Saurabh Kadam, 32, and Prasad Deshmukh, 41, are in some ways grateful for the 2013-15 drought that forced them to turn to onion cultivation and eventually led them to mechanize it. Kadam, who did his MTech in civil engineering from Sangli-based Rajarambapu Institute of Technology, finally decided to close his construction business and tie up with Deshmukh to develop and market onion seeders and transplanters . The company subsequently won the RAFAR government grant and is now exporting these machines.
Currently, their goal is to achieve complete mechanization of onion cultivation, a crop known for its high demand for labor.
Traditionally, Kadam’s family cultivated sugarcane on their nearly 30 acres of land in Rahuri tehsil of Ahmednagar district. “Maharashtra experienced a series of droughts between 2013 and 2015. With water becoming scarce, we had to look for a crop that grew over a shorter period and was commercially viable. Onion was the first choice as it grew in just three to four months,” he said.
Onion was a new crop in Rahuri and the first thing that struck them was how labor intensive it was. Kadam and Deshmukh were part of the Shetkariraja Men’s Self-Help Group (SHG), active in the area. Soon the topic of discussion turned to onions and the problems faced by those who grow them.
“Labor was a problem, as was the way farmers planted their crops. Seed companies advocated the use of 3 kg of seed per acre, but this was because farmers relied on the broadcast planting method (throwing seeds on the surface of the soil). This led to losses and the accuracy was less,” he said.
Kadam decided to take matters into his own hands and designed a machine that successfully reduced both the amount of seeds needed as well as the labor involved. The mechanical seeder was easy to use and could be operated manually.
“Onion seeds are very delicate and hence seeders available in the market cannot be used. Our machine took care of this aspect because it was manually operated,” he explained. The first machine was manufactured by the duo in 2015 and since then they have managed to sell around 300 such machines per year.
In 2019, Kadam and Deshmukh decided to start a business when they realized the greater potential of their innovation and the market for it. In 2020, the company was recognized under the Remunerative Approaches for Rejuvenation of Agriculture and Allied Sectors (RAFAR) of the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY).
This helped the company secure an investment of Rs 15 lakh along with incubation facilities at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Kashipur, Uttarakhand. “Although the training was delivered online for COVID-19 pandemic, it was of great benefit to us and helped us clarify our vision,” he added.
Onion – especially rabi grown in winter – needs to be transplanted, and so the company’s next innovation was a transplanter. The machine is mounted on a tractor and allows precise transplantation of young onion plants. “Transplantation is a very labor-intensive job. Our machine manages to reduce labor cost and increase precision. Farmers can thus obtain better income,” he stressed.
It turned out that it was the transplanter that attracted international buyers. “Soon after its launch last year, we started receiving questions from other onion-producing countries. The first machine was exported to Morocco in April 2023, followed by another to Tanzania. Our last export was to Palestine, just before the current war broke out,” he said.
Currently, the company is conducting extensive research to make the transplanter more user-friendly. “Our activity is linked to the creation of the product. The current drop in prices therefore does not bode well for us. Our main focus now is to work on end-to-end mechanization of onion farming – something that has never been attempted before,” he said.