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14 May 2019 | Story Thabo Kessah | Photo Tsepo Moeketsi
Prof Ashafa
Prof Ashafa’s research documents plants used by the Basotho in the management of different ailments.

The Phytomedicine and Phytopharmacology Research Programme (PPRP) in the Department of Plant Sciences on the Qwaqwa Campus researches the biological effects of medicinal plants used in the folkloric medicine of the Eastern Free State, particularly to explore the values and contribution of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) towards broader scientific research. This is according to the programme’s principal investigator and researcher, NRF C2-rated researcher, Professor Anofi Ashafa. 

 “Our research is mainly aimed at documenting plants used by the Basotho in the management of different ailments and to further discover, isolate, and purify active phytoconstituents that are responsible for disease curation or amelioration, thereby assisting in the global promotion of accessible and affordable medication in developing countries,” said Prof Ashafa. 

Since 2012, the PPRP has worked extensively on Basotho medicinal plants (BMP) used as antimicrobials, antioxidants, antidiabetics, antitubercular, anticancer, anthelmintic, and antidiarrheal agents, starting from biological activities up to the  evaluation of the toxicity of these plants for the kidney, liver, and heart functions in order to establish safe dosage parameters. These activities have led to the discovery of four potent antidiabetic biomolecules that are awaiting the processes of patency and commercialisation. Additional outputs include 104 published peer-reviewed articles , 7 postdoctoral fellows, 6 PhDs, 9 master’s, and 16 honours graduates. 

“Our research informs teaching and the development of expertise in ethnobotany, 
phytomedicine, and phytopharmacology in order to contribute to the National Development Plan (NDP) through human capacity development, skills, and knowledge transfer.

The group is also investigating some medicinal plants on the endangered red list of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), through micropropagation and field trials as well as proposing conservation strategies to preserve these valuable species.

The PPRP consists of postdoctoral fellows, PhD, master’s, and honours students and research is done in collaboration with several local and international universities as well as the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa. 


News Archive

Research on cactus pear grabs attention of food, cosmetic and medical industry
2015-02-18

Cactus pear
Photo: Charl Devenish

The dedicated research and development programme at the UFS on spineless cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) – also known as prickly pear – has grown steadily in both vision and dimension during the past 15 years. Formal cactus pear research at the UFS started with the formation of the Prickly Pear Working Group (PPWG) in June 2002. It has since gone from strength to strength with several MSc dissertations and a PhD thesis as well as popular and scientific publications flowing from this initiative.

According to Prof Wijnand Swart from the Department of Plant Sciences, the UFS is today recognised as a leading institution in the world conducting multi-disciplinary research on spineless cactus pear.

Cactus pear for animal feed

Increasing demands on already scarce water resources in South Africa require alternative sources of animal feed – specifically crops that are more efficient users of water. One alternative with the potential for widespread production is spineless cactus pear. It is 1.14 x more efficient in its use of water than Old man saltbush, 2.8 x more efficient than wheat, 3.75 x more efficient than lucerne and 7.5 x more efficient than rangeland vegetation.

“Studies on the use of sun-dried cactus pear cladodes suggest that it has the potential to provide some 25% of the basic feed resources required by South Africa’s commercial ruminant feed manufacturing sector,” says Prof HO de Waal of the Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the UFS.

Until recently, research has focused extensively on the use of cactus pear as drought fodder. However, this is now beginning to shift, with growing interest in the intensive production of spineless cactus pear for other types of animal feed. One example is the spineless cactus pear fruit, produced seasonal, yielding large quantities of fruit in a relatively short period of a few months in summer. Unless kept in cold storage, the fruit cannot be stored for a long period. Therefore, a procedure was developed to combine large volumes of mashed cactus pear fruit with dry hay and straw and preserve it for longer periods as high moisture livestock feed, kuilmoes – a high water content livestock feed similar to silage.

Cactus pear and Pineapple juice
Photo: Charl Devenish

Cactus pear for human consumption

“In addition to its use as a livestock feed, cactus pear is increasingly being cultivated for human consumption. Although the plant can be consumed fresh as a juice or vegetable, significant value can be added through processing. This potential is considerable: the plant can be pickled; preserved as a jam or marmalade; or dried and milled to produce baking flour. It can also serve as a replacement of egg and fat in mayonnaise,” said Dr Maryna de Wit from the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology.

The extraction of mucilage from fresh cladodes can form a gelling, emulsifier, and fat-replacing agent commonly found in food products such as mayonnaise and candy. During an information session to the media Dr De Wit and her team conducted a food demonstration to showcase the use of the cladodes in a juice, chicken stir-fry, biscuits and a salad.

The extrusion of cactus pear seed oil provides a further lucrative niche product to the array of uses. These include high-value organic oil for the cosmetic sector, such as soap, hair gel and sun screens.

The cladodes and the fruit also have medicinal uses. It has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, pain killing and anti-diabetic agents. It is also high in fibre and can lower cholesterol. The fruit also prevents proliferation of cells and suppresses tumour growth and can even help to reduce a hangover.

In South Africa the outdated perception of cactus pears as thorny, alien invaders, is rapidly disappearing. Instead, farmers now recognise that cactus pear can play a vital role as a high yielding, water-efficient, multi-use crop, said Prof de Waal and the members of the Cactus Pear Team.

Facebook photo gallery
Dagbreek interview with Dr Maryna de Wit  

Research on cactus pear (read the full story)

For more information or enquiries contact news@ufs.ac.za

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