Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Arrives

For cultivating digital solutions to feed India

Vihari Kanukollu was working on his accounting degree when he met Sairam Palicherla at a spiritual retreat in 2017. Palicherla had developed a better technique for vertical farming for growing produce on his balcony. No soil. No pesticides. And it used 95 percent less water than a traditional farm.

Kanukollu, then 24, saw the opportunity. With many second- and third-generation farmers abandoning agriculture, local markets were starved for quality vegetables. And water scarcity across India made Palicherla’s hydroponic model even more appealing. “I thought, ‘If he could do it, why couldn’t others?’”

Later that year, Kanukollu, Palicherla and CTO Srinivas Chaganti launched UrbanKisaan. Through Kanukollu’s strategic vision, a company that started with a project to develop small home-farming kits quickly scaled into an ag tech innovator, merging hydroponics and digital apps to grow and sell produce in densely packed urban environments. 

“The project evolved in response to market needs,” he says. “India has a huge population, and no startups were focusing on sustainable agriculture.”

An investment of US$50,000 from initial home-kit sales seeded the expansion roadmap, but Kanukollu built a compelling business case to enable further growth. The pitch: creating hyperlocal farms, which would allow UrbanKisaan to harvest, ship and sell 30 times more produce with limited storage or transportation costs. “We didn’t want to build one or two farms,” Kanukollu says. “We wanted to build 1,000 farms that could each produce 5 tons of produce, all in a small space.”

That strategic framework helped Kanukollu secure US$750,000 last year from U.S. startup accelerator Y Combinator and other investors. Among other things, the funding enabled UrbanKisaan to hire 25 IT specialists, plant science experts and other talent to develop an app that uses sensors to track every vegetable at every farm—providing real-time data on each plant, from seed to store.

“It allows us to run every farm remotely, which reduces our operating costs by a large extent,” he says. 

Farmers can keep what they grow or sell it back to UrbanKisaan for distribution in local markets. Each piece of produce has a QR code that traces back to the farm using blockchain technology.

Having all that data on a single platform means crops are at risk if the app goes down, which is why the company rigorously tested the system during an 18-month pilot. 

Kanukollu says his key advice for future project leaders is to aim high—and focus on empathy for the customer. “Before you launch a startup or a project idea, you need to understand what your customer actually wants,” he says. “If you do that, you’re halfway there.”

“Before you launch a startup or a project idea, you need to understand what your customer actually wants.”

Q&A: Vihari Kanukollu on empathy, vision and hope

What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy? 

Empathy and allowing people to make mistakes.

What is your philosophy for leading projects?

The vision and objective of the project should be very clear. To build a smart team, the project manager must make everyone work together.

What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?

Swami Vivekananda. He has been a change driver more than a spiritual leader. He motivates anyone, including those who have lost hope.