Profit from pomegranates

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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.

PHOTO: GE­ORGE VON BERG

WIN­NER Pro­fes­sor Opara in his lab­o­ra­tory

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