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Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Making a difference through innovation

IMPRESSION: Functional Foods Research Unit Head, Prof Maretha Opperman demonstrates her ideals of improving the health and nutritional status of the most vulnerable communities in South Africa. IMPRESSION: Functional Foods Research Unit Head, Prof Maretha Opperman demonstrates her ideals of improving the health and nutritional status of the most vulnerable communities in South Africa.

Functional Foods Research Unit Head, Prof Maretha Opperman’s outstanding contributions to Simulation Engineering Technologies (SET) have earned her a first nomination for the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Awards. 

Opperman has been nominated in the Innovation Award: Corporate Organisation category, which is designed for teams or individuals in organisations, universities, corporate and Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises or working independently, for their enormous contributions to SET through innovations and their impacts, over the last five to 10 years.  She says for assessment of these awards, underlying research and/or development is taken into account where applicable.

 “It is a huge honour for me to be nominated as it means that the hard work over many years did not go unnoticed. I trust that if we win this award we will make our mark as respected innovators in our country and make it possible for us to obtain more grants to expand the current work we do in communities.

“My dream is to commercialise our current and future products to benefit not only certain groups in South Africa but the people who need it most,” she says.

Her unit aims to translate research results on essential fatty acids and micronutrients into new and improved functional food products or premixes with functional food characteristics for health promotion and disease prevention in South Africa. The researcher who feels, ‘there is nothing like a South African braai’ adds that functional foods by virtue of physiologically active food components, provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

The innovator who loves hiking over weekends in the mountains and walk along the beach with her partner, says the newly developed products are converted into commercially useful end products for the South African market.  

“Essential fatty acids and micronutrient deficiencies have a negative effect on the health of the poorest consumers in South Africa.  Our work is very much aimed at improving the health and nutritional status of the most vulnerable communities in South Africa, the poor, pregnant women, and pre-school children,” she notes.

“Personally, I’m very proud of our team and everyone who worked on this. This is not something you achieve on your own… this will just emphasise the enormous potential of CPUT staff and students to innovate and develop novel things.”

The member of the Complementary Medicines Committee of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority concedes that this achievement has taken thousands of hours of unlimited hard work, dedication, discipline, and a few million rands.  “There were also setbacks, disappointments, and failures, but every time we reorganised and tried again until we were successful.”  

She says the competition is extremely stiff: “It will really be a miracle if our team wins this award. Some of our toughest competition actually comes from other CPUT nominees.”

Opperman attributes her academic success to her love and passion for the field she is working in. She learned that, as a researcher, ‘don’t be shy to talk to people and ask for opportunities, collaborate with the experts in the field, believe in yourself, look for a mentor in the field that will take your hand and work alongside you’.

“We always had the support from staff and students who motivated us... I also want to mention Prof Chris Nhlapo, who was there from our first steps (when he was still DVC: Research and Innovation).”

Written by Aphiwe Boyce

Email: boyceap@cput.ac.za

Provides coverage for the Engineering and the Built Environment and Applied Sciences Faculties.