This interview details Honest Greens, the first commercial scale vertical farm in Sri Lanka. The interview is with Aneeshan Tyagarajah, Director of Honest Greens.
What is the origin story of Honest Greens?
Honest Greens was founded in 2015, to build a climate-resilient farming system that could provide a consistent supply of quality produce for leading HORECA and retail businesses in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Ashish, Sanuja, and I (founders of the business) had no previous experience with vertical farming, hence we spent over a year meeting experts in the field and attending conferences around the world.
In 2016, we developed a functional model and utilized it to apply for funding from the Agricultural Sector Modernisation Project, which was sponsored by the World Bank and the European Union. With the financial support received, we successfully established Sri Lanka's first commercial-scale vertical farm.
Since then, we have scaled up our operations and improved our yields significantly. We supply all major retailers in the country, prominent international hotel brands, and even our national airline. Our focus has now shifted to designing and building containerised and full-scale farms for clients around the world. We strongly advocate for the idea of resorts and businesses cultivating their own leafy greens on-site.
Therefore, we are determined to champion this business model in South Asia and around the world.
What type of vertical farm set-up do you use?
Our farming setup incorporates artificial lighting, hydroponics, and climate control. We use a host of IoT devices to automate all processes at the farm. Majority of the systems in place at our farm have been designed and built in-house. We utilise DWC as our primary growing method.
The hydroponic tubs were specifically crafted by our team to ensure optimal utilization of space. Our proprietary production planning software is combined with our tubs to strategically map out our crop layout, enabling
us to attain the maximum possible yield within our designated growing space.
Additionally, we have developed a platform for business intelligence and farm management that allows access to all the relevant information and parameters related to the farm's operation. This provides the respective teams with a
comprehensive understanding of the business and enables them to make necessary adjustments to the growth parameters as required.
Can you tell us more about your subscription plan packages and ready-to-eat products?
During the first wave of the Covid pandemic, we launched a home delivery platform to help customers get their greens delivered right from our farm to their doorstep, within 24 hours of harvest. As most people had to refrain from leaving their homes, we felt that launching a subscription service was a stress-free way for households to get their greens.
Customers can build their own baskets of products on our website and select their preferred delivery day after which we deliver their custom basket on a weekly basis. Our market research revealed a significant portion of the market prioritized convenience, prompting us to introduce a range of salad mixes featuring our top- selling products such as kale and rocket.
By doing so, we provided a hassle-free solution for smaller households of one to two people to purchase our products as a complete package rather than buying them individually.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Honest Greens in the future?
The biggest challenge we face today is the current economic instability in Sri Lanka. Over the past year, the currency faced a significant devaluation and inflation had risen to as much as 50%. Navigating this had been extremely difficult as input costs had risen to unforeseen levels. We had to navigate this situation by diversifying our sales mix and pushing heavily for export sales to negate the effect of the depreciating currency.
The situation has been stabilised for the time being which has given us the opportunity to focus on developing our new business arm of selling containerised farms.
Looking at the industry on a more macro scale, I believe the greatest challenge we face is growing an even larger basket of goods. The effects of climate change, land degradation, and limited resources are becoming more apparent, and we believe that indoor vertical farming is one solution to the oncoming issues.
One of the significant advantages of vertical farms is their ability to mitigate the risks associated with climate change. Additionally, the ability to locate farms in high-demand centers helps reduce food waste. Presently, profitable crop production is limited to leafy greens, herbs, mushrooms, and berries.
However, rapid technological advancements are being made, particularly with the increasing use of renewable energy sources and LED lighting, which is making more crop types feasible. As seed breeders are adapting their products to suit vertical farms, we can expect to see a broader range of fruits and vegetables available in the market soon.
What is unique about Honest Greens compared to competitors?
Through our experience of operating a commercial-scale farm, we have been consistently perfecting our technology and improving the farm's unit economics. A large majority of vertical farms and container farming manufacturers have solely focused on building farms and have not gone through the trials of operating a farming business.
We feel that this experience is valuable, and we can offer our customers a true ‘business in a box’ model.
As I mentioned earlier, most of our technology has been developed in-house, which gives us a significant advantage over competitors who rely on off-the-shelf components.
This enables us to maintain lower capex costs compared to other farm manufacturers. This is especially crucial for potential customers in regions like South Asia, where funding is limited.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
Our final goal at Honest Greens has always been to perfect the vertical farming business model here in Sri Lanka and replicate it around the world. The vertical
farming industry is still in its infancy stage; therefore, I think there is a lot more room for our company to grow.
Over the past few years, we have been perfecting the unit economics of our farms to make the systems more viable for several regions. This involves testing new methods of doing things, almost on a daily basis. The main metric we track to determine if a test is successful is the yield per square foot.
Most business decisions can be based on this as it translates to higher profitability and higher output.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you joined or started the company?
Farming, in general, is a tough business, I think most people have an idea of this, but you only learn the extent of it when you try it yourself. It's key that you partner with the right people that have been through and have overcome the issues that vertical farming throws at you. This will save you a lot of time and money.
How can people connect with you or learn more about Honest Greens?
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