Farming has long been the backbone of the Indian Economy. But the last few decades have seen a troubling slump in productivity in Indian agriculture.
Cultivable land is becoming more scarce. Water shortages make irrigation a challenge. Increasingly erratic weather patterns lead to crop loss. Farmers were losing their livelihoods, and taking their own lives out of desperation.
It was from this climate of crisis and distress that a startup called Future Farms emerged in 2014.
The Chennai-based company seeks to funnel soilless agricultural technology into India and to make it efficient and affordable so that the rest of the developing world can grow clean food.
As Mithul Etta, Chief Operating Officer of Future Farms explains, “It all started with the question: can we trust our food? We didn’t want to engage in the chemical vs organic debate. We wanted to reintroduce trust with a post-organic food system—a clean food system.”
Their initial focus has been on hydroponic technology, and three years in, their customer list includes Dabur (a large company that makes ayurvedic products), McDonalds and their suppliers, and the Adani group—a billion dollar multinational corporation with a hand in multiple sectors, including agriculture and natural gas.
The Dreamer, The Futurist
Growing up, Mithul never had a TV. “My parents just thought it would make me stupid,” he said. “I don’t know if it helped; I may still be stupid.”
Hardly. For entertainment, he would read dense, complicated books with sci-fi and futures thinking subject matter like Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock.” He was always high achieving and curious, chasing dreams that, for anyone else, would be a tall order.
He spent three years in marketing and branding at Red Bull, and another nine months volunteering with the United Nations. Then he joined Disney as a Senior Producer in branded content. When the company offered training in Strategic Foresight though Kedge, he jumped at the chance.
“I would say I took the futures programs Kedge did at Disney far more seriously than anybody else,” said Mithul.
As part of the program, members of the Disney Futures Team had to identify trends and create quick-reference cards that described the trend. Mithul dove into research around economic development in India, and an increased focus on organic farming. As a result he saw a pull towards high tech farming, and proposed to the group that this should be one of the trend cards.
“No one would believe me that high tech farming would be a thing in India. I was the only one. But I was extremely insistent that it be a trend card, because by this time, I was so sure of it that I was already heavily researching high tech farming.”
It wasn’t long after that that he left to work on Future Farms full time: “It dawned on me that as part of the futures team at Disney, I was able to see the future, but I wasn’t actively participating in it.”
With Mithul as part of the team, Future Farms drove policy change in the Mumbai municipal codes to allow soilless cultivation on terraces. Today, the company boasts the city’s first and largest hydroponic rooftop farm, which serves as a testament to a challenging but fruitful journey in pursuit of affordable clean food.
The Alchemy of Tropical Hydroponics
While doing that research around high tech farming as part of the Disney Futures Team, Mithul met with serial entrepreneur Sriram Gopal, Founder & CEO of Future Farms. He, along with his father, and a young crew of hydroponic enthusiasts had been tinkering with hydroponic farming equipment and developing indigenous versions for India.
This coalition of people with various talents, working on high tech farming, matched what Mithul was discovering in the futures program. It was a good fit, so he jumped on board.
Over time, the team evolved into an entity with an even broader variety of expertise and backgrounds. Today there are more than 30 people (and a Siberian Husky) who helped take the venture from a weekend project to a viable company.
“We never looked for people to join the team, so it’s grown very organically,” said Mithul. “We now have a very interesting mix of backgrounds; people who used to do mechanical engineering, a race car engineer, a former navigational officer on a ship, guys who have worked on hydroponic farms in different countries, someone who used to sell holiday packages, and me, a futurist from Disney.
We all were drawn together because we had the same aspiration—change the way India, and maybe the rest of the world, eats.”
This motley crew faced monumental challenges.
“At first, we had the farm on the ground growing fish and plants together. Then a massive flood came and everything got destroyed. So the next year we moved it to a terrace on the rooftop and the next year, we got hit by a cyclone! So our running joke was mother nature is looking out for us by demolishing our farm for free and forcing us to build a better iteration.”
Western hydroponic farming was a mismatch when it came to culture and climate, but it also didn’t fit cost requirements. Food production in India is heavily subsidised, which makes it dramatically lower than in the west, so the cost of a hydroponic farm had to be much lower to be a viable product.
Future Farms had to overcome all this without any formal training in the field.
“All of our knowledge came from YouTube, Google searches, blog posts, and the like. But we had to modify all these techniques to fit our climate and our needs. We killed a lot of plants—a LOT of plants—but in the end, we just banded together and figured it out. This has become part of our culture, and very much in line with what Alvin Toffler said: the future belongs to those who can learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Today, they are the largest, most established and organised Indian hydroponics provider. They sell large-scale commercial farms to corporations, as well as DIY kits to home and hobby growers. They also partner with companies around the world to innovate agricultural technologies that work for tropical regions with developing economies.
They have a production facility that employs about 30 people, and by the end of the year, they project setting up 65 small to large scale farms. And they’ve done all this without any money from investors.
Video: a tour of one of Future Farms’ rooftop farms.
Future Farms was named “Best Startup of the Year (2016)” by CII Startupreneurs, India’s largest startup expo. They were also one of 10 finalists for the TECH Rocketship awards, a competition sponsored by the UK Department of International trade to provide business advice and investor support to the best of 650 tech companies and entrepreneurs.
“When we were starting out, we heard all kinds of things like, ‘Indians don’t do hydroponics’ and ‘you’re not fit for this.’ Today, some of the same people who told us they didn’t think there was a future in hydroponics are interested in collaborating.”
Putting the “Future” in Future Farms
For Mithul, the decision to leave the comfort of a regular paycheck and start his own business was easier to make through the lens of a futurist. He’s able to take linear, quantitative data and put it in context of emerging trends and value shifts.
When the future is not a far-off abstract idea, you’re able to make decisions with a lot more confidence:
“The only reason I decided to get into agri tech is because of the Kedge futures program at Disney,” he said. “It became apparent to me through learning foresight that an indian high tech farming company was not a nice-to-have, it was a must-have. It’s an important company that needs to exist—someone’s got to do it, and I’d rather it be us.”
But the work doesn’t stop there. Mithul continues to incorporate Kedge’s Natural Foresight® framework in running the operations at Future Farms, especially these two ideas: foresight should be a competency that guides the management of the company, and trends don’t happen in a petri dish—they are driven by shifts in societal values and collision between other trends.
“Our futures work isn’t as rigorous as I would like it to be, it’s a work in progress, but the principles of foresight form an integral part of how this company is run.”
Watch Mithul’s talk below on what role foresight plays at Future Farms.