Saurabh Kadam, 32, and Prasad Deshmukh, 41, are in a way grateful for the drought of 2013-2015 which forced them to turn to onion farming and ultimately led the two towards mechanising it. Kadam, who did his MTech in Civil Engineering from the Sangli-based Rajarambapu Institute of Technology, eventually decided to close his construction business and join hands with Deshmukh to develop and commercialise onion seeders and transplanters. The firm went on to win the government’s RAFAR grant and now exports these machines.
Currently, they aim to bring about complete mechanisation in the farming of onions – a crop known for its intense labour requirement.
Traditionally, Kadam’s family grew cane on their nearly 30 acres of land in Ahmednagar district’s Rahuri tehsil. “Maharashtra went through a series of droughts between 2013 and 2015. With water becoming scarce, we had to look for a crop that grew in a shorter period and was commercially viable. Onion was the first choice given it grew in just three to four months,” he said.
Onion was a new crop in Rahuri and the first thing that struck them was the labour-intensive nature it demanded. Kadam and Deshmukh were part of the Shetkariraja Male Self-Help Group (SHG) which was active in the region. Before long, the topic of discussion turned to onions and the problems faced by those growing it.
“Labour was a problem and so was the manner in which farmers used to plant the crop. Seed companies advocated the usage of 3 kg of seed per acre but that was because the farmers relied on the broadcast method of plantation (throwing seeds on the soil surface). This resulted in losses and precision was less,” he said.
Kadam decided to take matters into his hands and devised a machine that managed to reduce both the amount of seeds required as well as the labour involved. The mechanical seeder was easy to use and could be operated manually.
“Onion seeds are very delicate so the seeders available in the market could not be used. Our machine took care of this aspect as it was manually operated,” he explained. The first machine was manufactured by the duo in 2015 and they have since managed to sell around 300 such machines annually.
In 2019, Kadam and Deshmukh decided to float a company when they realised the larger potential of their innovation and the market for it. In 2020, the firm was recognised under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY)’s Remunerative Approaches for Agriculture and Allied Sector Rejuvenation (RAFAR).
This saw the company get an investment of Rs 15 lakh as well as incubation facilities at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Kashipur, Uttarakhand. “Though the training was imparted online during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was of great use to us and helped us clarify our vision,” he added.
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Onion – especially the rabi crop grown in winter – has to be transplanted, and thus the next innovation from the company was a transplanter. The machine is mounted on a tractor and helps in precise transplantation of the onion saplings. “Transplantation is a very labour-intensive job. Our machine manages to cut down the labour cost and increase precision. Thus farmers are able to get better returns,” he pointed out.
As things turned out, it is the transplanter that has caught the fancy of international buyers. “Soon after it was launched last year, we started getting queries from other onion-growing nations. The first machine was exported to Morocco in April 2023 which was followed by one to Tanzania. Our last export was to Palestine just before the present war erupted,” he said.
At present, the company is bootstrapped with extensive research being carried out to make the transplanter more user-friendly “Our business is linked to the realisation of the commodity. Hence the current downturn in prices has not augured well with us. Our main aim now is to work on end-to-end mechanisation in onion farming – something which has never been attempted before,” he said.