By Grethe Bestbier
For Dr Esmé Louw, newly appointed chair of the Stellenbosch University Department of Horticultural Science, the chance to make a real and tangible impact in the industry is just one of the things that excite her about the road ahead.
“I would like to make Stellenbosch’s Horticultural Science Department the preferred knowledge partner, at a local and international level, through relevant research and teaching excellence,” she says.
Louw, the youngest of four daughters, originally from the small Langkloof town of Karedouw, later moved and grew up in the hot and humid town of Empangeni in northern KwaZulu-Natal. After matriculation, her profound love of biology drove her to study microbiology and biochemistry at Tuks, where after she conducted her postgraduate studies at the zoology department.
“What I didn’t realise then, is that having a fundamental knowledge of science and biochemistry also comes into play when dealing with plants. It doesn’t matter where you go, the biochemistry is always there,” says Louw.
After obtaining her master’s degree, Louw made a few more stops on her detour to horticulture, including seven years in the field of medical diagnostics as well as some time as project manager at SU’s Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research.
In 2006, a few years after moving to Cape Town, Louw learned that the Perishable Products Export Control Board (PPECB) was looking for someone with a biology background to conduct a part-time PhD on the aroma volatile profiles of plums. Driven by a need to be part of something with a more immediate impact, Louw applied and became a Matie.
“When you’re in medical research, it’s the beginning of a chain of events that could take many years before the benefits are tangible,” she explains. “With horticulture, the discoveries we make in this season can be implemented in the next season. You’re so much closer to the solution and to helping.”
A few years later, Louw had completed her PhD in Horticultural Science and by June 2012, she was heading up the Department’s renewed dormancy program. Climate change had elevated the status of dormancy research and in the eight years that followed, they worked hard to raise awareness amongst the industry.
Today, many of the Department’s strategies are moving towards climate-orientated research and stress physiology or the so-called ‘resilience horticulture’. As the new chair, she is adamant about its importance and highlights the way that young students can contribute fresh ideas to finding solutions and help the industry go forward.
According to Louw, cooperation between the university and industry is invaluable for meaningful research that leads to progress and solutions. For horticulture to find sustainable ways of producing good quality products at the right price, each party needs to bring their A-game. “It’s a win-win situation,” she says. “We bring the science and industry keeps it practical and relevant.”
At the end of the day, it all boils down to high-quality science with impact. Louw looks forward to providing creative leadership to a team of dedicated, passionate researchers who are ready to tackle the horticultural challenges of these changing times.
“In addition, I think it is a special task to be involved in the training of students who will be the future agricultural leaders of South Africa. The challenge is to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world and to see tomorrow’s problems today.”
Caption: Research in the field…Dr Esmé Louw looking at Pro-Hort trials near Robertson. (Picture: Anna Mouton)