When winter comes, the skies of Punjab, Haryana and surrounding regions turn ashen gray with smoke from burning crop stubble (paddy residue).
The decades-old practice of farmers setting fire to crop waste to clear fields for the winter planting season continues to persist despite solutions such as Happy and Super Seeders, which can sow wheat without being bothered by stubble. So why do farmers continue to burn waste, even after the practice was banned by the authorities?
“There is no concrete solution to stubble management. Farmers only have 10 days to dispose of waste and prepare the field for the next harvest. Even Happy and Super Seeders have their limits as the process (composting) would take months. A farmer has no choice,” says Varinder Singh, co-founder of GFF Innovations, a startup that claims to have found a solution to the farmer’s agony.
The Rajpura-based startup has designed a machine called Mokshwhich is mounted on a tractor and can automatically pick up waste stubble from a farmland and turn it into a “Powder Solution” Ready to go. This residue can then be used as an alternative fuel for heating by boilers and brick kilns as a raw material (binder) for the manufacture of bricks, fiberboard, durable packaging solutions or in insulating paints.
Incorporated by serial entrepreneurs Varinder, Nitin Kumar Saluja and Vilas Chhikarathe startup released the first version of the machine—Moch 1.0—in 2018, followed by the tracker 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 the startup 80Washingwhile Vilas runs SNPC machinerya Haryana-based startup.
The trio came together in 2017 to solve the complex problem of stubble burning.
How does the machine work?
The machine, designed at Chitkara University, Rajpura, and assembled at SNPC Machine’s facility in Sonipat, is housed in a vehicle (tractor).
First, the vehicle travels around the farm to pick up thatch waste, which contains about 70-80% water. The second stage consists of drying the waste and bringing the humidity rate to almost 10%, in order to make it lighter and more compressible for further processing. This is done via a patent “impact drying” Technology.
Nitin explains, “Impact drying is much faster and more convenient than any other conventional heating solution. Water is instantly drained into the machine and is sucked up by the top mounted pumps.
The third step is silica removal, a pollutant, from dried stubble, for which it is treated with an alkaline base coupled with microwave technology. Once the silica is removed, the stubble is crushed inside the machine, and the final powder material comes out the back automatically.
The whole process takes place “on the go” inside a single machine with almost no human intervention, besides the tractor driver and the solution collector.
Moksh 2.0 in small scale pilots
Use cases & business
The gunpowder is promoted as a sustainable alternative energy source. It can be used instead of wood briquettes, a renewable fuel, which are directly used in boilers paper mills, sugar mills, dye works, leather and oil extraction factories and brick kilns for heating and combustion purposes, like any other unconventional fuel.
The price of biofuel is Rs 7/kg, almost at par, or maybe less than the price of wood briquettes.
The use case for the solution is not limited to a biofuel. It can be used as a raw material doing fiberboard, replacing wood. In addition, they can be used as raw materials in the manufacture of insulation or thermal paintsvarious packaging materials, eggshell 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 end product (biofuel) after stubble treatment
The startup received a to agree of Rs 25 lakh from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) under the Innovation Growth 2.0 scheme, in 2018, and Rs 40 lakh under the Waste Management Technologies (WMT) scheme.
Currently, the company has about 10 machines (Moksh 1.0) operational, while two more (Moksh 2.0) are in the pilot phase and will be ready in the coming months. The latter is being developed for larger scale waste management and will be priced between Rs 3 and 4 lakh.
The startup plans to make money from selling machinery and providing services to farmers. Currently, she operates the machines herself and supports operations through the sale of fuel.
“We are exploring different revenue models from now on. The main objective has been to clean agricultural waste, avoid burning stubble and provide relief to farmers, who struggle to get rid of stubble every year and end up burning it out of helplessness,” says Varinder.
To date, the startup has achieved about 70 tons of powder solution sales across Punjab and Haryana, processing about 10 tons of stubble/day, covering nearly 350 acres of land.
The co-founders of GFF Innovations in their assembly plant in Sonipat
“As it (paddy rice stubble) is a seasonal business, we are considering managing other materials like fruit waste. Machines can be configured accordingly. We’ve approached several juice companies, and more off-season use cases are being developed and made concurrently,” says Nitin.
In addition to undertaking large-scale trials of Moksh 2.0, the company plans to develop more machines and expand operations to other states. In addition to external research investmentthe founders are looking to link up with engineering companies specializing in agriculture in the near future.
“The demand is huge, but it’s a capital-intensive business. Therefore, we are taking a careful and smart approach to growing our business,” the co-founders add.