Exiled DRC Army Officer Sold Sweets and Chips to make Ends Meet before Graduating

Exiled DRC Army Officer Sold Sweets and Chips to make Ends Meet before Graduating
Mr George Ilangila was awarded a Master of Science in Human Nutrition.

From an army officer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the streets of South Africa where he was a security guard and a street vendor, to the proud recipient of a UKZN Postgraduate degree - Mr George Richard Ilangila has climbed the academic ladder the hard way.

Ilangila was awarded a Master’s degree in Human Nutrition after researching the impact of the 2018 sugar-sweetened beverage tax on the purchases of Black African women shopping at the Edendale Mall in Pietermaritzburg. His study was funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2018 and the Halley Scott Foundation in 2017.

Ilangila explained that malnutrition could manifest itself in a person being overweight and/or obese as well as being underweight, and posed a threat to public health. He explored how a tax might affect the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which if consumed excessively could lead to increases in obesity, which heighten risk factors for hypertension and non-communicable diseases including diabetes, strokes and cardiovascular disease.

He hoped that reduced consumption of sugary beverages would reduce the prevalence of obesity and its related diseases.

Ilangila arrived in South Africa some 20 years ago following unrest in his own country that led to him fleeing to South Africa. The former senior army officer found work as a security guard in Durban and sold sweets and chips to make ends meet.

Having completed degrees in the DRC in Electronic Engineering at the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées in 1985 and in 1988 in Social and Military Sciences at the École de formation des officiers, and having seen the malnutrition suffered by people languishing in refugee camps on his journey south, Ilangila was determined to continue his studies in Human Nutrition.

He investigated numerous funding opportunities to access the resources he needed and was awarded a bursary from the Gift of the Givers to start a BSc degree in Human Nutrition. He went on to complete his Postgraduate Diploma in Human Nutrition, receiving an award for being the most outstanding Postgraduate Diploma Community Nutrition student during his studies.

Ilangila adapted to a new language of instruction and new study methods and techniques with the help of staff in the Discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition and in the Student Counselling and Disability units. He persevered through the challenge of being far from home to complete his studies, encouraging himself never to give up on his dreams and ambitions.

He thanked God first for the gift of life and sustenance, and his supervisor Dr Nicky Wiles for her endless support, responsiveness, wise advice, guidance and patience, which he said contributed immensely to the completion of this study. He thanked his co-supervisor Dr Annette van Onselen for her guidance, support and encouragement to press ahead with this work despite challenges early on.

He also gave special thanks to all the academic and technical support staff of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, particularly Dr Chara Biggs and Mrs Elsie Correia for their assistance.

Ilangila hopes to register soon for a PhD.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph:  Gugu Mqadi

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Hard Work and Passion Overcame Adversity for Cum Laude Graduate

Hard Work and Passion Overcame Adversity for <em>Cum Laude</em> Graduate
Ms Sayuri Srikissan graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree.

Consistent hard work and a passion for Hydrology and Soil Science led to Ms Sayuri Srikissan graduating with a BSc degree cum laude while still mourning the death of her father.

Srikissan identified her father as her most important role model, whose influence enabled her to achieve what she did.   ‘My father was a hard worker who laboured tirelessly to provide for his family, even after he became ill,’ she said.

Srikissan’s academic triumph is bittersweet as her father was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure in her matric year and with heart failure during her second year at UKZN.   Srikissan said that she put more effort into her studies after realising her father’s health was deteriorating as she wanted to be in a position to take over his responsibilities.

‘During the final year of my degree, my father passed away and I was at rock bottom,’ said Srikissan.  ‘I am filled with mixed emotions as I have accomplished what I set out to achieve but I do not have my father to share this happy moment with me.’

Srikissan’s lecturer and academic adviser, Dr Tinisha Chetty, said:  ‘I am amazed how Sayuri persevered in her studies and never lost faith in herself even in the face of adversity in her personal life when she lost her dad.’

‘It was a privilege to work with Sayuri,’ said soil scientist Professor Pardon Muchaonyerwa.  ‘Lecturers admired her academic prowess as she always came top of the class.  It was a great pleasure to be part of her academic growth.  She has the world ahead of her.’

Srikissan received the Roland Schulze Award for the top third-year Hydrology student at the annual College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science awards ceremony.

Srikissan’s mother, Sholay Aheer Srikissan is very proud, describing her daughter as a person who has been consistent throughout her life, displaying great ambition while accomplishing her goals. ‘Sayuri is the epitome of success.  My daughter has a very bright future ahead of her.’

Srikissan is currently registered for an Honours degree in Hydrology as she believes postgraduate study will improve her abilities. Her research study will look at using satellite images to improve water quality estimates. ‘These images can assist us as hydrologists to come to conclusions on our current water conditions, and from there take necessary steps to address certain problems,’ she said.

In her spare time, Srikissan likes to garden, cycle and go to the gym.

