Smart, sexy and sustainable, Greenopia is a fantastic new addition to the Internet of Things. Best of all, it’s designed and made in India.
If you, like me, are an apartment dweller in a big city, chances are that you dream about growing your own food every time you return from a vacation in the hills. You have possibly tried to grow your own tomatoes – or at least basil and fenugreek – at least once in your life. You’ve assiduously watered the plants, tried out a zillion different locations for optimum sunlight, bought enough khaad to feed the building and finally sent a SOS to the local gardener. Too late, said gentleman has gleefully declared, and immediately offered to tend to your little babies (for that is what they have become by now). Maybe you’ve given up right then, maybe you’ve tried again a couple of times – but seldom does this story lead to a happy ending.
Luckily for us greenhorns (pun intended), help is at hand. A bunch of young designers, researchers, artists and technologists have come together to build Greenopia, India’s first smart gardening kit that uses technology to power your kitchen garden. There are several reasons why we can’t stop raving about this wonderful invention – the elegance and simplicity of the concept, the unwavering conviction of the young and diverse team (with an average age of 28), the fantastic visual aesthetics of the pot combined with the superior quality of its material, and above all, the fact that this is one of the few products that has been conceptualized, designed and manufactured by and for India. My Big Red Bag in conversation with Mayukhini Pande, one of the co-founders of Greenopia.
Tell us how the idea of Greenopia first germinated (we just can’t stay away from the puns!)
It all started a year ago when four of us design enthusiasts decided to participate in MTS-Innovatsii, a design innovation challenge focused on improving the quality of life in cities. Given the debate around the increasing contamination of crops, we started thinking about the relationship between health and food. Our research on this topic pointed towards a growing emphasis on moving production of food closer to the point of consumption. This took us back to our childhood, to a time when we lived in houses that almost always had a kitchen garden. So we started thinking about how we can replicate this concept for people living in apartments. We then went back to our recent experience of unsuccessfully trying to raise plants in our tiny apartments – we didn’t have any clue about the amount of water, sunlight and nutrients required for our plants, the paltry volume of our crop made local gardeners unaffordable and most important of all, we just didn’t have the time to learn the nuances of gardening. That led to our decision to use technology to help busy city dwellers like us beat the odds when it comes to growing our own food.
So as you can see, one thing led to another, and now we are on a mission to develop an urban farming system that is simple, scalable and self-learning.
Editors’ Note: Greenopia ended up winning at MTS-Innovatsii and the team has just returned from Russia after accepting the award.
How did the idea of helping people grow their own food turn into a concrete pot. Tell us a little about Greenopia’s journey and the people who played a key role in it.
Let me talk about the key people first. The original team is made up of Mani, Devyani, Veethika and myself, of which Mani and I have been full time on Greenopia. The four of us have a common passion but very different skill sets, and I believe that has helped immensely in getting Greenopia to where it is today. Mani is a creative technologist, Devyani is a visual artist, Veethika a toy & game designer and I’m a designer-ethnographer. But we wouldn’t be where we are today without a wonderful bunch of mentors and advisors – Sudhakar (Teddy), a farmer and a designer; Jai, finance wizard and management guru; sustainability specialist Sujil and serial-entrepreneur TJ.
As for Greenopia’s year long journey, while our vision became clear to us pretty early on, it took us a lot longer to refine the idea and conceptualize the end product. We were lucky to have numerous conversations with a diverse bunch of folks – from people who grow their own food to designers, urban growers, management gurus, tech evangelists and lots more. The feedback that we got via formal networks and the design challenge that I mentioned earlier was also immensely valuable – especially in getting us to focus on a single solution and ensuring we had a sound business model. I believe all of this helped us move conclusively towards giving form to our dream – a gardening kit made up of a pot and a mobile app.
So, what is Greenopia in a nutshell? What are its key features?
Very simply, Greenopia is a smart gardening kit that helps you easily grow food within the confines of your home or apartment. It consists of a smart pot that is roughly he size of a home printer, alongwith a mobile application that is downloadable on any smartphone. The smart pots have moisture, sunlight and electrical conductivity sensors that provide vital information on your plant, such as whether it is receiving adequate water and sunlight, or if the soil is too acidic. The mobile app uses this real time data to offer suggestions to help you keep your plants alive and healthy. The smart pot is also equipped with a motor and reservoir, giving you the option of watering your plants even when you are not at home.
