Over the past 12 years, the University of Pretoria has served as the incubator for an innovative research programme that was started by a bright postdoctoral fellow and two master’s students and has since become the world’s largest programme in avocado research.
One of the programme’s many accomplishments is its role as the driving force behind the establishment of the International Avocado Genome Consortium. Research undertaken as part of this programme has been presented at 25 local and 20 international conferences, and 18 related articles have been published in international peer-reviewed journals. The programme boasts five postdoctoral fellows and has produced four PhD, 17 MSc and 16 honours graduates.
The renewed agreement between the Hans Merensky Foundation (HMF) and UP was officially signed at the end of February. A ceremonial signing was held at Future Africa, where collaboration, teamwork and research excellence was celebrated. Prof Noëlani van den Berg, the leader of the Hans Merensky Chair in Avocado Research, said: ‘I am very grateful for this opportunity of a lifetime and appreciate the fact that Prof Mike Wingfield (Founding Director of the Forestry and Biotechnology Institute (FABI)) and the HMF believed in my ability to head this research programme.’
Prof Van den Berg emphasised the benefits of hard work and pointed out that the Avocado Research Programme (ARP) now has a footprint in several research areas. It has grown substantially into a world-class programme focusing on several aspects of avocado tree health and pathogen biology. She confirmed her belief that hard work paves the road to success by quoting Thomas Edison: ‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’
Prof Mike Wingfield elaborated on the fact that this research programme makes an enormous impact on the industry, scientific community and the country and added: ‘Passion for what you do, which is something that Prof Van den Berg certainly has, plays a large role in the achievement of success.’ He further explained that at UP ‘we provide education at the highest level and thereby provide solutions to challenges’.
Prof Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, emphasised the role of the ARP as the world’s largest research group focusing on avocado tree health. ‘We value collaboration and partnerships, such as this one with HMF, which can be seen as an investment in knowledge creation. The University is the link for the translation of knowledge to solutions for industry. We are creating the next generation of researchers and focus on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.’
Dr Khotso Mokhele, Chairman of the Hans Merensky Board, celebrated the life of Dr Hans Merensky, without which this partnership would not have been possible. He then quoted Dr Merensky as follows: ‘This country has given to me so much that I am only too happy to be allowed to help it to develop in some way, and I am grateful to be able to give back to it a fraction of what it has given to me.’ Dr Mokhele reiterated that this partnership with UP celebrates Dr Merensky’s vision and that ‘we must continue to invest in research. We need to take hands to provide solutions to industry. Don’t lose sight of Dr Merensky’s vision and generosity.’
‘The HMF Board has made a strategic decision to continue the financial support for a further ten years to ensure the continuation of Merensky’s vision of building scientific capacity for the development of the South African people. Together with co-investment from the University of Pretoria, the HMF will provide the funds required for the establishment of a Chair in Avocado Research at UP. The aim of this Chair is not only to further develop the ARP, but also to broaden the research scope by supporting a platform for the establishment of new programmes focused on fruit and nut tree health, and to increase scientific capacity,’ Dr Mokhele said.
Corroborating these sentiments, Prof Anton Ströh, Vice-Principal: Institutional Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, who played an instrumental role in establishing this partnership, concluded that: ‘This academic-industrial research partnership is a successful flagship initiative for both the HMF and UP and demonstrates how such a partnership can benefit both the industry and the University.’