Words:  Sabeliwe Langa  

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi


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The Answer Lies in the Soil for PhD Graduate

The Answer Lies in the Soil for PhD Graduate
Dr Nkosinomusa Dube researched indigenous soil knowledge to earn a PhD in Soil Science.

Dr Nkosinomusa Dube, a lecturer in the Discipline of Soil Science at UKZN, has graduated with a PhD after investigating soil indigenous knowledge related to agricultural and non-agricultural uses in four villages in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Eastern Cape.

Dube, who grew up in a farming family in northern KZN, was interested in exploring the knowledge smallholder, rural farmers have about the soil their livelihoods depend on, and how they apply that knowledge. She also wanted to uncover how, without much formal schooling, they classify soils and use their indigenous, or ethnopedological, knowledge to sustain productive farming systems.

The unique research she undertook contributes to filling a gap in the understanding of indigenous knowledge of soil, an area that has not received much attention, particularly in South Africa.

Dube worked with four communities – two in KZN and two in the Eastern Cape – to capacitate community members deliberately by making them active participants in her research, to which they contributed local knowledge.

‘Once we understand this knowledge, we are able to develop solutions that are contextualised to meet farmers’ needs, and understand the properties that are of interest to them,’ said Dube.

She investigated communities’ understanding of soil taxonomy, mapping and fertility, and selection and the use of healing, cosmetic and geophagic soils, comparing local assessments of soil fertility and mapping to scientific approaches.

She discovered that farmers have detailed knowledge of soils familiar to them. They had formulated a practical local classification system as well as well-developed soil fertility indicators that they used to allocate crops to certain areas. Although revealing local soil fertility problems, at times farmers’ subjective assessments based on observable physical aspects did not correlate with laboratory results. This indicated a need to balance their descriptive fertility indicators with a chemical laboratory fertility assessment to ensure accurate fertiliser recommendations for the benefit of local soil and cropping systems. 

While investigating non-agricultural uses of the soil, Dube found that ukhethe soil used for consumption contained beneficial compounds like zinc, copper and cobalt. She found that ibomvu soil, used for healing and cosmetics, contained kaolinite and iron oxides as well as titanium dioxide and a high critical wavelength, explaining its effectiveness as a sunscreen.

Dube noted that farmers had observed changes in crop yield due to changes in rainfall patterns and declining soil fertility, demonstrating their awareness of a system under pressure owing to climate change and other factors. She also drew attention to the use of agricultural soils for construction, revealing a land-use conflict that could be addressed by improved land and soil suitability classification systems that consider, value and protect agricultural and non-agricultural uses of soil.

Her research was published in the Geoderma journal, and she hopes it will contribute to ethnopedological studies, saying that if farmers’ knowledge is valued for its own sake, it will conscientise policy makers and increase farmers’ access to resources they need.

Dube thanked her supervisors Professor Jeff Hughes, Professor Albert Modi, Professor Pardon Muchaonyerwa and Dr Karen Caister, for going out of their way to support and encourage her and for their diverse expertise that strengthened her thesis. She also credited the University for offering teaching support while she was completing her PhD.

The determined mother-of-three also thanked her husband, Mr Sabelo Dube, for his vital support and her friends for their encouragement. She dedicated her achievement to her mother, who she said shared in the triumph of this graduation.

Dube, who completed all her studies at UKZN, fell in love with the subject of her research when she encountered it through classes with Hughes as an undergraduate, and described how diverse a discipline it was.

‘Soil is life and if you are able to contribute to the understanding of that and the sustainability of soils, you are contributing to the sustainability of life,’ she said.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied and Gugu Mqadi 

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Use of Ethnomedical Plants for Animal Health Explored in Cum Laude MSc

Use of Ethnomedical Plants for Animal Health Explored in <em>Cum Laude</em> MSc
Mr Lindokuhle Mhlongo received a Master of Science in Agriculture degree cum laude.

Mr Lindokuhle Christopher Mhlongo used scientific methods to explore medicinal plants as an alternative to chemical products used in the treatment of intestinal worms in sheep and goats, earning a Master of Science in Agriculture degree cum laude.

His research which focused on the use of indigenous medicinal plants that have shown effectiveness in treating animal diseases – involved 16 ethanolic crude plant extracts in different formulations used as combination treatment for intestinal worms in sheep and goats.

Mhlongo explained that doses and plant combinations that show positive results can be standardised and used in treatment.

He hoped his study would contribute to an initiative to reduce dependence on commercial products as he believes these have many disadvantages such as the development of resistance, being unaffordable and sometimes inaccessible to people living in rural areas.

‘Since ancient times, people have gathered medicinal plants to cure human and animal diseases,’ he said. ‘In the modern world however, medicinal plants are often neglected.’

From Mzingazi near Richards Bay, Mhlongo is the first in his family of four to graduate with a master’s degree – and to do so cum laude!   Honoured as the top final-year student in Animal Science during his undergraduate degree, Mhlongo said his master’s degree taught him to be independent and to believe in himself, to persevere and to work hard.  

