VIJAY YELMALLE: AVF CHANGEMAKER CRAFTING URBAN FARMING IN INDIA
Interview conducted by Andrew Blume
Hi Vijay, please introduce yourself and tell us about your background.
I completed my study in chemical engineering and worked in Singapore’s chemical industry making plastics and acrylics for 14 years. While working, I also did my correspondence MBA (University of Wales) in 2010-11. Over time I became disillusioned with the chemical industry and while I was still in Singapore, I did 2 years of independent research on Aquaponics, hydroponics and Aeroponics. Finally, I decided to come back to India where I set up hydroponics and Aquaponics systems on my terrace rooftop in Mumbai. After 2 years of experimenting on my roof, I was ready to start the Center for Research in Alternative Farming Technologies (CRAFT).
Quite a dramatic change.
Yes, I definitely didn’t want to work in chemical industry anymore. I felt compelled to return to India to work on aquaponics and hydroponics. I spent three years with no job, except talking to farmers and researching the technology and materials to build hobby systems. It was a long time. In fact, I thought it would only be one year of research. There was a lot of pressure from my family and friends, many of whom advised me to take up a job or do some traditional business.
What do you attribute your perseverance to when times were tough?
I had confidence in this technology, I had patience, and I had passion to grow in the field which I loved most. I believe the future is going to be very tough for us, especially in providing enough food. I wanted to contribute a little bit to make life easier for others. Although I had not visited any vertical farm before, I managed to start my own research project perfectly fine. The yield was great and the shear enjoyment of eating own homegrown vegetables was unexplainable. Then slowly I met many people who were as passionate as me for the technology. I started to get many inquiries for hobby systems, which increased my confidence.
I also want to help the people of my motherland, India. Prior to the last 40 years, all farming in India was organic. Now the mainstream farming is chemical farming and I think it is very sad that chemical is the new “normal farming.” At the same time, the new age organic farming cannot support so many people, which is why Vertical Farming is a great opportunity.
And how are you and CRAFT pursuing this great opportunity?
Right now, apart from selling the hobby systems, conducting training and spreading awareness, we are designing one project that will grow tomatoes with Aeroponics and hydroponics in a 2000 square foot urban space. The research from our pilot project shows that we can achieve the yield of almost 35 to 40 tons in a year – so we think we can commercialize our work soon. Bringing your lab research into operation is challenging and at same time exciting.
We are also planning to start own commercial farm at a 15 acres of land I bought couple of years back. Together with AVF, we are planning a Seminar in Mumbai for investment in Vertical farming, which we are going to announce soon.
Tell us more about the possibilities of rooftop gardening in Mumbai.
Mumbai has about 12-14 million people and is surrounded by sea on three sides, so the land is limiting factor for growth of the city. The highest vacant place available in Mumbai is roof tops! Buildings in this city typically only have water tanks on the roof. Farming on rooftops makes a lot of sense. It cuts out the middlemen, as the building residents will be the customers. It reduces the carbon footprint on the transportation of vegetables. The rooftop vertical farms will allow the people to have access to fresher food. It also reduces the temperature of the building, which is important in Mumbai as it gets very hot in the summer.
And what about the research component of CRAFT?
Our mission statement is ‘Crafting Sustainable Ways to Grow Safe food’. CRAFT will always continue doing research in Alternative farming technologies. We have supplied many tailor made research systems to educational, research and commercial institutes for their own research and the best part is, many times, we remain their partner in the research.
One of our research goals is to develop a very economical ‘controlled environment vertical farming’ model for marginal farmers. We are working with a leading communication company in India on ‘Smart farm project’ for remote monitoring and control of all aspects of vertical farms. This research when completed, will allow us to control multiple vertical farms from centralized control room.
We are also seeking partnership with a European counterpart to start research on indoor farming and grow lights.
What else can you tell us about the future of Vertical farming in India?
There are plenty of soil-based greenhouses in India, but as many reports suggests, 70 to 80% of these greenhouses are not making profits or totally failed. The major reason of these failures is reported to be lack of expertise and experience. That is why we are very cautious when entering into the commercial aspect of vertical farming. CRAFT is engaging experts who has at least 5 years of experience in commercial Hydroponics and Aquaponics. One such expert working with us relentlessly for past few months is Mr. Bhaskar Rao who has 20 years of experience and presently managing commercial hydroponics farm in Bahrain.
How can the AVF help?
I am very grateful to the AVF for the help it has already offered to CRAFT. Actually CRAFT is doing very good with sales of hobby systems and we wouldn’t have thought of entering into commercial farming. However, when I talked with Christine and Zjef from AVF at their event in Bangalore, they encouraged me to look into the commercial aspect. They connected me with international community and we received lots of support from them on understanding all aspects of commercial farming.
With the information and technical support they have provided, my job has become much easier. To grow a big company, like I dream of, I will continue to need this kind of support.
As I said earlier, we are planning a seminar on commercial vertical farming in Mumbai soon, we expect to get international consultants, service providers and investors through AVF for our seminar and future commercial farms.
And now for a personal question, what inspires you?
The kindness, the humbleness, the righteousness and the excitement of the people around me inspires me the most.
Andrew Blume is a writer, blogger, and vertical farming enthusiast based in Los Angeles, California. He is currently serving as social media manager for the Association for Vertical Farming. Follow Andrew’s blog.