Aponic’s soil-less system on the verge of big things
- Credit: Archant
Jason Hawkins-Row has won a number of awards for his innovative soil-less growing system. Ross Bentley met him to discuss the potential of his invention.
An invention by a Suffolk designer could go some way to offering solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the human race. Food shortages and the anticipated problems related to climate change are testing global leaders – and Ipswich entrepreneur Jason Hawkins-Row believes he can help.
Jason, whose business, Aponic, is based at a unit in Acton near Sudbury, has spent the last four years developing a vertical soil-less growing system that uses a tenth of the water of traditional agriculture, runs on rain water and solar power, does not emit harmful run-off into the environment and massively reduces the need for fossil fuels in food production.
His design, which features food grade foam encased in an UVPC plastic frame, a 12 volt pump and a simple control system has picked up a host of awards and is being trialled by companies and governments around the world. Plaudits have come in the shape of two Suffolk Greenest County Awards earlier this year while during the summer, not only was Aponic inducted into the EADT’s Future 50, it was also named as a top 100 UK small business in the Small Business Saturday Top 100 in the Guardian.
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It’s an exciting time for Jason who settled in Suffolk after an interesting and varied career that saw him take up roles as a mechanical design engineer in aviation, a computer programmer and horse trainer. His work took him to far-flung countries, including dry and arid locations such as Saudi Arabia and Australia, where sustainable farming and water conservation are big issues.
His experiences got him thinking and the idea of Aponic was born. But it wasn’t until he unveiled his product at an innovation exhibition held at BT’s Martlesham campus two years ago that things started to really take off. Many visitors showed interest in the Aponic system including representatives from UKTI, who invited Jason to join them at a World Expo exhibition later that year.
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“Before I knew it I was in Milan and I was standing there with a 3D printed prototype telling farmers from all over the world how to grow, which was all a bit daunting, “ he said.
“But from that we got some great connections with farmers in South Africa and Kenya. There was also interest from projects in Sri Lanka and other dry parts of the world such as Australia and Spain.
“We went with a 3D printed model and came back with export orders – I was already out the end of my five-year plan.”
The Aponic system works by growers putting crop shoots into the foam base where a nutrient is sprayed onto the root of the crop for ten seconds every 30 minutes. It runs on a small pump that will power 100 sprays and this can all be automated and run off grid using a solar panel and a collector for rain water.
Because only the root is sprayed, any nutrients that are not needed run through the system and are used again, and because the roots are out in the open they have lots of oxygen getting to them, which improves flavour and, according to Jason, allows 30% faster growth and 30% better yield but uses 90% less water.
He continued: “It’s a pretty low-tech device. Almost anyone can learn to use it in 20 minutes - for farmers, once the system is set up, it means low inputs and almost no labour.
“It will also produce a high value crop – because there are no weeds, there is no need for weed killer, so from a farmer’s point of view it has cut a major cost out and from a consumer’s point of view it produces the kind of food they want to feed their children.
Herbs, blueberries, strawberries, melons, broccoli, cucumbers, salad crop, tomatoes and spring onions can all be grown using the device while adapted tubes that allow the cultivation of grapes and potatoes are also being developed.
“The system is entirely modular, so whatever we can do in one tube, we can do in 10,000 tubes and get a consistent result,” said Jason, who uses several local manufacturers based within 30 miles of his home to make the kit, which can be packed flat to cut down on transport costs.
It certainly is a busy time for Jason who admits to only sleeping for two hours a night at the moment because he so busy. And it is clear he spends much of his time thinking through potential applications for the system – both big and small.
He said: “In Kenya a lot of land around the tea-growing areas in the Great Rift Valley is being bought by the Chinese, so we are allowing the creation of farms in the dustbowl areas adjacent. This gives local people skills and the ability to set their own businesses up.”
“We’ve also had interest from a company in Kings Lynn who grows cut flowers and produces 29million stems each year. They like our system because it is soil-less - at the moment they have to scrape out all the soil from their polytunnels and steam clean it every time they plant to get rid of soil-based pathogens.
“Farm shops are considering having these on display so people can pick their lettuce and get it as fresh as possible.”
In addition, Jason says he is working with a property maintenance company in London who is installing them in city gardens where space is at premium. He says the system is suitable for the elderly and children alike who enjoy gardening but struggle with heavy digging or bending down.
Still the ideas come. “We’ve also been looking for contacts in the prison service –there are a lot of spare hands there who could grow food for the prison while at the same time learn a skill that they can take with them when they leave. They could start a farm with some mates– and because the system is vertical and doesn’t break ground they could do it almost anywhere on contaminated ground or a disused factory unit.”
The ability to create a farm anywhere is a huge benefit of the Aponic system. Jason talks about a lettuce farm in Senegal where farmers lose more than half their crop in the time it takes to transport it to the refrigeration plant.
He continued: “With Aponic we can simply build the farm next door to the refrigeration plant. Areas that have been no-go for farming all of a sudden have potential. For example, there’s a big dusty, hot bit of Spain that at the moment no-one wants anything to do with and we can turn that into the breadbasket of Europe.”
Academia has also shown an interest in Aponic and Jason is working with scientists at NIAB, a pioneering plant science organisation based at the Cambridge University. Nottingham Trent University are also running a pilot studies using the system and carrying out research into nano-nutrients.
It would seem Jason is on the verge of big things - there will be little chance of more sleep any time soon.