The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Rony Swennen

Rony Swennen

Professor in Bio-Science Engineering, KU Leuven / Head researcher; Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement, Bioversity International and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (1955)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m dedicated to conserving and breeding new banana varieties, as bananas are amongst the top ten most important staple crops in the world. Specifically, as a fruit crop, they rival citrus for the first place. In Leuven, we maintain the world’s largest banana collection, known as the International Musa Transit Centre. Currently more than 1,500 accessions are stored in test tubes, and each day we multiply and distribute around three to four accessions. Additionally, we’ve supplied banana varieties to more than a hundred countries. These operations take place in a laboratory of KU Leuven in Heverlee, not too far from where I live, close to the forest, since I treasure peaceful natural areas, both in life and professionally. I hugely value and enjoy my work, because as a scientist I have all the freedom to set new borders for the future while at the same time having the possibility of impacting people’s lives today. This work is performed with a vibrant international team, who compliments our global impact and network, and hence is appropriate to have it based at KU Leuven. In addition, I travel about six months per year to Africa, where I feel best working amongst small-scale farmers in support of international efforts in breeding plantain and other cooking bananas. Several high yielding resistant varieties were developed and that received international awards, but most importantly have been accepted by farmers and were distributed to ten African and five Latin American countries.

How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it?

I didn’t actually grow up in Leuven, and furthermore spent 35 years abroad – thus my admiration of Leuven is therefore rather objective. It’s a rather small town, but with everything a metropole has to offer; totally pedestrian-friendly and surrounded by a green belt. Old-fashioned building facades and historic buildings are everywhere. Private buildings are nicely mixed with the University buildings, and only its residents can really spot the differences.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Leuven is going through a major transformation at the moment, as much construction is going on at the old hospital site and former brewery, with new architecture styles very much in line with its cultural heritage. Also, the University being a world leader in research and education allows Leuven to make its mark on the map. Hence its large university population with students and professors coming from all corners of the world, turning it into a sprawling city with so many activities, both day and night. Fact is, there’s something to see or do almost every weekend.

It’s astonishing to see at what speed new inventions take place, how new companies are being created, while its old cultural heritage is still respected and even restored step-by-step.

How would you say has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today?

Unlike in many other places in the world, here the University is very much part of life in Leuven. Both the city and the University reinforce each other. It’s astonishing to see at what speed new inventions take place, how new companies are being created, while its old cultural heritage is still respected and even restored step-by-step.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Leuven is surrounded by a green belt, and that green belt needs to better invade the City. More trees need to be planted, and more open spaces created, something that definitely seems to be happening in and around the gigantic construction sites near the river Dyle. I also think that we should build parking zones beneath the surface, allowing for trees to replace the huge amount of place currently taking up by parking spaces.

biw.kuleuven.be/biosyst/plantenbiotechniek/tropical
newint.iita.org/iita-staff/swennen-rony
bioversityinternational.org/about-us/who-we-are/staff-bios/single-details-bios/swennen-rony