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Two master’s degree students are developing new technology to disrupt the booming cannabis, or so-called ‘green gold’, industry.

Their novel cannabis cultivation technology, uniquely developed for the African climate, has earned Constant Beckerling and Anlo van Wyk special recognition in the biosciences category of the Gauteng Accelerator Programme (GAP). It is an annual competition held by the Innovation Hub, a subsidiary of the Gauteng Development Agency. The competition is aimed at technology entrepreneurs who develop technology that can benefit the economy in Gauteng, South Africa and Africa.

Even though they are both passionate cannabis growers, their focus is on developing agri-tech for the sector. To do this, they have created a start-up called AgriSmart Engineering (Pty) Ltd during Covid-19 lockdown last year. With a focus on closed-loop hydroponics and aquaponics, the AgriSmart team specialises in designing and implementing automated smart growing systems.

Growing for gold

Beckerling and Van Wyk are approaching cannabis cultivation as an engineering problem. They combine their grower experience and intuition with their engineering and technical backgrounds.

“There is a matrix of factors for cannabis cultivation that we consider. As an engineering start-up, we develop cultivation technologies for the African climate. For cannabis cultivation, South Africa faces shortcomings such as water stress and irregular electricity supply at a high cost. However the country also has strengths such as superior solar radiation and being among the first countries in the process of commercialising cannabis,” Beckerling says.

To strike ‘green gold’ early, Beckerling and Van Wyk, both studying towards their MSc in electrical engineering, entered a blueprint for a cannabis cultivation research facility they designed in the GAP competition. Their entry also included two main agro-processing offerings:

  • Cannabis-specific LED grow lights in an automated Internet of Things (IoT) environment, customised for the research facility to accommodate the photobiology of the cannabis plants.
  • A proprietary organic hydroponic nutrient, which they formulate based on the plants’ respective hormonal growth cycles.

“Our novel LED lighting technology is set to disrupt the cannabis industry. This technology is created by combining one of South Africa’s unique strengths, which is solar radiation, with engineering disciplines such as artificial intelligence, electronic and mechanical engineering,” says Van Wyk.

The industry standard is currently to use high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting.

“Our LED lighting technology runs 2,5 times more efficiently on electricity than high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights and even more so compared to metal halide (MH) fixtures. The lifetime of our LED fixtures is also significantly longer than that of HID – approximately 15 times at the upper-end. This translates to approximately 80 000 hours of light compared to almost 5 000 hours for the HID – leading to significantly lower maintenance costs,” explains Beckerling.

According to Van Wyk the LED lighting fixtures are also dimmable. “So we could implement an artificial intelligence algorithm that takes in environmental input and based on those inputs it controls what the lighting output should be in that specific moment. This leads to optimisation of power consumption, which brings electricity costs down.”

For the competition, the students had to make financial projections around their fixtures and the potential benefits of their disruptive technology. The bottom line is that over five years the cultivator stands to save R25 million per hectare in electricity costs just on the lighting alone, compared to industry standard HID fixtures.

Nutrients for cannabis

The two engineers are also formulating their own organic hydroponic nutrients for cannabis. “Besides electricity, the highest running cost in your facility is going to be your nutrient cost, which increases with scale. It’s therefore crucial to get the right nutrients that tailor to your plants’ specific hormonal growth phases,” says Beckerling.

Cannabis plants require different nutrients in different stages of their development. They require these nutrients in different concentrations as they mature. “We are formulating a cannabis-specific hydroponic nutrient that we formulate completely organically. In addition we are planning to register it as a type 2 organic fertiliser in line with the regulations of South African law,” Beckerling explains.

The research and development of this nutrient takes time and money. Securing funding to develop and commercialise this nutrient while producing it at a cost more than ten times lower than the current direct market competition is one of their biggest stumbling blocks.

Into the near future

Their next aim is to build a demonstration facility to show how their technology works on the ground. “The current growing technology is very archaic, so if one party decides to use this new technology, it will force the rest of the industry to follow suit if they want to compete in terms of price,” Van Wyk says.

Beckerling adds: “We believe the market will settle at who can produce the most consistently at the lowest price and highest quality.”

The research facility will also provide an immense scope of research. Fields of study include chemical, electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, machine learning, AI, big data, bioinformatics, robotics, software development, plant and biological sciences, and physical sciences. There will also be opportunities to study pharmacology, psychology and medicine. Beckerling and Van Wyk predict that many companies can spawn from this facility through the commercialisation of new technology.

Biopark, a division of The Innovation Hub, recently offered AgriSmart a contract to help incubate the start-up, which they accepted. – University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)