Cape Town – Dr Nokuthula Mchunu, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), will soon be departing for China, where she aims to learn from that country’s advanced methods of implementing enzyme applications in agricultural industries.
Mchunu is part of the first cohort of young South African researchers who will be travelling to China under the South Africa-China Young Scientists Exchange Programme. She will be based at Tianjin University of Science and Technology, 80 kilometres north of Beijing.
The 37-year-old researcher, who specialises in plant genomics at the ARC, wants to "look at what China is doing and work together with fellow Chinese researchers to develop and implement enzyme technology strategies for the South African market".
Enzymes are catalysts used in the food, agricultural, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries to control and speed up reactions in the creation of industrial products. Most enzymes are found inside organic lifeforms, which means they do not require high temperatures to function, whereas metal catalysts, for example, tend to need high temperatures to get working.
According to Mchunu, the use of enzymes results in much cleaner industrial processes compared to conventional chemical methods. China’s enzyme preparation industry is highly advanced, and the country boasts a huge – possibly the largest – market for industrial enzymes.
"China uses very advanced methods in the implementation of enzyme applications, which takes away the use of dangerous chemicals in industries," says Mchunu.
South Africa, by contrast, has relatively few enzyme-based technology products. Mchunu hopes to change this by helping to implement some of China’s strategies back home.
The five-year agreement establishing the South Africa-China Young Scientists Exchange Programme was signed by South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology in 2017.
The other South African researchers taking part in the programme are Lizelle van Dyk (University of the Witwatersrand), Ndanduleni Lesley Lethole, Peace Prince Mkhonto and Winston Nxumalo (University of Limpopo), and Wynston Ray Woodenber and Anthony Walters (University of KwaZulu-Natal).
The seven young scientists will spend between six and 12 months at institutions across China, including the Wuhan Institute of Technology, the Beijing General Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, the Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, the National Astronomical Observatory of China, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Speaking at a farewell ceremony in Pretoria on 30 April, Daan du Toit, Acting Director-General at the DST, said the programme was a high-level response to commitments made during Chinese President’s Xi Jinping’s state visit to South Africa last year.
"We have to invest in the next generation of scientists," Du Toit said, describing the programme as the beginning of a partnership to develop emerging scientists and support them in finding solutions to challenges faced in environment, health and other areas of society.
"This programme has very high political support and is an investment for the future that both South Africa and China are determined to grow," Du Toit said.
Ambassador Lin Songtian said China had developed into a major power in terms of science and technology. Backed by substantial investment in research and development, the country had reached world-class levels in the digital economy and artificial intelligence.
Ambassador Lin expressed the hope that the young researchers would seize the opportunity to work together with their Chinese counterparts to promote scientific innovation in their respective areas of work.
"China and South Africa will strengthen cooperation in scientific and technological innovation, and our cooperation enjoys broad prospects and huge potential if we jointly embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution," he said.