Come winter, and the skies in Punjab, Haryana, and surrounding areas turn ash grey with the smoke from burning crop stubble (paddy residue).
The decades-old-practice by farmers of setting the crop waste ablaze to clear the fields for the winter sowing season continues to persist despite solutions like Happy and Super Seeders, which can sow wheat unhindered by stubble. Then why do farmers continue to burn the waste, even after the practice is banned by the authorities?
“There is no concrete solution to stubble management. Farmers have mere 10 days to clear the waste and prepare the field for the next crop. Even Happy and Super Seeders have their limitations as the process (composting) would take months. A farmer is left with no choice,” says Varinder Singh, Co-founder of GFF Innovations, a startup that claims to have cracked a solution for the farmer’s agony.
The Rajpura-based startup has devised a machine called Moksh, which is mounted on a tractor and can automatically pick up the stubble waste from a farmland and turn it into a “powdery solution” on-the-go. This residue can then be used as an alternative fuel for heating by boilers and brick kilns as a raw material (binding agent) for making bricks, fibreboards, sustainable packaging solutions, or in insulation paints.
Incorporated by serial entrepreneurs Varinder, Nitin Kumar Saluja, and Vilas Chhikara, the startup came out with the first version of the machine—Moksh 1.0—in 2018, followed by the tracker-mounted version—Moksh 2.0—in 2022.
Varinder and Nitin, who work together at Chitkara University Research and Innovation Network (CURIN), Punjab, are also the co-founders of startup 80Wash, while Vilas runs SNPC Machines, a Haryana-based startup.
The trio came together in 2017 to resolve the complex issue of stubble burning.
How the machine works?
The machine, designed at Chitkara University, Rajpura, and assembled at SNPC Machine’s facility in Sonipat, is arranged in a vehicle (tractor).
As a first step, the vehicle runs over the farm to pick up the stubble waste, which contains about 70-80% water. The second step involves drying up the waste and bringing the moisture level to up to almost 10%, in order to make it lighter and compressible for further processing. This is done via patented “impact drying” technology.
Nitin explains, “Impact drying is much quicker and practical as compared to any other conventional heating solution. The water is instantly removed in the machine and is sucked out by the pumps fitted at the top.”
The third step is removal of Silica, a pollutant, from the dried-out stubble, for which it is processed with an alkaline base along with microwave technology. Once the silica is removed, the stubble is crushed inside the machine and the final powdery material automatically comes out from the rear.
The entire process takes place “on-the-go” inside a single machine with almost zero human intervention, besides the tractor driver and the solution collector.
Moksh 2.0 in small scale pilots
Use cases & business
The powder is touted as a sustainable alternative source of energy. It can be used in place of wood briquettes, a renewable fuel, which are directly used into boilers of paper mills, sugar mills, dyeing houses, leather and oil extraction plants and brick kilns for heating and combustion purposes, just like any other non-conventional fuel.
The biofuel is priced at Rs 7/kg, almost at par, or maybe less than the price of wood briquettes.
The use case of the solution is not limited to a biofuel. It can be used as a raw material in making fibreboards, replacing wood. Further, they can be used as raw materials in making insulation or thermal paints, various packaging materials, egg shell trays, and so on.
“We have scratched the surface of the potential of this solution. More and more use cases are being explored and developed,” says Nitin.
The final product (biofuel) after processing the stubble
The startup has received a grant of Rs 25 lakh from Department of Science and Technology (DST) under Innovation Growth Program 2.0, in 2018, and Rs 40 lakh under Waste Management Technologies (WMT) program.
Currently, the company has about 10 machines (Moksh 1.0) operational, while two others (Moksh 2.0) are undergoing pilots and will be ready in the next few months. The latter is being developed for larger scale waste management, and will be priced in the range of Rs 3-4 lakh.
The startup plans to make money from the sale of machines and providing service to farmers. Right now, it is operating the machines itself and sustaining operations from sale of the fuel.
“We are exploring different revenue models as of now. The core focus has been to clear up the farm waste, avoid burning of stubble, and provide some relief to the farmers, who struggle to get rid of the stubble every year and end up burning the same out of helplessness,” says Varinder.
To date, the startup has made about 70 tonnes of powder solution sales across Punjab and Haryana, processing about 10 tonnes stubble/day, covering almost 350 acres of land.
GFF Innovations co-founders at their assembly facility in Sonipat
“Since it (rice paddy stubble) is a seasonal business, we are looking at managing other materials like fruit waste. The machines can be configured accordingly. We have approached several juice companies and other off-season use cases are being developed and carried out simultaneously,” says Nitin.
Besides undertaking large scale trials of Moksh 2.0, the company plans to develop more machines and scale up operation in other states. Besides seeking external investment, the founders are looking to tie up with agriculture-heavy engineering companies in the near future.
“The demand is huge, but it’s a capital-intensive business. Hence, we are taking a cautionary and smart approach in scaling our business,” the co-founders add.