Prof Danie Brink took on two very diverse challenges in July. The one was to tackle the punishing Berg River Canoe Marathon for a second time. The other was to accept the challenge to lead Stellenbosch University's Faculty of AgriSciences as dean in its hundredth anniversary year, and to position it even more strongly as a leader in the field of agricultural education and research in Africa. He has served as acting dean since 2014.
Most people know him as a rainbow trout expert, a leader on many fronts, a member of numerous governmental advisory groups and the person who began the first undergraduate degree programme in aquaculture at a South African university. He is, however, also a lover of the outdoors. This keen rower has already attempted multi-day kayak expeditions in Chile, Croatia, Lesotho, Malawi and in South Africa. A natural result of his decision to join Maties Canoe Club in 2015 – just for training purposes – was that he was persuaded by the “old men" of the club to attempt the Berg for the first time in 2016. He took it on again this year, finishing tenth in the age group for rowers between 55 and 60 years, and 58th overall.
He says the five days alone in his single canoe gave him time to reflect on the many similarities that between his duties as dean and the ultra marathon – one being the fact that both can only be achieved if you set definite goals for yourself, plan thoroughly and work hard to achieve those goals.
“One also relies heavily on the support of others without whom you wouldn't have managed to accomplish it," adds Prof Brink, who completed the canoe marathon in the company of, among others, the experienced Berg River competitor Prof Johan van Rooyen of the Faculty's Standard Bank Centre for Agribusiness Development and Leadership.
These experiences also taught him to always be prepared for unforeseen and unknown challenges, and that you simply have to be adaptable and ready to look for solutions – otherwise you might just sink.
Of that the former chairman of the Department of Genetics can certainly testify. Since he was appointed, first as vice dean in 2013 and then as acting dean a few months later, the South African higher-education landscape had experienced multiple fluctuations – one of them being the #feesmustfall movement. He started to act as dean after the selection of Prof Mohammad Karaan to represent the agricultural industry in South Africa's National Planning Commission.
In the process Prof Brink had to, almost overnight, start serving the whole faculty. It was no longer the case to just lead the Department of Genetics or the Division for Aquaculture, which he had helped to establish in 1988.
“It inevitably requires a broader vision and strategic mindset in terms of the bigger environment of the faculty, within the university as a whole and also in the context of external interest groups," he recounts. “This allows you to get a distinctive overall impression of the faculty and you become increasingly aware of its strong points and shortcomings."
His association with the faculty goes back much further than 33 years ago, when he was appointed as technical assistant in the plant-breeding division of the Department of Genetics in 1984. After this resident of Garies in the Northern Cape matriculated at Huguenot High School in Wellington in 1977, he obtained his first degree (a BScAgric in Genetics and Animal Physiology) cum laude at SU in 1983. This also earned him the sought-after Paul van der Bijl-medal that is still awarded to the best student in the faculty. In 2004 he obtained his PhD Agric in Genetics with a study about genetic methods that are applied to increase the growth rate of the rainbow trout.
His initiatives and research around aquaculture have been recognised with, among others, an award by the South Africa Aquaculture Association in 2003. This member of the World Aquaculture Association became an associate professor in genetics in 2006. In 2008 he was named Western Cape Agriculturist of the Year. In the same year he also received the SU Rector's award for community involvement, for among other things, his research of and involvement in the establishment of numerous small-scale aquaculture projects in South Africa and Namibia. Over the years he has assisted in educating communities of Hondeklipbaai to Malawi, Lesotho and Namibia, and has also served on the boards of entities such as AquaStel, NutroScience, Overstrand Local Economic Development Agency and the Hands-on Fish Farmers Cooperative.
These experiences serve as a solid foundation for his new challenge as leader of the faculty. As acting dean he had the opportunity over the last three years to give serious thought to the direction he wants to and needs to steer the faculty in. This applies to the fields of research as the expansions required to make it a leading and financially viable entity within SU, on the higher education landscape and in a competitive environment.
Among the initiatives that he has driven so far are the AgroHub at Welgevallen Experimental Farm, through which underutilised buildings owned by the faculty are now serving a new purpose. After a complete redevelopment office space is now let to related research institutions such as HORTGRO Science, Citrus Research International and AgriSA on a long-term basis.
For Prof Brink it entails more than just the assurance that the books balance and that the Faculty is financially sound. “Among the biggest challenges is a better understanding of our students, to accommodate them and to equip them as best we can to fulfil their future role in the community," says Prof Brink. He believes that the agricultural sector holds a number of unexploited career options for young people. That is why he recently effected cooperation with Agricolleges International.
“The biggest enjoyment so far has been to experience the successes of our students, staff and projects and to be able to share in them," he says. “It includes the joy of a student who eventually graduates after putting in so much effort, to the exceptional academic achievements and research output of others."
Recent successes such as the external evaluations of the departments of Food Science and Horticulture prove to him the quality of the faculty's education and research abilities. No surprise then that it is rated the best agriculture faculty in Africa and under the top 50 in the world, according to the latest higher education rankings!
To have to take care of a faculty full time comes at a price. Prof Brink had to give up lecturing. “I especially miss the intimacy of connecting with the students in class and the way in which one can experience and support their development," says Prof Brink, for whom attending a graduation ceremony is always a highlight.
The last of the more than 40 postgraduate aquaculture students whom he could keep a watchful eye on as study leader in fact graduated in March this year. As a supervisor, he has over the years made a valuable contribution to the expansion of the growing agricultural industry inside and outside South Africa.
In his view the agricultural sector is going to play an increasingly important role in economic development, ecological sustainability and social prosperity. “Therefore relevant expertise on agricultural production systems, service delivery within the sector and all through the value chain are so important to be able to keep up with the advanced nature of modern science, technology and information systems and the complexities of sustainability, food security, globalisation and climate change," according to him. “Agricultural training, from secondary to tertiary level, is therefore of vital importance for creating opportunities, delivering services and integrating knowledge to ensure productivity and sustainable development."
He believes that more research is needed on how information technology and economic analyses can be used to ensure better and more accurate decision making within the agricultural sector. Transdisciplinary studies have to address aspects around microbes and microbiomes, bioproductivity, soil fertility and water quality. Agro-ecological developments and more knowledge about the management and detail of our biodiversity is needed to ensure ecological sustainability while more insight is needed into aspects around the quality, stability and accessibility of food systems.
It is a quite a challenge to accept, but he feels up to it. “During my term, as acting dean I experienced loyal support from my colleagues and constructive advice from interest groups and would really like to build on that," he says. “I'm especially interested in the connection between the University and the industry and specific interest groups."