An interdisciplinary University of Cape Town (UCT) research alliance has been awarded funding by the National Research Foundation (NRF) to embark on the second phase of a Community of Practice (CoP) project. Their research initially focused on the cultivation of fibre-rich plants as a means of remediating degraded mining land and boosting South Africa’s economy. In the next phase, the CoP aims to leverage these analytical developments. Their view is that appropriately informed micro industrial policy aimed at driving inclusive and sustained economic growth, is best realised through multi-disciplinary research.
Titled Towards Resilient Futures, the CoP project aims to determine whether fibre-rich biomass – such as bamboo, kenaf and hemp - can be used to remediate degraded mining land in a way that is economically feasible and can ultimately assist in generating much-needed sustainable and inclusive economic growth in South Africa.
The hypothesis is that, apart from cleaning and improving soil quality, the cultivation of fibre-rich crops can also lead to enhanced economic complexity through the manufacture of primary and secondary products and the establishment of a fibre micro-industry.
Should the hypothesis prove to be feasible and necessary regulations around mining land be adapted accordingly, incorporating this kind of bioremediation and restorative agriculture into their planning could help mining companies establish a measure of sustained economic value post-mine closure.
Defining Communities of Practice
Spanning an array of disciplines – including economics, environmental processing, chemical engineering, law and social sciences – a project of this nature requires a dedicated team of multi-faceted researchers, ushering in the CoP model.
The cultivation of fibre-rich crops can also lead to enhanced economic complexity through the manufacture of primary and secondary products and the establishment of a fibre micro-industry.
CoPs are defined as research-led alliances in which established researchers collaborate to produce solution-oriented findings with an intention to translate outputs into tangible outcomes.
In an effort to boost this kind of solution-oriented research in South Africa, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the NRF approved funding for the establishment of CoPs between existing Research Chairs under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) funding instrument at the beginning of 2017.
“Two of the key focus areas that the CoP’s research is expected to respond to - as stipulated by the NRF - are the National Development Plan (NDP) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” explains Sarah Marriott, head of Communications at the Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU), programme manager of the Towards Resilient Futures project.
The overall aim of the NRF’s CoP initiative is for Research Chair-led alliances to communicate their solution-oriented research findings to various stakeholders, government officials, practitioners, policy makers, academics and civil society, with an intent to provide solutions that can mitigate social and economic challenges faced by South Africa.
UCT’s Towards Resilient Futures is one of few CoPs to have the second phase of their project approved for further funding from the NRF. This is testament to the quality of research being conducted, which is no mean feat for a 29-person research team.
Gathering of four chairs
Towards Resilient Futures is headed up by Professor Haroon Bhorat, Director of the Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU) at UCT and SARChI Chair in Economic Growth, Poverty and Inequality.
Apart from Bhorat’s own economics research group, the CoP includes three additional UCT SARChI Chairs and their respective research groups. They are Associate Professor Jennifer Broadhurst, current interim Chair in Bioprocess Engineering and Deputy Director of the Minerals to Metals Initiative which hosts the Chair in Minerals Beneficiation; Professor Hanri Mostert, Chair in Mineral Law in Africa; and Professor Sue Harrison, Chair in Bioprocess Engineering at the initiation of the project, Director of the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER), and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation.
The project was established in 2017 when the late Professor Dee Bradshaw – then-SARChI Chair in Mineral Beneficiation and director of the Minerals to Metals research grouping – saw the opportunity to channel the expertise of various UCT SARChI Chairs into a CoP project focusing on the cultivation of bamboo as a means to remediate degraded mining land and create economic opportunities in South Africa.
“She was this very dynamic person who managed to bring people from different disciplines together and made everyone feel valued in their work,” says François Steenkamp, one of the CoP’s lead researchers in economic complexity. “Dee was really the key to the whole project.”
Finding value in fibrous plants
Sadly, Bradshaw passed away in June 2018, but fortunately the CoP had been firmly established and their research continued to develop from strength to strength.
One of the main outcomes of the CoP’s first phase of research was the development of a novel intellectual and analytical approach to developing and structuring micro industrial policy in South Africa, which has been captioned as a Multi-disciplinary Micro Industrial Policy Approach (MMIP).
“In this next phase, the plan is to use the first phase as a case study and implement our MMIP approach to identify a range of frontier products that could be manufactured using the fibrous plant biomass.”
Furthermore, instead of focusing purely on bamboo, the CoP expanded its research to include other resilient fibrous plants, such as hemp, flax and kenaf.
“It started off with bamboo because it is a versatile and sturdy plant from which you can derive a wide range of products, but then when we started working on it we realised there are other plants that hold similar potential and we thus extended our plant selection to plants such as hemp, kenaf, flax and sisal,” explains researcher in bioprocessing engineering, Shilpa Rumjeet.
Apart from being waterwise and resilient, other factors the researchers considered when identifying possible fibrous plants for the CoP project included: Could the plants clean degraded mining land? In which part of the plant would the metals they absorb accumulate? Which products could be made from the plant biomass and what were the adequate processing steps required?
“The first part of the project was very much a scoping exercise. We were kind of finding the lay of the land,” says Steenkamp. “In this next phase, the plan is to use the first phase as a case study and implement our MMIP approach to identify a range of frontier products that could be manufactured using the fibrous plant biomass.”
Factors the researchers will consider in identifying these frontier products include whether they are feasible in South Africa’s current economic environment; how labour intensive the manufacturing process is (the more intensive, the better for job creation); and whether the manufacturing process from plants to products is environmentally-friendly, techno-economically feasible, sustainable and waterwise.
“From the engineering side, we need to figure out all the different ways we can make this happen,” says Rumjeet. “For now, it’s only proof of concept. There are a lot of parameters that can have an impact on this. But ultimately, the idea is to assist in leaving a positive mining legacy by using and restoring degraded mining land.”
Visit the Towards Resilient Futures website to find out more about the CoP project.
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