n eastern India, around 30 million farmers tend to an acre or less of land, where they can’t access most of the available renewable groundwater or reliable agriculture-grade electricity. In a country that will be the world’s most populous in a matter of years, the need is dire for increased agricultural productivity. Khethworks has developed a solar-powered irrigation system that allows these small-plot farmers to affordably cultivate year-round.
CEO Katie Taylor shares why she believes in the transformative power of irrigation, which can improve food security, counter the environmental effects of diesel and kerosene pumps, and generate sustainable employment for millions.
What inspired you to start this company?
The seed for Khethworks was sewn in our very first semester of grad school at MIT in 2013. I met Kevin and Victor in Professor Winter’s Global Engineering course. Kevin and I chose a project to design a solar pump for a one-acre drip irrigation system.
As Tata Fellows, we were able to water that seed, as the fellowship provided us the opportunity to visit east India frequently and speak directly to small plot farmers and farmer-facing NGOs across the region. There, we found that a fitting drip system was not the central problem for these small plot farmers. They simply lack affordable irrigation options for conventional irrigation.
Solar irrigation was too expensive for them. However, we knew that if we could reduce the solar panel costs by improving the efficiency of the pump, we could make a solar irrigation system more affordable.
Throughout grad school, we continued developing the technology – making exciting leaps in efficiency with our design revisions. But it was the trips to India, speaking with hundreds of farmers across the region, and understanding the true market potential of the technology, that made it undeniable for us – we had to make this solution a reality for these farmers! We had to cultivate what was once a seed, but showed promise of growing into a fruitful endeavor. We were driven to transition this from a project to a company, to be able to make sustainable and scalable impact – and starting Khethworks was the way to do this.
Why solve the issues you’re trying to solve? Basically, why does this matter so much to you?
It matters so much to me because it matters so much to the farmers I have met and worked with. When we deployed a pilot site in 2015 with our NGO partner Pradan in Jharkhand, Kumar shared his story. Without the ability to affordably irrigate and cultivate his land year round, he spoke of his dangerous migratory labor in a diamond mine. Now, he proudly tends his plot year round and serves as headmaster at his kids’ school. To be able to provide a product that allows more farmers like Kumar to keep their families together and do dignified work is a great honor and my deepest motivation.
Take a step back from Kumar’s individual story, acknowledging that he is one of 30 million small-plot farmers in east India, and you can begin to see why solutions in the irrigation space can be transformative. There is a potential to materially improve India’s food security, to counter the environmental effects of diesel and kerosene pumps, to create sustainable employment and increase farmers’ yields and livelihoods, which creates more income to spend on education and nutrition.
It is a complex issue with numerous challenges, but is without a doubt worth it. There are many individual stories yet to be told and much progress yet to be made.
Why is your product unique?
At Khethworks, we make solar powered irrigation systems perfectly fit for small plot farmers drawing from shallow groundwater. We designed the system’s cornerstone in-house: a centrifugal pump that is easy to use, portable and highly efficient. Compared to similar small pumps, we’ve tripled the efficiency from 15 percent to 45 percent. The high efficiency matters to farmers because it reduces the amount of solar panels, which drive the system cost, and makes the whole system more affordable.
We designed this product with and for the small plot farmers of east India. Feedback from the farmers, NGOs, and other stakeholders has been essential throughout the design process.
Currently, the solar pump market is driven by government subsidies, but these will phase out. Schemes target large farmers with pumps costing $1500 per horsepower. Even with subsidy, these are too expensive for small farmers who often lack connections to access the scheme and documentation to get loans. Our focus on efficiency, and thus affordability, allows us to move nimbly outside the government subsidy space.
Our affordable product and inclusive, bottom-up model to collaborate with community partners lets us reach farmers and a massive market that bigger players have missed. Our strategy, where farmers are engaged throughout the development process to assure we meet their needs, can be applied to developing other offerings for the farmers. And after building a customer base which subsequently has increased income and purchasing power, Khethworks is well positioned and versed to supply them with their further desired solutions.
What has been your company’s proudest moment to date?
Our greatest joy has come from the farmers in Jenasai, a tribal Ho community in Jharkhand, using the first-ever Khethworks system in the field. Using our pilot pump, a group of seven farmers cultivated dry season crops, earning an extra season’s income without fuel expenditures, for the first time ever! Not only that, but they repeatedly rented the system to neighboring communities on their own initiative.
While moments like that drive our work, it has been an honor to be recognized for our work and to be selected to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss our work at Khethworks. In the public address that followed, PM Modi proclaimed that, “Khethworks is changing the lives of small farmers with solar-based irrigation systems.”
What do you hope the world will look like as a result of your work?
At Khethworks, we help small plot farmers attain more control over their livelihoods. By working with farmers bottom-up, we provide offerings that give farmers more power to generate income while doing what they do best: cultivating the land to produce abundant crops.
We understand small-acreage farming to be a risky profession and farmers to be risk managers. We see our work as transforming a farmer’s calculus from whether to grow more, to how to grow more. As a result of that work, we imagine a world where small-acreage farmers thrive: Land that once laid fallow, now fertile and green. Farmers generate income close to home without a need for migratory labor, providing food and economic development to the region. Farming operations grow sustainably in both financial models and environmental impacts with the help of technology. Local enterprises replicate a model in which farmers are engaged earnestly, early and often, for the development of quality products and services that meet their needs.
We imagine a world that values small-acreage farmers as essential and dignified contributors to society and to the economy, and where the rest of us are better for it.