Maithili Appalwar Shares Innovative Technologies with India’s Farmers
Acquiring an internship at a Big Four consulting company is considered quite an achievement by most undergraduate students in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE). However, this was not Maithili Appalwar’s experience. “The company was actually a great place to work, but it wasn’t for me,” she said. “It was really confusing, because getting this internship seemed like a box I had to check to be successful, but I’d come home every day feeling empty.”
Appalwar grew up in India seeing her parents successfully meet the challenges of running their own business. Additionally, she had taken a class on social entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech, in which students discussed how businesses can help solve social problems. So when Appalwar began thinking about what she really wanted to accomplish and how, pivoting to start her own company for social good seemed a natural next step.
Appalwar and her father co-founded Avana, a startup that creates affordable farming technologies. Farming in India can be an extremely challenging occupation because rainfall is so erratic, and water storage is a problem. In coordination with the farmers, the father-and-daughter duo came up with a solution.
“What’s the simplest way to store water?” Appalwar said. “It’s literally digging a pit in the ground.” The farmers suggested the ponds, and the Appalwars — who own a family-run polymer processing plant — devised a wide polymer material to line the ponds, thus enabling farmers to store water cheaply ($1 for 2,700 liters per year).
After she graduated in December 2018, Appalwar returned to India to concentrate on growing Avana and expanding its impact on the country’s farming communities. Avana now employs 30 people, has 150 field partners, and since 2016 has saved an estimated 200 billion liters of water.
Avana has received considerable attention for the water storage techniques you and your dad have developed. Does the organization have a larger focus?
Water storage is something we are very passionate about, and it enabled us to get connected with farmers. But we came to realize that the problem of farmer poverty is very complex, and one technology — one product — is far from solving it. We are having an impact, but we need to do much more in order to disrupt Indian agriculture and make farmers prosperous, which is Avana’s ultimate goal.
For example, while many people want organic food, it’s generally only available in stores frequented by high socioeconomic classes. And the marketplaces involve lots of middlemen, who mark up the price. Most Indians can’t afford it. We want to connect farmers directly with consumers through 100% supply chain transparency. That way we can pay farmers more and city residents can buy organic produce more cheaply, making it available to the urban middle class. We also want to focus on precision agriculture.
What exactly is precision agriculture, and how will Avana help farmers implement it?
Precision agriculture is a farm management system that relies on real-time data, rather than farmer intuition or anecdotal evidence. Currently, precision agriculture solutions in India are extremely expensive. They cost $18,000 for 20 acres of land or smaller. This price is not viable for most Indian farmers, whose lands cover less than five acres.
We are looking at using machine learning and thermal image processing technology to help farmers use the least amount of water and get “more crop per drop.” Many farmers are still using drip irrigation or sprinkler watering systems, so we divide farms up into grids, then figure out when and for how long the drip should operate based on real-time farm moisture data.
How are the devastating heat waves India has been experiencing — with temperatures above 100° F lasting for weeks — impacting your plans for Avana’s development?
The heat waves are a symptom of the extreme climate change that the entire world is facing. Another symptom of that climate change is intense, sudden downpours, which make water storage necessary so the water can be used later. The heat waves, however, mean that stored water will evaporate faster.
To prevent this, we have designed an affordable evaporation cover that uses a floating lining filled with recycled empty water and aerated drink bottles, which reduces evaporation losses by 85%.
We’ve also realized an increased urgency for better water management, so we’re launching our Precision Water Management System in March 2020. This system aims to reduce water usage on farms by 20% — agriculture is a real water guzzler and uses 80% of India’s water. Our goal is to bring the cost of the system down to approximately $60/acre.
In addition to the crop optimization tool you mentioned earlier, how are you using your ISyE skills with Avana?
The optimization tool is a good example of how I use my ISyE skills, because so many ISyE classes incorporate coding, which we have to implement when looking at that tool. In addition, I’m going to get to use my industrial engineering skills when working on transforming the food supply chain.
I took a supply chain projects class as an undergraduate, where the students were put into teams and each team had a product. Ours was snowboards, and we looked at the entire supply ecosystem for these snowboards: How was the company acquiring its snowboards?How was it providing snowboards to its customers? How do we decide where to put the distribution centers? How do we cut out the middleman? It was a great overview of how to set up an entire supply chain to minimize costs, increase employee satisfaction, and grow the business in a sustainable and scalable manner.
What has been your biggest take- away from growing a startup?
I think the challenge for me was to realize that the farmers we are working with live incredibly dif- ferent lives from me. So going into these environments, you don’t want to be patronizing and act like you’re there to solve all their problems.
Avana is a brilliant solution, and the reason that it’s brilliant is because it came from the community. We went in and asked the farmers, “What do you think would be a good way to save water?” And they said, “If we had a big pond on the farms, that would be helpful.”
In order to get to solutions like that, you have to be able to listen.
Appalwar provided an update as of mid-January 2020:
We have been expanding the territories Avana is working in. We're now present in four states in India: Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh.
In addition, we have also developed a new type of pond - called Jalasanchay Super - that reduces evaporation rate and works really well for fish farming. Jalasanchay Super is made with a patented technology, where we use material science innovations to create a blue-coloured fabric with enough carbon for five years of UV stability in the Indian heat.
The blue color reduces evaporation losses and promotes algal growth, which helps fish grow bigger. Fishing helps add a source of revenue for farmers; we are working with them to create appropriate recipes for fish nutrients and antibiotics that will help the fish grow. We are able to use our original distribution channels to add new revenue streams for the company and iare making farmers richer in the process.