It’s late September in the golden crop fields of northern India and the last few foods from the autumn harvest have just been plucked. Agriculture is a keystone of the Indian economy, making up nearly 18 percent of GDP for the world’s second-most populated country and more than half of its employed workers1. Rice, wheat, potatoes, bananas, and more grow in abundance on the subcontinent.
But, there’s a problem. After the harvest ends, farmers have a short amount of time to clear their fields and start planting seeds for the winter crop season right around the corner. Any lost time could mean lost income. That would mean cutting down many acres of paddy straw – the remains of harvested crops – and grinding it up into mulch to mix with the field’s soil. It’s a long and potentially costly exercise. So, many farmers in northern India found another way to get the job done quickly and inexpensively: fire.
And each year, this burning of millions of tons of crop residue in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and other areas creates smog that contributes to heavy pollution in Delhi2. Each ton of stubble burned releases air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and more. It also reduces the nutrients in the crop soil and damages microbial populations2.
This is the paddy straw burning problem – farmers lack the time and resources to clear their fields of paddy straw in time for the winter harvest. But, a company in India is using farm data and entrepreneurial thinking to find a potential solution. Enter Agri To Power (A2P), a startup that is converting paddy straw into alternative energy products. A2P is working with farmers in India across the entire farming season:
- PADDY STRAW COLLECTION: By mapping out crop fields, A2P works with local farmers to cut, rake, and bale paddy straw during the harvest season.
- PROCESSING: A pelletizer turns the collected paddy straw into pellets, which can be used as an alternative fuel to wood chip-based energy systems.
- END USAGE: Power plants, food-processing plants, boilers and cooking stoves are just a few examples of users of pellets made from paddy straw.
To learn how farm data could help reduce air pollution in India, we sat down with Sukhmeet Singh, who co-founded the growing agricultural tech company. (Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)
Interview with Sukhmeet Singh, Co-Founder of Agri To Power
1. Can you give us a little background on A2P?
SUKHMEET: A2P is working towards resolving the open field paddy straw burning problem by putting up sustainable projects to convert the straw into alternative energy products. We are one of the first companies in India to commercialize items made out of 100 percent paddy straw. To this end, we work with the Government of India, corporations and R&D institutions to solve the paddy straw burning problem and take our innovations to market as value-added products. There are three goals for A2P:
- Provide a valuable bio-energy source for the industry.
- Help save the environment by preventing excessive paddy straw burning.
- Work with farmers to provide additional income by selling crop residue.
2. How is your team putting your business plan into action?
SUKHMEET: First, we collect bales of paddy straw during the harvest season. Then, we process the straw into energy products, such as pellets. The first stage of making the pellets is completely commercialized and we have supplied pellets for energy purposes to various businesses and organizations. As an added value, we are doing R&D projects with various national-level research institutions in India. We are working on chemical-based products such as bio-oil and nanocellulose, as well as producing animal feed from the paddy straw.
Apart from the technology to convert bio-mass into energy in our manufacturing plant, we use machine learning and farm data analysis to optimize our operations and track crop field fires.
Here is an idea of our applications below:
OPTIMIZING STRAW COLLECTION PROCESS
In the straw collection process, the presence of large and continuous fields is necessary to avoid wasted resources. To tackle this issue, we use web mapping APIs to extract field images and analyze them using unsupervised machine learning techniques to segregate dense continuous paddy fields from the other crops.
RECOMMENDING IDEAL PLANT LOCATIONS
The collected straw needs to be transported to the plant within a couple dozen days to be effectively converted to biomass fuel. We built a machine learning model to recommend the optimal location for each plant, helping us significantly reduce our costs.
TRACKING PADDY STRAW FIRES
In addition to farm data, we use satellite data from one of the largest aeronautics and aerospace research agencies to track open field paddy straw burning.
These applications help us monitor the crop burning areas and train farmers for paddy straw collection, instead of burning.
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3. Your team was recently a participant in Western Digital’s Data Innovation Bootcamp, a three-day event for select startups in India to learn, network, and pitch to venture capitalists. What were your biggest takeaways?
#1. Learning and Mentorship. The whole process of the Data Innovation Bazaar and Bootcamp was a very thoughtfully designed program. Learning about pitching and presentation skills helped my team and I think through our business and growth plans. Also, the feedback we got in each session was excellent and we learned a lot from the judges. Sessions such as Scaling your Business and Design Thinking workshops were insightful and have helped us implement these learnings in our growth and product development.
#2. Networking. Both the Data Innovation Bazaar and Bootcamp also provided us a good platform for networking. We could interact with not only participating company’s founders, but also with so many speakers and judges.
#3. Cash Prize. The cash prize we were awarded helped us in the following areas:
- R&D: We are able to fund R&D to build our pipeline of new products.
- Manufacturing Equipment: We invested in a new machine, which was critical for our product innovation.
- Company Expansion: We would be able to work on at least 100 acres more and help manage the paddy straw and prevent it from burning. In addition, we are planning to work with 20 more farmers to use their crop residue and provide them with additional income.
#4. Growth. The Data Innovation Bazaar and Bootcamp also helped raise our visibility and grow our credibility. Recently, we were selected in the top-4 companies in the world for sustainable energy solutions by a prestigious initiative for global prosperity3. We were selected for this distinction from a large pool of entries from countries around the world. The next step for A2P is to present our solution at global pitch event in the United Arab Emirates. I’m sure winning the Data Innovation Bazaar has given us a big boost and helped us in our preparation for this event.
4. Why do you believe that supporting entrepreneurship and innovation in India is important?
SUKHMEET: On one hand, India has a distinct advantage of a high percentage of young workers in high-tech. But, on the other hand, there are challenges with continued job creation. Even when it becomes difficult for large enterprises to hire enough new candidates, it is truly the startups and small-to-medium businesses that help provide job growth and creation in India.
If we can continue to support young students and workers in India, especially as it relates to entrepreneurship, we will have a great chance to have many more unicorns come out of this country.
Learn More on Data Innovation in India
- Read our Data Innovation Bazaar announcement about transforming India using data innovation
- Explore our 3-day bootcamp recap of workshops, technical sessions and pitching to VCs
- India economic survey 2018: Farmers gain as agriculture mechanisation speeds up, but more R&D needed. https://www.financialexpress.com/budget/india-economic-survey-2018-for-farmers-agriculture-gdp-msp/1034266/
- Project: Energy Harvest – Producing Energy from Paddy Straw and Promoting Entrepreneurship. http://www.a2penergy.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/EHS_brochure.pdf
- Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity. https://makingprosperity.com/solutions-details/a2p-energy-solution