price to buy a unit is not yet settled. Nevertheless, the price range will be established to allow clients to get a great return on investment (ROI).
Our challenge was to design the most profitable, eco-friendly, food-safe, sturdy, and long-lasting farming system. – Sarab
The rain gutters, as used on the In.Genius Farms’ A-frame, are replaced by custom made rammers. For marketing purposes, Sarab and her father decided to change the name of this component, which is the channel used to grow food. “In India, when you say gutters, it is associated to a filthy place”, she explained. “It is not the place where people would want their food to grow”, she added.
The rammers’ length, width, and depth were increased to allow higher yields per unit and the growth of a wider variety of crops. The angle of the rammers was set to get a maximum sun or LED light exposure. The system can be deployed either as a few units in a backyard, on rooftops, or at scale on acres.
The next steps
Sarab currently operates a 30 unit vertical farm. It serves as a research and development lab. “That is where data are validated”, she said. Sarab is growing varieties of lettuce and spinach, arugula, peanuts, sweet bell peppers, edible flowers, and eggplants. She will also experiment with growing strawberries, which is unusual for Mumbai’s climate.
As the rammers are longer, deeper, and wider than the model she experienced at the In.Genius farms, bigger crops like cauliflower, celery, and zucchinis will be tested as well. The food harvested at her farm will be for friends and family. With 30 vertical farming units, Sarab already knows that she will not have the volume necessary to consistently supply clients like chefs or grocery stores.
Her focus is on supplying the infrastructure and acting as a vertical farming consultant to her clients. Thus, operating the farm to gather data is the priority. The system will be continuously tested to make sure it can perform well, and that yield expectations are accurate.
Sarab explained that “when a client is looking to invest in infrastructure like this, we need to give them the proper numbers. And I know that at one point, the numbers will speak for themselves”.
Sarab is well aware of the Canadian winter. “Made of inert material, these A-frames do not react much to temperature fluctuations”, she explained. She also knows how robust the system needs to be to endure the cold temperature of northern countries, as well as snow and ice accumulation.
Takeaways on vertical farming
The approach of the farmers should change, and the status quo should be disrupted. Sarab explained that Indian farmers are treated as the bottom of the supply chain. If they could be provided with the proper tools and means to grow, market and distribute food efficiently, she believes it could make them the leaders of the supply chain. The main issue Sarab stressed is to make sure you have enough customers for those high yields.
“The best part, since all labor-intensive tasks of conventional farming have been stripped out, it could be done by anybody”, Sarab proudly said. Adding some fun, fashion, and style to the business concept is also part of her branding.
I genuinely enjoy working at my farm and the message I want to spread is: this is cool! I can be fashionable and still be a farmer. -Sarab
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