Pictured above: Dr Elrea Strydom has driven macadamia production innovation as the Research and Development manager at Macadamias South Africa (SAMAC) since 2019.

The Macadamia’s agriculture journalist Lindi Botha spoke to the scientist about the research projects that excite her most, influencing government policy, and why she believes the best is yet to come for the macadamia-producing sector.

When and how did your journey in this industry begin?

I joined SAMAC in March 2019 as R&D manager in the then newly formed SAMAC NPC. Since then, it has been a privilege to manage the “R&D machine” with the rest of the team, the SAMAC board, and members of our various sub-committees and committees.

What fascinates you about macadamias?

Perennial tree crops are complex systems. Working with them is fascinating because it is very technical, and I still learn something new every day. Compared with many other industries, the macadamia sector is still quite young, meaning even seasoned growers and technical advisors are continuously learning. We are still unravelling many of the basics of this complex system.

I was reminded of this at the recent Global Research Focus at this year’s International Macadamia Symposium in KwaZulu-Natal. More than 50 macadamia researchers from around the world, technical advisors, and related roleplayers were able to draft a two-page list of everything we still do not know about the crop. The list is daunting, but it shows us where the knowledge gaps are and where there are opportunities in the future.

What research is most needed to ensure a sustainable future for macadamia nut production in South Africa?

Growers must be sustainable both ecologically and economically. The ecological component of sustainability will become increasingly important in future as the pressure on growers intensifies from consumers, banks and regulatory bodies, to name but a few. We also focus on ecological sustainability in our research programme by looking into biological control of key pests, optimising water usage, and lowering carbon footprints.

The economic component is equally important, as growers and the industry cannot survive if they are not profitable. The past 18 months have reminded us that the only way to be sustainable financially, in the long run, is to be efficient. We must get the basics right, and SAMAC is therefore systematically revisiting and updating management best practices and reiterating these to the industry.

Growers will have to make informed, data-driven decisions to remain efficient in future. SAMAC is working to support growers in this regard through the SAMAC Integrator – an industry database and dashboard to bolster decision-making.

Regarding government policies to enhance the sector, what is most needed?

I think what is most important is that the government focuses on its mandate to create an enabling and stable environment for agriculture to flourish. SAMAC has good relationships with the government and will continue to be the voice of the industry in the appropriate forums.

If there were one piece of research you wished everyone in the industry would take note of, what would it be?

That would be like asking which of my two girls is my favourite! I strongly believe that our mandate is to develop technology and solutions for the industry, keeping in mind technology is any piece of knowledge that can be applied practically. That technology or tool can be a national map of macadamia orchards, the SAMAC Integrator, a pheromone, a natural enemy for a pest, or just information which enhances our understanding of something or improves best practices – for example, knowing what time of the year is best to test or control for a specific disease. As I mentioned earlier, in many areas we are ironing out the basics, and some projects are stepping-stones which build momentum to get to the “flashy” outcome – but are just as important.

Regarding the future of the industry – where do you see it in 10 years’ time, and what will be the biggest drivers for success? 

I am very positive – because we have a nutrient-dense, premium, and versatile product that “ticks all boxes” for consumers, now and in the future. I am positive about the opportunity to potentially increase average yields so growers can build sustainable businesses, and I also hope we will move towards more basic standards across many areas.

SAMAC is a modern, innovative, and agile organisation capable of leading the industry into the future. Over the past four and a half years it has done great work to make the sector more cohesive and organised, which I think is crucial to move forward. The structures it has put in place (such as the R&D programme and being a founding member of the World Macadamia Organisation) have gained momentum and will pay dividends in the future.