Devi Lal Gurjar looked across his fields in the village of Kerdi, Rajasthan. Ideally, his maize, barley and mustard crops should have been in full bloom by now. Instead, the scanty rainfall in the past few seasons had resulted in a dry patch of land. Though not surprised at the yellow-brown blotches in his farm, Gurjar’s disappointed was, however, searing.
No matter how much fertilizer he added, or the number of times he irrigated his land, the crops did not seem to improve.
Frustrated and grasping at straws, he asked his son Narayan to help him with his “water problem.” Narayan, after all, was smart student and was especially good at his school science projects. What good is an education, if it cannot be of any help to others?
Narayan grew up in a village where the primary occupation is agriculture. He could empathize with his father and all the other farmers facing the water crisis.
“Farming in the area where I live largely relies on either groundwater or the Rajsamand Lake—an artificial sweet-water lake in the village,” says 20-year-old Narayan to The Better India (TBI).
The lake gets recharged during monsoons. However, in recent times, due to less rainfall and receding groundwater table, crop production has gone down by almost 30 percent. Needless to say, water has become an issue for Narayan’s father and other farmers in Kerdi.
Narayan, who had been a class ten student when Devi Lal had sought his help, could not relieve his father of his problems.
The diligent student and conscientious son then started searching for ways to come to the aid of the farmers in his village. Finally, in Class 12 he read about polymers.
Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) is a synthetic macromolecular water-absorbing material that can hold “large amounts of a liquid relative to their mass.” If put in deionized and distilled water, it can retain a liquid between 300-1200 times its weight, but when immersed in 0.9 per cent saline solution, its absorbing capacity falls to almost half its weight.
Often used in diapers and sanitary pads, the SAP also found application in those soils which have low water-retentive capacity.
The idea to make soil water-retentive through polymers
The current solutions for the problem of water retention use chemicals. Thus, they harm the crops, the soil and its moisture capacity, and soil fertilizer capacity said Narayan. “The existing solutions also create soil and air pollution. Also, they take much too long to degrade. Economically, the cost reaches about Rs. 700/kg which is not feasible for the farmers,” he adds.
VikasPedia says high-evaporation rates, leaching, and low water retention capabilities are three of the most common conditions that hinder plant growth resulting in low crop yield. Polymers, though useful in retaining water-holding capacity, are still created using chemicals and are quite expensive. In rural parts of Rajasthan, they were not the best option for a poor farmer.
Narayan already knew the theoretical knowledge of SAPs from his textbooks. He used this expertise and started searching for natural materials that exhibited properties similar to polymers. Narayan did not have to search far as he found out that fruit peels were similar to polymers!
It was a Eureka moment for the young innovator. He used bio-degradable materials and created an Eco-Friendly Water Retention Polymer (EFP). EFP comes in powder form and hence, is easy for the farmers to spread through their fields. When mixed with soil, it starts absorbing water when it rains and retains it till the water has been completely consumed. Since the EFP is close to the roots of the plants, they absorb water from it as required.
How EFP is unique and the need of the hour in Rajasthan
“This innovation is completely made from bio-waste which includes some fruit peels discarded by juice-producing small industries. Because it is made from bio-wastes, it is cheaper and affordable than any available SAP in the market. Since all the materials are eco-friendly, they serve as fertilizers to the crops and boost their growth!” says Narayan.
The first ‘customers’ of this win-win eco-friendly polymer were Devi Lal and other farmers in the Kerdi village. It wasn’t too hard to convince them to use the EFP, says Narayan since they charged the farmers Rs 100 per kg.
“We charge nurseries and other clients, an average of Rs 120 per kg. This rate includes processing, transport, and taxes. To farmers, we will sell it at an average of Rs 100 per kg,” Narayan told YourStory.
The product costs 80 per cent less than the chemical polymers, and yet, the start-up is making 40 per cent profit off each kg sold.
The experiment was successful, and Narayan could expand it to a start-up. Today, he is the CEO of the Eco-Friendly Water Retention Polymer which he opened in 2014 and juggles his studies at the same time.
Soon after testing the powder in Kerdi, Narayan and his team started attending agriculture fairs and expos in Rajasthan to market their brilliant product that can solve three purposes at the same time – utilising wet waste to make eco-friendly water-retaining polymers that also act as fertilisers to crops!
Unsurprisingly, they got hundreds of orders, not just from Rajasthan, but also from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and even UAE and South Korea! So much so, that at one point, they were finding it difficult to manage the 500 pre-bookings that they had received.
Apart from the fact that Narayan has to maintain the balance between his studies and completing orders, insufficient funds for scaling the project is a considerable obstacle. However, EFP is now forming a team of young professionals who specialize in marketing, networking and team management.
It is in innovations like these that farmers can find relief. While harsh chemicals are leaching the land of its natural fertility, irregular rainfall and depleting groundwater levels is compounding the crisis. Is it any wonder then that the production levels and quality of crops are dropping?
With sustainable, eco-friendly and cost-effective solutions like the EFP, innovators like Narayan are giving new hope to the future of farmers.