In the summer of 2016, Nitin Gupta and Vinay Reddy of Sickle Innovations were headed to a conference in Hyderabad to display their innovation, a mango harvester — a long aluminium rod with a handle at one end and a clipper on the other with a catchment area for the fruits. The harvester could pluck the mango without much damage to the stem; something that traditional harvesting methods cannot achieve.
Their visit proved to be a success as they managed to sell all the 50 mango harvesters they had with them. It was at this event that a professor from an agriculture university in Jammu and Kashmir asked them if they could create a similar tool for apple picking. It sparked the duo’s curiosity, and marked the birth of a new product under the brand name Hectare.
Sickle Innovations — which commenced operations in January 2014 — was not a product of ideation but out of the need to solve problems. “Back in college, we never started a project simply based on an idea. We tried and solved problems, primarily that had a social angle to it,” says Gupta who hails from Srikaranpur, a small town in northern Rajasthan.
By the time he graduated as a mechanical engineer in 2008, Gupta was sure he wanted to start a company of his own. But since he was a fresher, he decided to gain some experience first and eventually found a job with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). After almost three years, he quit and applied for a masters in product design at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru.
For his student project, Gupta had to propose an idea to solve a social problem. He was aware of the problems with cotton harvesting that his friends from Srikaranpur were facing. Although there were many issues, the primary challenge was the expense. “Let’s say 3,000 is the cost of the crop per quintal. So, on an overall cost of 30 per kg, farmers pay 6-9/kg only for harvesting,” he exclaims. It also has to be carried out at a good pace. Intermittent rains are a big problem and in such cases where faster harvesting becomes unavoidable, labour wages go up. Sometimes the availability of labour itself is an issue.
Gupta proposed the idea to his professor and it was approved. The machine had to be hand held and a spinning shaft would pick the cotton, which would be sent to a box like enclosure held by the farmer. “Interestingly, the solution worked well and we patented it,” Gupta says. By June 2013, the first prototype of the cotton harvester was ready.
Twice as better
Also an IISc alumnus, Reddy had already completed a year by the time Gupta started his term. But a serious collaboration didn’t begin until he came back to IISc much later as a senior research fellow. Casual conversations and working under the same professor brought the similar minds together and Reddy asked Gupta if they could team up. However, Gupta had gotten in touch with Sukhpal Singh, chairman of the centre for management in agriculture at IIM Ahmedabad, detailing his product design. And to his delight, Singh asked him to come down to Ahmedabad.
“I was delighted to see something like this. India needs more mechanisation in the agri sector without putting the labourers out of work,” says Singh on mentoring Gupta. The soon-to-be entrepreneurs started working on the project albeit from different places — Gupta from Ahmedabad and Reddy from Bengaluru.
By January 2014, Sickle was registered and Gupta had borrowed 2.5 lakh from friends and family and tapped into his savings for another 1.5 lakh. In 2015, Reddy joined as the chief technology officer. Meanwhile, the firm also received their first investment of 18.75 lakh from the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship at IIM Ahmedabad. They also received another 20 lakh from IISc’s incubation centre in the next few months.
By the time the second prototype was being tested, Sickle got a major textile player to put their machines to use. “It seemed they were facing some issues in getting contamination free cotton. Hand picking often leads to contamination and it’s a big headache. They had employed large number of people only to clean cotton,” says Gupta. Six machines were sent to the contract farmers of the company in Jalgaon for 95,000 under a deal where the machines would be returned. The harvested cotton was sent to a lab for testing and the results showed very low or nil contamination. However, the textile major did not place any orders for the equipment. Instead, it asked Sickle to approach the farmers directly.
“We then started approaching the farmers. The machine was increasing the productivity of cotton picking by 1.5-1.75x but farmers were demanding more,” Gupta says. While they kept improving the design, the cotton-harvesting season was over. Gupta, who was in the villages of Gujarat and Maharashtra, thus was on the lookout for some other crop that could be worked on. While cotton was abundant in Gujarat, so was mango. That’s when they started thinking about mango harvesting equipment.
The traditional method of mango picking involves pulling down the fruit using a hook attached at the end of a long stick. The problem with this method is that it leaves a wound at the top of the fruit often leading to reduced shelf life. Gupta explains that the scientific method of harvesting mango is to clip the fruit with two centimeters of the stalk. This increases the shelf life and also tends to keep the next harvest healthy, he says.
The harvester was sold at 4,000 per piece. The volume was low and there was no big money made. But the ability to create something and sell it in such a short time was a major confidence booster for the youngsters. And life got better after they were introduced to the problems of apple picking at the Hyderabad conference.
Apples are harvested by gently twisting the fruit and collecting them in bags. However, the traditional process has many issues, says Gupta. “The branches are weak which makes climbing difficult. The shoots also get damaged when people climb the tree thus affecting future harvest. Moreover, apples at the top of the tree are simply left when climbing is difficult and fallen apples do not fetch good prices,” he points out.
The entrepreneurs knew they had struck gold when the problem at hand was close to their design solutions. They started watching videos to gain further insights into apple harvesting. The duo also went to an orchard belonging to a research institute in Shimla to further understand the nuances. Soon, the apple harvester was up and picking. The equipment consists of two concentric rings that trap the stem of the apple and twist it. The movement of this ring is controlled using a handle by the farmer. A net attached to this ring helps in pushing the apple into the tube that runs from the top end of the rod to a bag attached to the handle. The operational height of the equipment is about 10 feet.
The first prototype was ready by July 2016 and by August, Gupta had already launched the product in Kullu while trying to reach more villages in Himachal Pradesh. So far, the company has managed to sell close to 100 Apple harvesters and has orders for 100 more even as the harvesting season comes to an end. They are also adding a pruning tool to their Apple picker making it a multi-purpose tool that can be used for harvesting and pruning.
Due to the seasonal nature of their products, Sickle decided to design milking machines for a dairy equipment manufacturer. “We wanted to co-develop something with a large player since our products were seasonal in nature. The player wanted to launch their version of the milking machine and we designed one for them,” Gupta adds.
The company is yet to turn profitable. For FY16, it registered a revenue of 12 lakh with operating expenses of 21 lakh and a net loss of 9.6 lakh. However, Gupta expects to cross 1 crore in FY17 sales and log in a profit of 13 lakh. “Our target is to sell 10,000 units of mango and apple harvesters next year. We are looking at scaling manufacturing and are eyeing a new unit in Chandigarh,” Gupta explains.
Though it is a relatively new concept in India, fruit pickers of various designs and models are available abroad. Products with full-fledged levers are priced around $60. Sickle is now looking at the US and Chinese markets and has already sent a sample of the apple harvester to the US. “Our products are patent protected. Post validation, we will be launching it there,” signs off Gupta.