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SU researchers excel at first African Biotrade Festival
Author: Faculty of Science (media & communication)
Published: 14/11/2023

Stellenbosch University (SU) researchers made their mark at the recent inaugural African Biotrade Festival in Johannesburg. Dr Rhoda Malgas and Kyle le Roux were two of the three presenters awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to any academic conference of their choice, anywhere in the world.

The SU representatives were among six postgraduate researchers to be selected from across the country to share their research findings in this field.

The African Biotrade Festival was a unique opportunity for researchers to address a diverse selection of stakeholders across the value chains of indigenous species such as Baobab, Marula, Sceletium, Buchu and Honeybush. It was held in conjunction with the Organic and Natural Products Expo Africa 2023 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, and hosted by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Malgas' presentation, titled “Why the only economy for rooibos and honeybush is green", was based on her recent PhD research, which focuses on sustainability in the rooibos and honeybush sectors. She received her PhD degree in 2022. She is a lecturer in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology in the Faculty of AgriSciences.

With her PhD research supervised by Prof. Karen Esler and the late Prof. Shayne Jacobs, Malgas' work highlights ecological mechanisms which have the potential of ensuring the long-term viability of the rooibos and honeybush sectors, along with other fynbos-based industries.

Malgas is continuing her research on sustainability in Fynbos and other bio-based sectors, with a focus on social-ecological systems and how people interact with their natural environments.

Le Roux, an MSc student in the Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Science, studies the potential beneficial effects of honeybush extracts in the treatment of oxidative stress-related diseases such as diabetes. For his research, he is specifically looking at the effect of these extracts on the functioning of mitochondria, as they generate most of the chemical energy needed to power the biochemical reactions in cells.

In other words, if your mitochondria are healthy and functioning optimally, your body is able to maintain a healthy balance between the oxidants and antioxidants generated in this process. When the balance is disturbed, however, the body's antioxidant defences are overwhelmed and the mitochondria become dysfunctional, manifesting in diseases such as Type 1 diabetes.

In his talk, Le Roux pointed out that while conventional medicine is effective in lowering glucose levels, it often does not account for the damage to the antioxidant defences of the cells, or the damage before treatment.

Scientifically establishing the nutraceutical value of a medicinal plant such as Honeybush, will provide an affordable treatment option to those who do not have access to conventional medical treatment.

“This type of research is important for the industry. Not only would Honeybush find an entirely new market in the form of a nutraceutical extract, but the harvesting and cultivation of Honeybush may have to change to improve its content rather than its taste profile," he concluded. Le Roux's supervisor is Dr Naeem Sheik Abdul, research group leader in the Department of Biochemistry at SU.