FABI celebrated its 25th anniversary at a symposium hosted at Future Africa on the morning of 17 November. Guest speakers included the University of Pretoria (UP) Interim Vice Chancellor and Principal, Prof. Themba Mosia, Vice Principal for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Training, Prof. Sunil Maharaj, Chairman of the Hans Merensky Holdings, Dr Khotso Mokhele, and former UP Vice Chancellor and Principal, Prof. Johan van Zyl. Guests included management and research leaders from UP, representatives from government ministries, industry bodies, various other partner organizations and FABIans. More than 260 people attended in person, and many friends from around the world attended online.

FABI Director, Prof. Bernard Slippers welcomed the guests and FABIans saying that the event gave pause to reflect on its journey of excellence in research, training and impact, which could not have been achieved with the partnership between FABIans and the Institute’s partners at the University of Pretoria, industry and government. He noted that FABI is growing both in size and scope of research. The Institute currently has 28 research programmes and has, to date, graduated 634 MSc and PhD students as well as a large number of postdoctoral Fellows. The Institute is now strongly engaged in transdisciplinary research projects linking widely across the Faculties of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Engineering, Built Environment and IT, School of the Arts and various societal structures. He also reflected on FABI’s strong international network of collaborators, alumni and funders, which creates a virtuous cycle of knowledge and capacity sharing, access to resources, investment and joint value. FABI is also helping its partners unlock the advantages of new technologies such as digitization, Artificial Intelligence, synthetic biology and more.

In his address, Prof. Themba Mosia said the University of Pretoria appreciated FABI for the Institute’s innovation and success and thanked Prof. Mike Wingfield for what he built and Prof. Bernard Slippers for his dedication in continuing the Institute’s success.

Prof. Johan van Zyl was the UP-Vice Chancellor and Principal who had the vision to entice Professors Mike and Brenda Wingfield and the TPCP team to the University of Pretoria to create FABI. He said that FABI was, today, “a massively successful story” and ascribed the success to visionary leadership, saying “if you have good people, a strong team and you support them, success will follow”. Dr Mokhele praised FABI for being an “amazingly successful endeavor globally”. And said that he could not imagine where the South African agricultural and forestry industries would be without FABI.

Looking back on 25 years, Prof. Mike Wingfield reiterated the path to research excellence was through people power, the intersections of disciplines, ‘connecting the dots’ and the fact that FABI was, and remains an experiment. He said we live in an incredibly different world today from the time when FABI started, but that FABI was well-placed to face the challenges of climate change, food and water security and AI head-on but that all the problems can only be solved through research and technology. But he also cautioned that governments and universities that did not invest in research would lose.

FABI recognises and encourages the important intersection of art and science. Artist Hannelie Coetzee presented on sci-art projects that she has collaborated on including most recently the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB) replant list 2023. This project was a partnership with FABI Research Fellow, Dr Trudy Paap and created an artwork that depicted six tree species that can be planted to curb the PSHB infestation in South Africa. She also displayed several artworks from the ‘A Still Life – Johannesburg’ exhibition.

The latter part of the meeting was a ‘rapid overview’ of three-minute presentations by each of 24 FABI research groups, introducing their research group members, the research focus of the group and their future vision. This almost overwhelming overview clearly outlined why FABI is regarded as a world-leader in plant biotechnology.