UP’s new Innovation Africa@UP director aims to strengthen ties with agri sector

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A lack of adequate public investment and the absence of a coherent policy framework that is inclusive of all role-players hamper the development of the agriculture sector.

While different industries are carving out commodity-specific plans with government, funding is an issue. This is the view of plant pathologist Dr Marinda Visser, the newly appointed Director of Strategic Projects and Partnerships in Agriculture at Innovation Africa@UP. Innovation Africa@UP is a new business unit that stems from the renaming and repositioning of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Hatfield Experimental Farm. It aims to provide a more effective platform for the development of long-term industry-university-government partnerships, she explains.

Investing in research programmes

The unit draws on a broad base of research expertise across the university, including leading institutes such as the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI). “In these initial phases of development, Innovation Africa@UP will further develop partnerships with industry to grow research programmes and centres that address urgent national needs, such as biosecurity and plant health in general,” says Dr Visser. Biosecurity is a series of measures to protect against the entry and spread of pests and diseases. “South Africa needs a strong biosecurity system to ensure safe trade in plant and animal products, and to protect against the introduction of pest and diseases.”

Referring to her work at Innovation Africa@UP, Dr Visser says she aims to contribute to “world-class capacity development and research programmes that are needed to support the growth of the food, feed and fibre sectors, their sustainability and their international competitiveness”. These areas have major significance to food and fibre security, both of which are of critical national importance, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equipped for the job

Dr Visser headed the Grain SA Research and Policy Unit, where her responsibilities included research and development, conservation agriculture, and all regulatory and policy aspects for the South African grain industry. She led the development of significant national research networks and platforms that connect universities, industry and government. She also successfully launched a capacity-building initiative for black South Africans to further their studies in agricultural research. “This was needed to build on capacity and to attract more black South Africans to take up careers in agriculture – for instance, plant breeders are thinly spread, and there is an insufficient number of black plant breeders in the industry,” says Dr Visser.

Her more than 19 years of experience in the agricultural industry included 13 years at a senior leadership level, while her exposure to diverse agricultural industries has equipped her with extensive knowledge in the fields of agricultural research and policy.

Fertile ground for industry growth

For Dr Visser, South Africa’s agricultural sector is internationally competitive and is consistently a net exporter of agricultural goods. It is characterised as a dual sector in that it is both a commercial as well as a large-scale developing sector. This creates fertile ground for growth; various commodity organisations are providing funding and ongoing training for developing farmers.

She says growing up in a small town surrounded by farms in the Northern Cape “might have first triggered my interests in agriculture, which grew into an interest in the diseases of economically important crops like potatoes and bananas”. Dr Visser completed a BSc (microbiology/biochemistry), a BSc Hons (microbiology) and an MSc (microbiology/plant pathology) at the University of the Western Cape, as well as a PhD in plant pathology at FABI, UP.

She started her career as a senior plant pathologist at the Agricultural Research Council. Before her role at Grain SA, she was chief director of Plant Production and Health, and director of Plant Health at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. She is a member of several technical steering committees that deal with summer and winter grains and is a prominent voice in the agriculture sector. – Press release, University of Pretoria