If SANTOSH Ostwal and his wife, Rajashree Otswal, were to calculate the number of electricity units saved or the amount of water conserved in terms of money, thanks to their invention, it would be enough to set up a small power plant or building a small dam. The end to a farmer’s daily drudgery and sleepless nights, though, is hard to convert into currency. But then money is something the Ostwal couple have not seen much of in their long journey of taking technology to the farms.
Much before information and communication technology (ICT) for agriculture and rural development became buzzwords and ‘e’ got hyphenated to everything, the Ostwals, both engineers, ventured into wireless irrigation and mobile-to-mobile (M2M) communication systems for agriculture. A remotely controlled pump using the mobile phone and combing it with some clever electronics was the innovation that has made the lives of farmers easier.
The Ostwals’ invention has impacted the lives of four lakh farmers with 50,000 installations in the last 12 years. A smart and affordable device, Nano Ganesh, saves farmers from making treacherous trips in pitch dark to their farms at midnight to access their water pumps and operate them, a daily reality, especially with erratic power supply. When the tired farmer fails to go out and switch off the water pump, there’s wastage of water and electricity. In addition, the excess water damages the soil and crop, hurting them further. If that is not enough, there is the theft of water pumps and cables to be dealt with. These are the problems that the couple set to solve.
“There is so much to do. I will not stop till I reach a million farmers in five years,” says Santosh Ostwal, CEO and co-founder of Ossian Agro Automation. Ossian’s ambition is to manufacture irrigation automation systems with focus on appropriate technology for the rural zones. “There are 45 lakh water pumps in Maharashtra alone and across the country it will be more than 3.5 crore pumps,” he says, outlining his long-term goals.
The germ of an idea
While Santosh Ostwal rode out to the farms to convince farmers, Rajashree Ostwal assembled a kit in their bedroom turned shopfloor in the initial years. While developing the technology had its challenges as it had to be small, simple, low cost, robust with easy installation, the Ostwals say the more difficult part was to work out a viable business model and sell to farmers. It started as a wireless device which worked within a radius of one kilometre. Then came the GSM technology. Nano Ganesh first used a Motorola phone, then a Nokia phone and continues to evolve with just a SIM required and doing away with the mobile phone.
Now all the farmers have to do is to switch on or switch off a water pump by using their mobile phone which talks to the Nano Ganesh sitting near the pump. The Nano Ganesh device has a SIM which sends messages to the farmers mobile phone. To prevent theft of cables and pump sets, the Nano Ganesh has been programmed to send alerts to the farmers.
“This is an intelligent electronic device that integrates with a GSM mode and is wired with an existing electrical starter-auto switch. So if anyone cuts the cable of the pump, a loud siren is set off and an alert call as well as SMS is sent to two mobile phones,” explains Santosh Otswal.
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Harvesting amidst odds
Rajashree Ostwal says they have trained a thousand ‘agro electronics commandos’ in Maharashtra to provide local support to farmers. And their hard work has paid off. If at one time the Ostwals took the Nano Ganesh to every farmer exhibition and patiently demonstrated its benefits with no prospects of sales, today Nano Ganesh is selling on Amazon.com, with the first order coming from a farmer in Shimla.
However, they are still scouting for the elusive funding to scale up their business, invest in R&D and that has been hard to find. This, despite the fact that they have been celebrated by global organisations such as UNFAO and companies such as Nokia which zeroed in on them as the best technology for emerging markets in 2009.
Meanwhile, their 20-year-old son, Prasad Ostwal, is taking it to the next level. The younger Ostwal sees the Nano Ganesh morphing into an IOT device for agriculture. The Ostwals now plan to take the data to the cloud and offer farmers valuable analysis instead of just alert and sirens.