When Andries Daniels received his doctorate in the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University (SU) in mid-December, he became the first black South African man to obtain a PhD in viticulture.
Since he obtained his first degree – a BScAgric in Viticulture and Oenology in 2005 – Dr Daniels has been working at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Infruitec-Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch. He was appointed as research technician at the breeding and evaluation division in 2006. Dr Daniels, originally from Kimberley, nowadays lives in the Strand, and does research on table, raisin and wine grapes in the ARC's crop development section.
He has since also successfully studied part-time to complete three degrees (including his PhD) at SU – while evaluating new table grape and raisin grape cultivars and selections, or advising second-economy grape farmers of especially the Northern Cape.
He is used to hard work, and to juggle studies and work. While he was studying towards his BScAgric degree in the early 2000s, for example, he was a night watchman at the Visual Arts Building on the SU campus, and also did duty as a “demi" and marker for the SU Department of Biochemistry.
At school he hoped to become a medical doctor, but although he was provisionally selected for the course in 1999, his matric marks were not up to scratch. He did not give up hope, and returned to Adamantia High School in Kimberley to improve his marks. “I don't give up easily – despite the twists and turns of life," he says.
His Plan B was to start studying towards a BSc in Human Life Sciences at SU, and in so doing try and obtain selection for medicine – a route many aspirant doctors have followed. Near the end of his first year, the Wine and Spirits Board however offered him a bursary to study Viticulture and Oenology. This was an opportunity he could not easily refuse, since he came from a family of two children who were supported by their mother, a part-time domestic worker.
He remembers how he discussed the matter with his mother while at the end of his first year they were walking to visit his aunt in Kimberley. Accepting the bursary would have meant giving up on his dream of being a medical doctor. His mother, Agnes Daniels, immediately supported him in his plans. “She said I should grab the opportunity. If there's one thing that I know about my mother, it is that she never stood in my way. She has always supported and assisted me unconditionally," he says with gratitude.
Since then, he has used each opportunity that his new career as viticulturist has offered him. “One must not be afraid of making mistakes, not even in your workplace. I depend on colleagues who have more knowledge of specific fields. One can learn so much from others. Life is a team effort," he believes.
After being involved in the necessary evaluation work for nearly 13 years, he was able to contribute to the release of 'Sundowner', the first South African raisin grape cultivar ever bred. The work was done alongside his team leader at the ARC, plant breeder Phyllis Burger, RaisinsSA and Culdevco. It fares especially well in the Olifants River Valley. “We hope to soon release another cultivar, hopefully one which will fare especially well in the Northern Cape," he reveals.
For their work on 'Sundowner', Dr Daniels and Ms Burger were awarded the sought-after Deciduous Fruit Industry Award in 2020. This year he was also named as the top Agriculturist of the Year for the Northern Cape by the Agricultural Writers South Africa.
Dr Daniels enjoys the variety that his career offers – from work in the laboratory to the opportunity to regularly spend time in vineyards. He is grateful for the training he has received in Viticulture and Oenology at SU. “It has given me a very good global picture, and a broad knowledge of what happens in the vineyard and in the industry."
His doctorate was not on a topic to help to improve the cultivation of the fruit of the vineyard – grapes –but instead built on near-infrared technology work which he has been involved in since the days of his honours degree studies at SU. “Usually, farmers use refractometers to test sugars if they want to find out if grapes are ready to be harvested. It is quite intensive work, especially if you have many vineyard blocks to be tested. The method isn't always very accurate," says Dr Daniels.
As part of his PhD he has developed mathematical models by which the quality of grape bunches can be determined down to berry level - without any damage. This is done by scanning each berry/bunch separately with near-infrared instruments to obtain the spectra which is then coupled with reference values to build prediction models. His models also take into account aspects of the taste quality of grapes (in terms of how sweet or sour the berries are). It can be used to quite accurately forecast which bunches are more likely to go bad or develop browning (on the skins and in the flesh) while being sent abroad by ship.
“If one can determine at packhouse level which grapes will tend to discolour in an unsightly manner while being in a ship for four to six weeks, you could save exporters some financial losses. They could then decide to rather sell their fruit on the local market, rather than sending it off just to get it rejected at the harbour because it is substandard." He hopes to soon test the results of his largely laboratory-based PhD work on a commercial scale.
Dr Daniels is a people's person who attaches great value to friendships. “At school I read Marie Heese's book 'Die Uurwerk Kantel', in which the main character often spoke about the concept of being 'of service' to others. It made a great impression on me." This attitude has been quite useful to him in his work as union representative on various employee forums. He also takes great pleasure in advising and assisting emerging second-economy farmers in the Northern Cape in the vineyard to help them cultivate the best raisin and wine grapes possible.
*In 2017 a classmate, friend and mentor of Dr Daniels, Dr Erna Blancquaert, became the first black South African to obtain a doctorate in Viticulture, also at SU.