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How the cut flower industry could use artificial intelligence to help businesses grow

Posted on 18/07/2018

KTN’s Knowledge Transfer Manager for AI, Caroline Chibelushi has been looking at the ‘stem’ subject.

The UK flower industry could contribute more to the UK economy if they were better supported and understood by the AI community and other technology areas.

As a keen gardener myself, the first time I related flowers with AI was in 2012, when I was flying to Tanzania. I chatted to a Dutch man who picks roses in Tanzania, transports them for packaging in the Netherlands, and exports them to the US. He said that flowers take around 12 days before they wither (depending on the handling) immediately after being cut. I’ve since developed an interest in understanding how AI could be used to reduce dispatch time and distance from source.

Holland, specifically Aalsmeer, is the world’s largest cut flower market. Over 17 million flower stems are sold each day, which makes them the supplier of more than 60% of the world’s £75bn cut flower industry, of which 90% of these stems are sold in the UK (Source: Courier).

But why are we buying this many stems from the Dutch? What has happened to flower growers and producers in the UK? The sharp increase of oil prices in the 1970s pushed British flower manufacturers out because they were unable to cope with the cost of heating the greenhouses. This cost has eased up more recently but the price of land has become another major challenge. Despite this, British flower farms have been slow to capture the market share. We noticed ‘Flowers from the Farm’ being exhibited in the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show for the first time this year.

The cost of importing cut flowers to the UK after Brexit is estimated to increase by up to 1.3%, a £2bn increase per year (Source: KPMG). This is something which UK farmers could take advantage of. However, there are many challenges involved in the process and this is where the AI, other technologies and scientists could work in collaboration to find solutions.

  • Marketing challenges such as getting stockists to realise they can buy from UK producers, rather than abroad.
  • Logistics resources, encompassing transport and admin, particularly for small growers.
  • Reduction of waste at the quality control stage.
  • To support the supply chain by having predictive and prompt visualisation of information for quick decision making.
  • Cross sector innovation, especially in materials, to allow high quality blooms which last longer. The conflict between customers’ demand for high speed delivery of bouquets and how quickly farmers can pick, pack and deliver them is difficult to resolve.

Flowers

We’ve seen a number of small businesses take on the bigger companies, by using technology to embed unique features, such as tracking systems and subscription services, underpinned by a high quality online user experience. However, more needs to be done if the UK is to regain more of the market share.

AI may be able to partner potential growers with distributors, and individual customer preferences. Apps could be developed to support the administration and transportation challenges faced by small growers.

AI could reduce waste through predicting what customers want and when, based on fashion trends and social media for example. Also, depending on the weather, grower and flower type, it could be easy to predict the life span of the stems and the best way to transport them without jeopardising quality.

The UK is among the largest importer and consumer of flowers and while we have a large community of flower growers and florists, they are unable to satisfy our domestic market, mainly because of the challenges discussed. But many of these challenges could be solved by AI and other technology. The AI community needs to give this sector extra attention as there is a lot to be gained by growers, florists, AI and tech community, and the UK economy as a whole.

For more information about this article please contact our sector lead
Caroline Chibelushi
Knowledge Transfer Manager Artificial Intelligence