But that’s not all. All our smart pots are networked, so if someone has grown the perfect mint in Bangalore, the app can record the parameters, and over a period of time, offer smart suggestions to all other mint growers in the vicinity. The community feature lets users share feedback, tips and tricks with each other. You know how everyone these days is talking about the Internet of Things? Well, Greenopia is our contribution to this exciting field – an Internet of Gardens that is made in India!
Can we purchase the smart pots right now, and how much does it cost?
Since we are using a crowdfunding campaign to produce our smart pots, evangelists can pre-order the smart pot, but only till the end of the month! We are releasing a limited number of Greenopia kits via our campaign on Wishberry. You can buy a single kit (smart pot, mobile app and a complementary starter pack of seeds) for a special Super Early Adopter price of Rs. 5,000 – or you can choose to grow an entire Greenopia farm that includes 10 smart pots, the mobile app and lots more!
For us, Greenopia is not just a product – it is a journey to help urban Indians discover the joy of gardening. Everyone who contributes to our crowd sourcing initiative is a co-innovator, and we sincerely hope everyone reading this article will pledge their support for our vision. We also have exciting give-aways for people who choose to donate a smaller amount – find our more on our campaign page.
What plans after the Wishberry campaign?
The campaign ends on April 30, after which our first priority will be to develop the app and the smart pots and ship these to our early adopters (deliveries commence in October). The feedback from these users will help us further enhance Greenopia, after which we are likely to seek a further round of funding to expand our production and distribution.
You have just returned from Russia where you went to accept the prestigious MTS-Innovatsii. How does Indian design compare with the rest of the world? What, in your view, are our strengths and weaknesses?
I believe that Indian design is going through an interesting phase right now. On the one hand, we are more connected than ever before with the rest of the world, making it easy to access the latest innovations in thinking and technology; but on the other, our size and complexity means that the problems faced by Indians are not found anywhere else in the world! So you can say that there is tremendous and unprecedented opportunity for designers to combine their understanding of the country with international technical advancements to help solve some of our most pressing problems.
The biggest threat to this prospect is blind replication of technologies without considering the Indian context. Another big challenge is poor appreciation of design in our country, and therefore the absence of an ecosystem that supports and encourages design thinking. But what gives me hope is the increasing evidence of influencers and entrepreneurs in India acknowledging the importance of design in their products and services.
Tell us something about yourself – your background, interests and passions?
I graduated as an engineer but spent the first year after college doing theatre, as I am also a trained musician and composer. You can say I was trying to find my calling in life, till I decided to join the National Institute of Design (NID). A course in Ethnography at NID turned out to be the proverbial turning point of my life – I had stumbled upon a means to combine my structured left brain thinking with an abiding desire to create, reinvent and innovate.
I am passionate about design and ideas but more than anything else I am almost obsessed with understanding what it is to be human, especially in the context of technology. More specifically, how do human values get coded into technology and passed on within a social group? This quest is also reflected in our design for Greenopia – we made a conscious decision to avoid automating every aspect of cultivation so there is a strong element of learning and discovery for the growers.
Is this a good time to be an entrepreneur in India? What is it that frustrates you about entrepreneurship? Any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Yes, I think the growing importance of social and technology in our lives, combined with a burgeoning start-up ecosystem, is making it easier to start up in India as compared with a few years ago. For example, for Greenopia, one of our components has been procured from a project that is also being crowdfunded! The growing interconnectedness of the world means that innovations in one part of the world can be quickly customized and replicated in other parts. Increasing media coverage of entrepreneurs and their journeys also helps attract more people towards entrepreneurship.
All of this makes it seem like entrepreneurs are the Beatles of our generation, but the reality is not so straightforward. So my biggest advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to be very clear on why they want to venture on their own – is it a genuine desire to create something new, or is it because it seems useful, not to mention cool, to have start-up experience on your resume? The life of an entrepreneur includes days, weeks and months when nothing appears to move, when there are bills to be paid and not enough money in the bank, when your friends with regular jobs are leading a lifestyle that is out of reach for you, not just for months but sometimes for years. So only if you are extremely motivated by the desire to create value will you enjoy the journey, without caring about whether or not it brings you the lifestyle of a rockstar (thought who doesn’t want to be John Lennon! )
As for practical tips: in design, we believe in quick prototyping of our ideas to validate their feasibility. Likewise, aspiring entrepreneurs should resist the lure of endless whiteboard analyses and instead explore innovative ways to test their ideas. I think Greenopia benefited immensely from the feedback that we received as part of MTS Innovatsii – contests such as these are a great platform for risk free prototyping . We also found the NID and IIM alumni to be extremely helpful, and generous, with their advice and suggestions (Mayukhini is based in Ahmedabad, which is also home to the country’s premier IIM).