By Greg Breining
A unique drip irrigation project promises to benefit small-plot farmers in India
In 2012 Steele Lorenz (B.S.B. ’10) stepped off a plane in Bangalore, India. He had just quit a job as a retail consultant. Taking a taxi on the sweltering, teeming streets, he realized what a step he was taking. “I was starting a business to sell things to people I’d never met before in a country I had never traveled in before,” he recalls.]
Lorenz and his business partner, University of Minnesota graduate student Sri Latha Ganti, had been polishing their business plan for two years—as if by making more and better preparations they could put off the inevitable. But they couldn’t wait any longer. “It just seemed like this incredible opportunity and I really wanted to give it a try,” he says. “We had to actually start the business or we had to let the dream go.”
The dream is MyRain, a social venture that grew out of the Acara program, an entrepreneurship program cosponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, Carlson School of Management, and College of Science and Engineering. Through Acara’s courses, workshops, and field experiences, students develop business plans for ventures that address societal and environmental challenges. MyRain designs customized drip irrigation systems and sells irrigation components to mom-and-pop farm stores in southern India.
Indian agriculture is made up of a lot of small-plot farmers—approximately 41 million of them—growing crops such as onions, eggplant, bananas, jasmine, coconut, and guava on less than 10 acres, sometimes less than a single acre. Many rely on flood irrigation. But flooding stunts crops, washes away soil nutrients, and wastes water. “A smaller scale problem is that small farmers are also fairly inefficient in their use of water, which means they’re not making as much money as they could,” Lorenz says.
When looking at how to make watering more efficient, drip irrigation jumps to the forefront, Lorenz says. Compared to traditional flood irrigation, MyRain enhances water efficiency by up to 50 percent, increases crop yields by at least 30 percent, improves farmers’ incomes, and creates a more efficient distribution network.
Steele Lorenz shows smallholder farmer, Mr. Subash, MyRain's mobile application, Rainmaker.
Despite its advantages, this well-established technology, which is common in much of the world, is used by as few as 5 percent of Indian farmers. The problem is not that drip irrigation doesn’t work in India, but that small farmers are unfamiliar with the technology and unsure how to set up a system and buy the necessary components. “If you were going to design a product that you thought every American should have, you have ready-made channels that can carry products to achieve mass distribution, such as Amazon, Home Depot, Target,” says Lorenz. “India struggles with that kind of ready-made distribution channel. The problem that we saw was purely a distribution challenge.”
Since making its first sale in early 2013, MyRain now has 30 employees, most of them in India. Last year, the company sold irrigation equipment for more than 1,000 acres of farmland, and is well on its way to fulfilling the goals Acara looks for from its participants. “We want to create ventures that will allow people to make a living but also address some larger sustainability challenges,” says Fred Rose (M.S.E.E. ’83), Acara program director. “MyRain is a good example of that.”
MyRain’s story began in 2010 when Lorenz, a Carlson School of Management undergraduate student with the intention of entering law school, joined the Acara program. There he met Ganti, an electrical engineering graduate student from India. They were part of a group of five University of Minnesota students who teamed up with five students from the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India, to take part in the Acara Challenge, a competition that judges participants’ business plans and awards seed money to winners. As Lorenz learned about the challenges of water conservation, water security, and the promise of drip irrigation, his focus and aspirations began to change away from a career in law and toward social entrepreneurism.
Lorenz, Ganti, and their teammates designed a business that would evaluate irrigation components, most of them manufactured in India, and sell them through nonprofits already working in the countryside. Their idea, which they dubbed MyRain, made the finals of the competition. It didn’t win, but the competition inspired Lorenz and Ganti to pursue the business even as they took jobs—Lorenz as a retail consultant and Ganti as an engineer with Seagate, a worldwide data storage firm.
Ganti took two trips to India, partly to gather information about drip irrigation from small farmers. As she spent time there, she concluded that farmers and retailers wanted what she and Lorenz had to offer. “We were convinced that we were right, that we could create not just a viable business, but a business that would thrive and could have substantial impact in India,” says Lorenz.
Initially, Lorenz and Ganti tried reaching farmers through a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the state of Tamil Nadu that had a relationship with Acara and was already working in the countryside. “That was a disaster,” says Lorenz. The nonprofit wanted to conduct long-term field tests. MyRain wanted to sell products and saw no need for testing, since drip irrigation is a widely proven technology. But in working with the NGO, Lorenz says, he and Ganti learned a lot about farmers’ habits, needs, and preferences. So he and Ganti decided to stay in Tamil Nadu and reach farmers through small agricultural retailers. Says Lorenz, “If I can make a retailer more able to deal in drip irrigation products, that means I can likely reach 1,000 farmers through one well-trained agricultural retailer. We believe it’s through these retailers that we can make a substantial impact.”
MyRain located, evaluated, and distributed components—pipes, tubing, coupling, valves—as it built a network of farm stores. But a big problem remained: drip irrigation systems are simple in concept—a system of pipes and hoses with small holes to leak water. But to design a system that delivers water from the wellhead, usually a diesel-driven pump sucking groundwater, to the farthest reaches of the system without excess pressure elsewhere requires an understanding of fluid dynamics. Each plot requires its own design, a task beyond the abilities of farmers and retailers unfamiliar with drip irrigation.
Enter Ganti, who worked with an Indian company to develop a mobile app dubbed Rainmaker. A store owner can work with the farmer to enter pertinent details about pump pressure, acreage, slope, and crop. Rainmaker spits out a blueprint of an irrigation system specific to a particular field and provides a complete list of required materials. Using the app, the store owner can place an order for components not in stock. Says Ganti, “We’re bringing in the sophistication that a distribution company here in the U.S. would have.”
Last fall, MyRain was one of 17 innovations receiving a Securing Water for Food challenge award, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The awards go to projects considered “game-changing innovations that can produce more food using less water.” The award guarantees MyRain $100,000 over the next year and possibly more depending on various benchmarks. In the months ahead, MyRain will rely on its retailer network to expand from irrigation equipment into other hardware and agricultural products such as small machinery, fertilizers, and farm equipment. “When you look at what we’ve built as a distribution channel for drip irrigation, there are actually a number of products across a number of categories that we can move through this network,” says Lorenz. The company also hopes to increase its dealer network into the thousands and reach beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu into southern India and beyond. That will reap benefits not only for MyRain, but also for small farmers and their communities in southern India. Greater adoption of drip irrigation will mean potentially greater farm income, better use of valuable groundwater, and jobs along the distribution network.
“Are we trying to do social good or are we trying to turn a profit? The answer is both,” says Lorenz. “You can’t separate the two. They are critically linked. We believe that they are one and the same.”