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UKZN launches centre for kiwifruit research

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is now a centre for innovative research that will contribute to the country's nascent kiwifruit industry. This is as a result of a new project being led by Professor Samson Tesfay in the discipline of Horticultural Science.

Research at the university will investigate the optimum time for picking Golden Kiwis; establish the correct storage temperatures for harvested fruit to ensure the longest possible shelf life; and determine how best to cool the fruit once it has been packed for transport or sale.

The project, funded for an initial two years by the Post-Harvest Innovation Programme (PHI) and Specialist Kiwi Technical, is a partnership between industry and academia that will share resources and expertise. Fruit export company FreshWorld has independently funded the installation of state-of-the-art cold rooms and fridges for this project in the Rabie Saunders Building on the Pietermaritzburg campus.

Working with project co-ordinator Professor Malcolm Dodd, who is a UKZN alumnus and an independent consultant, Tesfay is the principal investigator for the project, which forms the foundational training for a master's student and two honours students, and employs an intern to assist with the sampling and laboratory work.

Using kiwifruit grown in the Richmond area, as well as fruit arriving via airfreight immediately after being harvested in Mpumalanga, researchers conduct a series of experiments. These involve the fruit being picked at various points of maturity, and then subjected to a series of step-down treatments at different temperatures over a six- to eight-week period.

Capitalising on the wealth of agricultural knowledge at UKZN, Tesfay is taking a team approach. He is working with colleagues in the disciplines of Crop Science, Horticultural Science, Agricultural Engineering, Agrometeorology, Plant Pathology, Dietetics and Human Nutrition, among others, to enhance these research outputs.

"We are looking forward to seeing the kiwifruit sector flourish," said Tesfay, "and we are grateful for the input from FreshWorld and its decision to invest in this industry for the future of research."

Kiwifruit, which originated in China and was commercialised in New Zealand, is a relatively new crop in SA, having been cultivated here for five years and currently occupying 75ha across the country. Given the small industry base producing the fruit, the time is ripe for investment in the industry, prompting further need for research into production practices.

Export of the fruit to international markets, where it is in high demand and is popular for its lifestyle image and health benefits, means that research is needed into the time frames for harvest and post-harvest storage in SA, which differs geographically from other countries producing kiwifruit.

The knowledge base in SA is not advanced. Cultivars currently grown are imported from Italy, with local growers having minimal knowledge about cultivation practices such as plant nutrition, irrigation and pest control. The UKZN research team hopes to contribute in all these areas, particularly in the development of new and more diverse cultivars, and in doing so, fulfil the legacy of the late Professor Peter Allan, who had begun research on kiwifruit.

The installation of cold storage technology for these experiments is an important advance for agricultural research at UKZN, as the converted shipping containers that were previously used were not ideal. Despite this, UKZN has consistently produced excellent post-harvest research, which will be accelerated by the new technology available.

Words: Christine Cu'enod