Profit from pomegranates
Research by Stellenbosch University Professor Umezuruike Linus Opara on how best to treat pomegranates after they are harvested won him an African Union Kwame Nkrumah Continental Scientific Award in Ethiopia last week.
His research has also contributed a whopping R65 million to South Africa’s fledgling pomegranate industry.
Pomegranates, an ancient fruit featured in the Bible and the Koran, is considered a “superfruit” packed with antioxidants and is thought to help fight high blood pressure, and breast and prostate cancer. Demand is booming and, gram for gram, it fetches as much as 10 times the price of other fruit.
“I did not intend having pomegranates on my research agenda when I came to South Africa nearly seven years ago. It was only when I was approached by people in the pomegranate industry that I decided to look more into research,” says the agricultural engineer at the university’s horticulture and food sciences faculty.
His research looks at optimal storage temperatures and efficient packaging.
“It is very trial and error. We need to test many different models of boxes and how air moves through the holes to see how the fruit reacts and stays edible,” he says.
“Fresh fruits are living organisms...It is as if they breathe. This is something we need to take into account in trying to keep the fruit at the optimal temperature and state for a long time so they may arrive alive at their final destination.”
His team has worked out how to monitor the fruit without cutting it open and wasting it. They use nearinfrared spectroscopy, whereby the fruit is scanned with sensors that can identify imperfections and measure characteristics such as its sugar content.
These readings need to be interpreted carefully and correlated with specific characteristics of the fruit, which is what Opara and his team are doing.
“One should be able to measure and predict various aspects of the fruits – such as sugar content, crunchiness and firmness – to be able to harvest, pack and transport the fruit at the optimal times.”
Although the local pomegranate industry is tiny in comparison with big growers in China and the Middle East, it is growing rapidly. Opara predicts a growth in production of 180% by 2017.
South African pomegranate farmers can cash in by functioning as a substitute supplier for these seasonal fruits during the northern hemisphere’s winter.
The Western Cape’s climate, especially around Wellington, is perfect for growing them and Opara says these are of a very high quality. They are also grown in the Northern Cape, near Upington.
Although his work on pomegranates has been widely celebrated, Opara has also done successful work on table grapes, apples and citrus fruit. He also worked closely with the government in his native Nigeria on a project to use flour made from the readily available cassava root as a partial substitute for wheat to use in making bread.
Opara oversees a team of postgraduate students at the university who are researching the peel of the pomegranate as well as the extraction and use of pomegranate oil.
WINNER Professor Opara in his laboratory