Fusing technology with traditional agricultural practices

By Yakuta Dawood 

Climate change, traditional agricultural practices, the recent impact of the fertiliser ban, and the other challenges faced by the agricultural industry, are not something new to us. However, as with anything, technological advancement tools can be adopted as measures to improve production or even curtail the existing challenges in the agricultural sector. 

The “Develop It Yourself” (DIY) column this week spoke to Electro Leaf Technologies (Pvt.) Ltd., one of the very first companies in Sri Lanka which uses technologically advanced approaches to resolve existing problems and provide a better yield, etc. to the agricultural sector. 

This newly established company is founded by five graduates from the engineering faculty of the University of Moratuwa (UoM). The entrepreneurs are; Navaratnarajah Suman, Anantharajah Kirushigan, Navaratnarajah Sutharsanan, Paramanayakam Varatheepan, and Amirthalingam Nithurshan.

Reflecting on the past, Electro Leaf Technologies Co-Founder Navaratnarajah Suman told us that the inspiration behind establishing the startup was derived from the idea of contributing to sustainable agricultural practices by utilising existing market opportunities in the industry. 

“We wanted to start a soil-based vertical farming project, which was already practised in some parts of India but was only maintained by manual labour. So we thought, why not automate the process of cultivation and start a vertical farming project in Sri Lanka?” Suman said. 

According to him, the journey of vertical farming began after the success of their research using the initial prototype, after which they went ahead and built an automated vertical farm in Jaffna in land operations, etc. after attending the Yarl Geek Challenge (YGC) Accelerator programme for six months. 

“From this accelerator programme, we were provided excellent mentorship opportunities, various startup resources, personalised and guided growth tracking, and business model development,” Suman added. 

What Electro Leaf Technologies specialises in

Today, most farmers are discouraged and reluctant to produce turmeric and ginger, as it involves many challenges such as pest attacks, labour shortage, and even crop loss due to climate changes. Therefore, Electro Leaf Technologies provides a classic solution to this problem. 

Accordingly, unlike the most common form of vertical farming, which uses artificial lighting and soilless media, Electro Leaf has started automated soil-based vertical farming, which enables plants to be cultivated solely on natural sunlight and soil medium with automated irrigation and fertigation. 

As mentioned above, this method of vertical farming does exist in India, but without the technological aspect. Therefore, the co-founders have automated the process of irrigation, fertigation, polyhouse temperature, and humidity control, which requires fewer labourers in comparison to the approach used in India. 

With reference to the official website, using this technologically advanced method of vertical farming, farmers are now able to produce a yield ten times higher than the actual output produced via traditional practices with the use of zero pesticides, meaning 100% organic cultivation. 

Commenting on this, Suman stated that the demand for this service is exponentially higher, as farmers are now able to cultivate with minimal labour, organic products with no requirement of pesticides and weeding challenges.  

“Only sowing and harvesting requires manual labour, and the rest is taken care of by an Internet of Things (IoT) platform developed at Electro Leaf Technologies. Irrigation is done only when it is needed by the plants, and fertiliser is applied after understanding the requirement with automatic control of temperature and humidity inside the polyhouse,” he highlighted. 

In relation to turmeric, Electro Leaf Technologies had recently constructed an organic turmeric seedling production nursery powered by solar energy. Through this, farmers were able to filter healthy plants from the nursery before planting them in the main field at a comparatively lower cost, which is not possible in the traditional sowing method practised in Sri Lanka. 

Apart from this, services such as end-to-end greenhouse construction including construction, automation of irrigation, fertigation, and humidity control inside the greenhouse are provided by Electro Leaf Technologies for all those who wish to increase their production yield. 

Further, commenting on the uniqueness of their services in comparison to existing competitors, Suman mentioned that they physically worked in the field and did not simply identify themselves as a mere technological company. 

“Our vision is to accelerate the agriculture industry by working very closely with farmers whilst integrating technology into farming approaches,” he emphasised. 

Climate impact on agriculture

Climate change certainly needs no introduction as its impact falls upon each and every human being on this planet. However, with the ongoing extreme weather events that are continuously slamming at our doors, the focal point is now shifting towards the agriculture sector that faces consequences due to the acute climate-induced drought incidents.

Speaking to us about it, Suman stated that agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change as higher temperatures eventually reduce yields of desirable crops while encouraging weed and pest proliferation. “Although this is not observed too fast, eventually there will be noticeable changes in yield,” he said. 

Commenting on an existing problem, Suman mentioned that young people are turning away from agriculture considering the difficulties involved in the work process and as trends are also changing in agriculture, with the concept of the farm from home becoming a reality.  

Explaining further, he said that people should start adapting to more quality time on their farms as well for better production turnout and for other beneficial reasons. According to him, people do not need to work full time on their farms, if the main functions in the farm are automated as the rest can be managed during part-time commitment. 

Suman highlighted that technology alone cannot be thrust into agriculture, since a team effort is also required for better yield and other desired results in agriculture practices. “The one and only goal in agriculture is to get high quality and quantity of yield sustainably. It is our strong belief that if people from the tech industry, agriculture industry, and the agribusiness industry work together, excellence will be reached. Nevertheless, this is what we are currently doing at Electro Leaf Technologies,” he added. 

How the company operates

Electro Leaf Technologies is currently working with the general public who have the interest, potential, and the capacity to build large scale high tech farms, and also with potential organisations that focus its production on creating smart farms in rural areas of Sri Lanka. 

In terms of job profile, all five members who co-founded this company are fortunately from the tech side which handles and creates the design and technical parts for clients. Whereas for the employees, it depends from project to project. For example, the hiring of people is based on particular projects assigned by consumers. 

However, commenting with regards to the challenges, Suman stated that the travel restriction imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted them to a greater extent in terms of catering their services since Electro Leaf Technologies is very much involved in several projects, such as constructions and installations. 

When inquired as to what has been the greatest achievement so far, he responded by stating that from the simple prototype they created at the initial stage, they have now constructed a commercial vertical farm in less than two years. 

“We believe the multidisciplinary team of ours and external support has brought us so far and we have many more similar exciting projects coming ahead. We definitely believe that this concept is highly scalable to other crops as well, rather than just turmeric and ginger, thus the required research and development is ongoing,” Suman mentioned. 

Meanwhile, enlightening us on the short term goal, he highlighted that Electro Leaf Technologies is planning on expanding the current vertical farm to a much larger extent and also to work in similar protected agriculture projects in the near future. 

In comparison, Suman added that in the next five years down the line, Electro Leaf Technologies would have also rapidly expanded into other regions in Sri Lanka by following the vision of bridging the gap between traditional agriculture and modern agricultural practices existing in the country today.