Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, because picking it involves a complex manual process. This treasure therefore comes to us mostly from countries such as Iran with poor working conditions and low wages. At least that has been the case up until now. A start-up company called Innovation Matters from Baden-Württemberg is now developing a robot-assisted, automated process that will make saffron cultivation attractive in Germany as well as ecological, fair and with potential for further applications.
Saffron is obtained from the flowers of the saffron crocus. Unfortunately, only in very small quantities, because only the stigmas on top of the pistils are used. It therefore takes several thousand crocus flowers to produce just a few grammes of saffron – a kilo of the ‘red gold’ is worth several thousand euros.
But the time-consuming manual removal of saffron threads is not the only labour-intensive process involved in saffron production. Cultivating and harvesting the bulbs and flowers are also quite labour-intensive. The flowers can only be picked once a year during a two-week period in autumn. Workers are also needed to regularly walk through and inspect the fields, because the bulbs flower unevenly, and the ideal harvesting time varies from plant to plant. Fields also need to be maintained. Once the three precious threads per flower have been picked manually, they are cut to the right length and dried. Thread length determines the value of the saffron. For these reasons, saffron cultivation and production have until now been far too costly and therefore not economically viable in Germany.
A student start-up from the Neckar-Odenwald district has set out to develop a process that has the potential to enable saffron to be harvested and extracted without manual labour: ‘Oscar’ is the name of the centerpiece of Innovation Matters GbR and its ‘SafranMatters’ project from Haßmersheim, and is a robot that has already successfully performed its first flower harvest. "We are working on an easily scalable, ecological and local technology that will put an end to the modern slavery of saffron harvesting in some of the countries where it is currently produced and where about 80 percent of the saffron in our stores currently originates," says Lorenzo Di Leo, co-founder of Innovation Matters and responsible for business management of the SafranMatters project. "Our goal is for the robot to drive autonomously over a large field, identify the flowers, cut them, then in a second step also cut off the saffron threads and deliver to a farmer."
A first functional prototype already exists: Oscar is a small wooden helper that looks a bit like a soapbox loaded with lots of high-tech. It can drive autonomously across a field and detect flowers. A computerised control system determines exactly where the flowers need to be cut off, a razor-sharp gripper takes action and the flowers are collected. "Using Oscar, we have been able to harvest flowers from a 2,500 m2 fully flowering field and we managed to obtain a total of 200 g of saffron," Di Leo says. "We hadn't expected such a large quantity, which far exceeded our expectations."
The selection – i.e., extracting the saffron threads from the flower - is still too much for Oscar: "We have not yet implemented this action in practice," explains the expert. "However, the concepts for extracting saffron threads have already been developed and will be implemented in a second prototype in the near future." In addition, the team would like to expand Oscar's horizons and give it more functions, such as the ability to collect data about plants or the condition of the field and make it available to the farmer. "It's not a lot of extra work," Di Leo says. "The steps themselves are short – but the actual development is costly." Oscar could also perform specific interventions in the future with the help of the data collected: i.e., carry out activities close to the ground like weed removal. This would expand the robot’s application possibilities beyond saffron cultivation.
However, at present the SafranMatters team has no plans to produce saffron itself: "Although we do have our test field, we see automation as our actual product," says the industrial engineer. With around 1.3 tonnes of saffron sold in Germany every year, saffron does have a clear market value. However, individual small farmers are only able to produce around four kilogrammes, a quantity not even sufficient to cover local demand. "We believe that a German saffron market could yield up to ten tonnes and that Germany could even become a net exporter. This would be roughly equivalent to the current production volume of Spain. This is our planned starting point – to provide German agriculture with a profitable new cultivation option. Our calculations show that this would be economically worthwhile: one hectare of sugar beet generates about 2,500 euros, while the same area of saffron generates 40,000 euros, at a conservative estimate. What's more, the bulbs are low-maintenance, uncomplicated, and have a life cycle of five years during which they form numerous daughter bulbs."
The young founders also see great potential for their automation solution in southern Europe, where a lot of saffron is produced. If the technology could be exported – to Spain or Italy, for example – this would strengthen competitiveness vis-à-vis other countries and thus make child labour and poor working conditions unprofitable in the long term.
Info box: saffron
Saffron (Crocus sativus) is a crocus species from whose stigmas the reddish spice powder, also called saffron, is obtained. The saffron bulb sprouts in autumn and is cultivated only very sporadically in Germany. It is mainly grown in southern Europe and in Asian countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. Saffron is mainly used as a spice, but is also considered to have medicinal properties, for example in the treatment of moderately severe forms of depression, and is still being studied in research projects around the world. The spice is usually sold in the form of saffron threads, and less frequently in powder form. Powder saffron can easily be faked, for example by mixing it with food dyes or other powders such as turmeric to increase its sale weight.
At the moment, the five-member team of mechanical, agricultural and industrial engineers, most of whom are still students, have financed everything themselves. Supported by family and friends, the three founders, Frieder and Thomas Matter and Marius Steger, first began testing in their home garden whether saffron crocuses would actually grow under the comparatively cool German climatic conditions. The result was extremely convincing: already in the first year, the garden was full of flowers.
The following year, they switched to their own test field, which the family had been farming on a part-time basis until then. Initial financial support is now coming from the Bioeconomy 2022 Innovation Award endowment, which SafranMatters received from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Food, Rural Areas and Consumer Protection in September 2022.
The SafranMatters team has already established contact with potential customers: "We want to make the first test products available to saffron farmers in Germany in the near future and then collect data from the harvests of 'real customers'. This is because these farmers have so far cultivated a maximum of one hectare each and tend to market their products via local events. We will then plan the next harvest with farmers who have no previous experience in saffron cultivation." In addition, interviews with future customers and users will be conducted in order to optimize and further develop Oscar and its offspring.