Case study on the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between Tropical Growers Ltd, KNUST-Ghana, and Aston University, funded by Innovate UK.

About Tropical Growers

Tropical Growers, a Ghana-based fruit and vegetable producer, has successfully used ‘hydroponics’ methods to grow its produce, meaning the plants are grown in a nutrient solution, without soil. As well as reducing the amount of water needed, this allows production of a greater range of crops than Ghana’s traditional,  ‘open field’ farming. The company supplies restaurants, salad bars and domestic customers with its crops, including sweet peppers, cucumbers, lettuces, tomatoes and fruits. It also builds hydroponic installations for small-scale farmers and trains them in how to use them.

The challenge that the KTP is addressing

The company wants to develop a digital platform for plant health monitoring so it can make sure its plants are growing in the best possible environment. This system needs to be integrated with an evaporative cooling system, so that plants can withstand Ghana’s extreme summer temperatures. It also needs to function via an artificial intelligence (AI) framework to allow automatic, continuous micro-adjustments to the plants’ nutrition, temperature and humidity.  

At present, some Tropical Growers crops cannot grow in the extreme heat, with temperatures sometimes reaching 42 degrees in the hottest months. A solar-powered evaporative cooling system would enable better control of the growing environment, enable a longer growing season and even allow a wider selection of crops. 

The data gathered will also help in developing predictive models in terms of yield during a growing season, something the company also wants to achieve.

Why a KTP was the ideal route

The type of continuous monitoring the company aspire to, can only be delivered with automation using the ‘Internet of Things’ – where separate devices and sensors communicate with each other and work together across a digital platform. AI can be used to automate decisions such as temperature and humidity regulation, or an early alert for diseases. All of this requires special bespoke coding and technology.

Aston University’s team comprises Dr Muhammad Imran and Dr Umar Manzoor. Dr Imran is a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical, Biomedical and Design who specialises in research into innovative thermal energy systems. Dr Imran recently devised a novel solar-powered pre-cooling food storage system for smallholder farmer clusters in Nigeria.

Dr Umar Manzoor’s research interests lie in Agent-based Simulation and Modelling, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems. His expertise will be particularly useful in guiding the data collection and subsequent analysis, as well as the development of an interface and mobile phone application for the system.

They will be collaborating with Dr Tabbi Wilberforce Awotwe, a Lecturer in Engineering at Kings College London, who has previously conducted research at Aston University. Dr Wilberforce Awotwe specialises in design optimisation of mechanical systems and energy storage modelling.

They will also be working in partnership with Dr Richard Opuku, a senior lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana, who specialises in energy efficiency, renewable energy and climate change research. He will be the academic supervisor, responsible for the design of the new greenhouse and the design of its cooling system. He will oversee the Project Associate who will be working at the Tropical Growers’ site in southern Ghana.

What the research will involve

A series of devices, including cameras, humidity monitors, and tiny weather-stations, will be connected to monitor and control the artificial environment inside the greenhouse. The network will collect and analyse data, including real-time images of the crops, and will ultimately communicate with the evaporative cooling system, which itself will be powered by solar energy. A phone app will be developed to estimate crops’ water and nutrient requirements, as well as for predicting the yield. The Associate will deliver technical training and workshops throughout the project, making sure company staff understand how to operate the system.

The potential benefits of the research

Being able to reduce temperatures by a few degrees will make a considerable difference to crop health and to the varieties that can be grown. For example, celery and strawberries are in demand from customers but have always been impossible to grow in the heat until now. Tropical Growers will also be better able to predict its crop yields, which will lead to greater efficiency and certainty of supply for customers.

Meanwhile the monitoring system itself will be developed as a product package that can be sold to other farmers interested in hydroponic farms, creating a new income stream for Tropical Growers. The company is keen for Ghanaian farmers to realise the benefits of hydroponic cultivation, since the country imports around £1147 million of fruit and vegetables annually.

What the partners say:

Dr Muhammad Imran, Senior Lecturer, Aston University:

“We aim to develop a 'plug and play' monitoring system. Our goal is to design software and algorithms and integrate various components so that the system is incredibly user-friendly for farmers. It should also be adaptable, allowing farmers to easily adjust its scale according to their needs. Our aim is not only to assist this company but also to provide them with technology that they can market to other farmers.”

Prince Akwanda, Chief Technical Officer, Tropical Growers:

“The complexity of this project is in making the different systems communicate with each other, and we need that expertise in creating a single environment. It’s not possible for people to watch plants 24 hours a day, so we believe this KTP project is a dream come true for us, as it will not only lead to better, healthier crops, but help us predict our supply.”

Dr Richard Opoku, Senior Lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Ghana:

“As well as enabling Ghana’s hydroponics companies to manage the growth of a plant from start to finish, we ultimately want to produce an academic paper from this project focusing on the research carried out. We presently train electronic engineers at KNUST, and the lessons we will take from this KTP will also help us refine our course materials.”