The Hans Merensky Chair in Avocado Research has been established at FABI within the Avocado Research Programme (ARP). The official signing ceremony was hosted at Future Africa on 19 February and attended by Dr Khotso Mokhele, President of Hans Merensky Foundation, Prof. Tuwana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP), Prof. Anton Ströh, Vice-Principal: Institutional Planning at UP, Prof. Barend Erasmus, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, FABI Director Prof. Bernard Slippers and FABI founding Director Prof. Mike Wingfield. Other guests included the Head of the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, Prof. Paulette Bloomer as well as numerous academic leaders and Trustees of Hans Merensky Foundation.

ARP leader Prof. Noëlani van den Berg described the start of the programme in 2008 and the success the ARP has had since then, growing to become the biggest avocado research group in the world with numerous international collaborators. Since its inception, 5 postdoctoral Fellowships, 3 PhDs, 24 MSc and 16 Honours degrees have been completed in the ARP. The programme was started with funding from Westfalia after an agreement with then then Director of FABI, Prof. Mike Wingfield. The aim of the research programme was to understand the host-pathogen interaction between avocado and Phytophthora. Since then the ARP has been instrumental in identifying new emerging threats to avocado such as Rosellinia necatrix, and the Polyphagous shothole borer (PSHB). The group also recently sequenced the Phytophthora genome. The ARP is a founding member of the Avocado Genome Consortium that was established in 2016 as an international collaborative initiative between researchers interested in avocado genomics, with an aim to sequence and annotate the avocado genome.

Professor Mike Wingfield ascribed the success of the programme to the application of the newest technologies and talented people driving it. This was a long-term project at UP leveraging funding from Hans Merensky Holdings to conduct relevant and important research work for the avocado industry.

Addressing the gathering, UP Vice Chancellor and Principal Prof. Tawana Kupe described the establishment of the Hans Merensky Chair in Avocado Research as a great day for the University of Pretoria. He described the collaboration as an investment in knowledge and skills development and a tangible example of the transfer of knowledge into skills and solutions for industry.

Dr Khotso Mokhele quoted Dr Hans Merensky in his speech and how his vision translated into the establishment and the work of the Foundation to this day. “This country has given me so much, that I 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 me.” He urged students to remember these words and to always give back more than they received. 

The ARP will continue to conduct world-class research on avocados to provide industry-applicable solutions and increase scientific impact by conducting quality research and training excellent young scientists to the benefit of the broader avocado industry in South Africa and beyond.