Manohar Sambandam, a tech entrepreneur-turned farmer, makes a robotic platform to harvest cotton. The trigger was rice and cotton harvests he lost due to lack of farm labour.
The cotton picking robot has a tentative market price of Rs 4-5 lakh. The idea is to extend its use to pick strawberries and grapes, as also to weeding.
While agri-tech robots are a hot area for investment in the west, they haven’t attracted much backing or been in deals in India.
Manohar Sambandam designed and programmed chips for 25 years at companies such as Texas Instruments and Broadcom. He did well for himself — earning a tidy pile from the sale of Athena Semiconductors, a WiFi startup he was part of, to Broadcom. It gave him the money and confidence to turn to farming in Thiruvarur, a temple town in Tamil Nadu less than 30 km inland from Nagapattinam on India’s eastern coast.
Hailing from a farming family, Sambandam was curious to see if it could become an economically viable profession. His plans seemed sound at first. “I had all of this figured out in a spreadsheet,” he says, laughing.
Sambandam experimented with growing rice at first and was able to grow a good crop on his 12.5-acre farm land. But he couldn’t harvest it due to lack of access to labour. His crop was ready for harvest 15 days before everyone else’s in the surrounding area. His farm didn’t have access for a paddy harvester to come in. “The machines will only come if there are enough people who are going to use it. So I actually lost the crop the first season,” he says.
He next tried to grow a special breed of extra-fine cotton, which fetches a much higher price than rice, again met with the same fate.”I wasn’t able to get people to pick, as this particular breed of cotton does not burst very well. When you pick, you have to use your hand — and the shells create a sharp edge, and you can hurt your hand. People were not willing to pick it,” he says.
That’s the backstory to Sambandam’s cotton-picking robot that seems to be India’s first of its kind agri-tech robot. In later iterations, it could be used to harvest other produce such as strawberries or grapes or even weeding. The robot, at the prototype stage, could well be the first of its kind in India.
And, by the looks of it, he may be on to something. His three-year-old startup, Green Robot Machinery was a winner at the recent Elevate 100 program, held last week, run by the Karnataka government to support entrepreneurship. In 2016, the startup, which Sambandam had put Rs 50 lakh of his personal money into, also received incubation and funding from Villgro, a social enterprise incubator.