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It has almost been three years since South Africa's Constitutional Court decriminalised the personal use and cultivation of cannabis. This has drawn further attention to the plant's medicinal and economic potential. 

Gauteng Premier, David Makhura, said that cannabis is a "new sector of the economy", with international investors flocking to southern Africa as part of the latest "green" gold rush. The Cannabis Development Council of South Africa said that the legal market could be worth around R27 billion by 2023.

It's against this backdrop that two University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) engineering students in Johannesburg, Constant Beckerling and Anlo van Wyk, caught the Gauteng Development Agency's attention.

The master's students use bioscience algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to cultivate high-yielding cannabis crops. This growing method received special recognition from the Gauteng Development Agency's Innovation Hub with support from the local government.

The two students and founders of AgriSmart Engineering and their extended AgriSmart team made it into the Gauteng Accelerator Programme's finals (GAP). Which has also opened further opportunities for the team. 

The GAP is an initiative that aims to recognise entrepreneurs who develop tech solutions that stand to benefit South Africa. 

Beckerling stated that "We've recently partnered with BioPark in Gauteng, which is a subdivision of Innovation Hub". Adding that the partnership allows for a greenhouse space where the team can implement and test the various technological solutions.

"This will help us in commercialising our products, like the manufacturing and distribution side of things. The other side, which we're really focused on, is research and development, which allows us to implement our technology, test it rigorously and make sure it's optimised."

Beckerling and van Wyk designed the cultivation technology, which centres on automated lighting systems, closed-loop hydroponics, and specialised organic fertiliser.

Lighting is the primary element in this high-tech cultivation equation, and the team uses LED grow lights. These consume less energy than the industry standard High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) and Metal Halide (MH) fixtures. 

"Every plant has a specific light energy requirement or daily light integral… and it's about the right amount of photons that a plant needs per day at specific wavelengths of radiation." 

The lighting system is designed to adjust the required intensity and exposure according to the plant's cultivation environment. It also measures how far the lights are from the plant's canopy and the grow room's carbon dioxide levels.

"Lighting is the most important and the most poorly understood part of cultivation and underpins the failure or success of your cultivation scheme because it's the biggest operational expenditure."

Compared to the industry standard HID fixtures, it is estimated that the AI-driven LED lighting system can save R25 million per hectare in electricity costs over five years.

The Smart cultivation scheme focuses on reducing costs and saving water while increasing the yields and quality of cannabis crops. 

Cannabis requires different nutrients throughout the varying stages of its development. To achieve optimal growth, Beckerling and van Wyk are in the process of developing a cannabis-specific hydroponic nutrient. 

The team is planning to register the cannabis-specific hydroponic nutrient as a type 2 organic fertiliser.

"Looking at things like potency, increased terpene profiles and concentrations… we haven't sent it to any labs. We'd still need to complete a side-by-side study. We pride ourselves on being transparent and not promising things we can't deliver or verify. We try and optimise cultivation as an engineering problem to make sure that what we do results in the healthiest, strongest plants."

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

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