Innovation on the Horizon

Delhi-based start-up Distinct Horizon has created a machine that reduces the use of fertilizer and increases crop production. 

Many of us don’t think about the use of fertilizers in farming when we shop for fruits, vegetables and other produces. But, the fact is that massive amounts of fertilizers are required to bring crops to a good harvest.

The most common fertilizer used worldwide is urea, a nitrogen-release fertilizer. The conventional application of urea is broadcasting it over the crops—distributing the fertilizer by hand or mechanically in a way that particles thrown in the air fall in an arc on the ground. This method, however, has many limitations and negative effects on the environment, the ultimate yield and the economics of agriculture. It is this issue that Distinct Horizon, a start-up based in New Delhi, aims to remedy.

The company advocates application of compressed blocks, or briquettes, of prilled urea, instead of using the broadcasting method. This procedure, known as urea deep placement (UDP), involves packing the material tightly into small briquettes, which can then be placed directly into the ground. This allows more controlled and concentrated use of the fertilizer, less overall wastage, better crop yield and greatly reduced environmental impact.

Ayush Nigam, co-founder and chief executive officer of Distinct Horizon, explains that the application can now work even in difficult conditions. “A major challenge was making it work properly in deep-flooded paddy field conditions, while also accurately placing fertilizer briquettes to make it convenient for farmers to use this method,” he says. The company, thus, developed a mechanized UDP applicator. Operated by a single “driver,” who walks behind the machine and guides it along, the UDP applicator can help fertilize one hectare of land with just 1.5 man-days of labor. The operation is also not difficult. “It can be learned in 15 minutes,” says Nigam.

One of the chief problems with fertilizer use is its effect on water quality, due to nitrogen run-off. With the use of briquettes, it has been shown that groundwater leeching and pollution can be nearly eliminated. The impact of greenhouse gases is reduced as well. According to Distinct Horizon’s website, about 40 million tons of greenhouse emissions can be reduced annually across India by widespread adoption of UDP. An additional benefit is that pesticide use can be greatly diminished, or even eliminated, which would help increase the nutritional value of crops. Nigam explains this in terms of the strength of the crop produced. “In all the over 300 fields we have worked on, there has not been a single farmer who needed application of pesticides because of the strength the plants get due to fertilizer deep placement, which is a huge achievement,” he says.

Deployment of the new technology was planned carefully. “We did our initial trials with the help of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Tata Chemicals. After those scientific trials, we had trials with farmers in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh,” says Nigam. “It was possible by building trust among the farmers through continuous communication of technology and supporting them during the trials. Each time, we compared the results of our machine’s application against manually-performed UDP and also against the conventional farmer practice. We used only a part of their land to deploy UDP, so that they are able to see the results for themselves.”

Following what Nigam terms a “pull strategy” to convince farmers, the benefits were quick and clear. “We are extremely proud that we were able to double the profits of the poorest of farmers through our service model. Further, from our in-depth interviews, we have noted that the increased agricultural earnings, in most cases, directly go toward bettering the education of farmers’ children, as they are now able to afford better schools and tutors,” he says.

A key component to this growth was a 10-week pre-incubation program of the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at the American Center New Delhi, a collaboration with the IC2 Institute of The University of Texas at Austin. “Our experience with the Nexus pre-incubation program was awesome,” says Nigam. “It is a very well-designed, holistic course, which helps entrepreneurs like myself brush up rough edges and become well-rounded and ready to take on the multiple challenges that come our way almost daily in the start-up journey.” He adds that the mentoring sessions helped him evolve as an entrepreneur and take the right decisions. And the guidance has continued, Nigam says, with the Nexus team being “constantly resourceful by getting us relevant connections and sources of funds, even months after the program ended. The Nexus program has also helped us reformulate our strategy for the future and tune it more effectively toward customers’ needs.

The start-up is growing steadily. “We have two machines in India. We have also sent one prototype to Bangladesh. In all, over 300 farmers have benefited through these machines so far,” says Nigam. “And, we already have demand from over 5,000 farmers for the fertilizer application service with our machines. We will soon be in a position to provide service to all of them and grow further from there.”

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.