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Growing cannabis -without a license- is still illegal, but for a team of master’s students at WITS, growing high-end, high-yield cannabis has been a welcomed accomplishment by local government.

In September it will be three years since South Africa’s Constitutional Court decriminalised the personal use and cultivation of cannabis. While laws are still rather undefined, the industry has managed to see impressive growth in various directions, from local ranges of CBD to grow/head shops, clone outlets, edible brands and more.

Growing cannabis on a commercial scale -without a license- is still illegal, but for a team of master’s students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, growing high-end, high-yield cannabis in a lab has been a welcomed accomplishment by local government.

The team’s growing method (developed by Wits engineering students and AgriSmart Engineering founders, Constant Beckerling and Anlo van Wyk) incorporates bioscience algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to cultivate high-yielding cannabis crops. The project received special recognition from the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency’s annual Innovation Hub competition in 2020.

The cultivation technology developed by Beckerling and van Wyk centres on automated lighting systems, closed-loop hydroponics, and specialised organic fertiliser.

This lighting system is enhanced through AI algorithms, which adjust the required parameters according to the plant’s cultivation environment. This includes measuring how far the lights are from the plant’s canopy and the grow room’s carbon dioxide levels.

The team’s smart cultivation system also focuses on reducing overhead costs and saving water through a recycled, closed-loop system.

While the team can guarantee that their system saves both money and resources, Beckerling is hesitant to confirm effects on the plant’s potency until further tests are completed.

“Looking at things like potency, increased terpene profiles and concentrations, we haven’t sent it to any labs,” explains Beckerling. “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.”

Beckerling and van Wyk and their extended team have also made it into the Gauteng Accelerator Programme’s finals (GAP) – an initiative aimed at recognising entrepreneurs who develop tech solutions that stand to benefit South Africa.

This has opened up further opportunities for the team, “we’ve recently partnered with BioPark in Gauteng, which is a subdivision of Innovation Hub,” explains Beckerling. “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.”

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By Leah De Luca