‘My name is what motivates me to keep going as I always hope for the best and to do well,’ said Mhlongo.  ‘In isiZulu, Ngihlezi ngiLindokuhle.’ (I always expect the best outcome in everything I do.)

Mhlongo, now in the process of registering for a PhD, chose to specialise in Animal Science because he believes it will equip him with the necessary skills to start his own business.  He selected to study at UKZN because ‘it is one the best universities in South Africa.’

He thanked those who had helped him during his studies, including the NRF-CPT for funding, Professor Ignatius Nsahlai for his supervision, his colleagues and brothers Mbuso and Tholithemba for their support. In particular, he paid tribute to his mother who works as a domestic worker to provide for the family.

‘I am blessed to call Lindokuhle my son,’ said his delighted mother. ‘I am a single parent as his father died long ago.  Lindokuhle has been a good child. He is a God-fearing family man. I am so proud of him.’

Words: Sabeliwe Langa

Photograph: Itumeleng Masa

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Glamorous Graduate Not Afraid to Rough it on the Farm

Glamorous Graduate Not Afraid to Rough it on the Farm
BSc Agriculture cum laude graduate, Ms Fortunate Hlongwana pictured with her winning steer and at her graduation.

Agriculture is not a career usually associated with glamorous young women but in the case of Ms Fortunate Yenziwe Hlongwana it is!  She was awarded her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (Animal and Poultry Science) degree cum laude.

Hlongwana said she initially planned to study Veterinary Science but a late application caused her to register for Animal Science with plans to switch later.  ‘But I fell in love with Animal Science and the University offered a great curriculum for my majors.  I found a home away from home, which has seen me continue with my Animal Science Honours degree this year.’

Hlongwana got useful practical experience during her undergraduate studies, including ample exposure to livestock farms, dairy factories, veterinary laboratories, abattoirs, animal nutrition and feed mill companies. She participated in the annual Steers Project, which involved weighing animals on a weekly basis, recording their feed intake, monitoring daily gain and food conversion efficiency.

‘My participation in this project made me realise just how passionate I am about working with animals,’ said Hlongwana.  ‘I was overjoyed when the steer I was training was awarded first prize during the UKZN mini show competition held during the Royal Agricultural Show.’

During her final year of studies Hlongwana also participated in the Novus International Inc. Student Programme, run in partnership with the Ikusasa Le-Africa Foundation (ILAF). ‘I was lucky enough to be one of the students selected to attend this programme and it equipped me with practical experience and exposure to work hands-on with animals on a weekly basis,’ she said.

‘Just like a tree without its root, I would not be where I am without my support system,’ said Hlongwana. ‘To make it in life, you need moral support.  My family, friends, lecturers and high school teachers all played an important role in getting me to where I am.’

Professor Ignatius Nsahlai of the Discipline of Animal Science said:  ‘Fortunate is a quiet, humble and intelligent person who has strong group leadership skills and has performed exceptionally in the curriculum.’

Hlongwana, who enjoys listening to music, cooking and reading in her spare time, is currently registered for a Master’s degree in Animal Science in which she will investigate nitrogen and amino acid digestibility and colon fermentation in South African Windsnyer pigs fed Amarula oil cake. She believes the results of her study will offer an economic opportunity to rural smallholder farmers from marginalised areas where Amarula is found. She also believes her study will provide an innovative low-cost pig diet and promote sustainable development of local pork markets. 

Words: Sabeliwe Langa 

Photograph: Supplied and Gugu Mqadi  

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Managing Fruit Quality Focus of PhD Research

Managing Fruit Quality Focus of PhD Research
Dr Khayelihle Ncama who graduated with a PhD in Horticultural Science.

Research into techniques to improve the maintenance of citrus fruit and avocado pear quality from the time of harvesting to the final consumer resulted in Dr Khayelihle Ncama graduating with a PhD in Horticultural Science.

Ncama (26), who achieved the rare feat of completing his research in the space of two years, said being awarded his doctorate was a childhood dream come true.

Ncama, now a lecturer at North-West University, developed novel techniques for the application of radiation spectroscopy and organic coatings using extracts of grapefruit seed and moringa leaf to achieve improved assessment of fruit maturity and maintenance of fruit quality in postharvest storage.

He developed coatings that are organic, contain fungicidal effects and are efficient alternatives to the currently used waxes and chemicals that are gradually being banned in international fresh fruit markets.

Ncama explains that fresh fruits harvested before or after optimal horticultural maturity shrivel, lack ideal flavour and often go to waste, making it important to develop systems capable of indexing maturity without harvesting sample fruit, rather than collecting sample fruit to represent the entire orchard.

The models he developed exhibited 99% accuracy in assessing various maturity indices – usually laborious to analyse – in oranges, grapefruit and avocado. When applied, the system assures improved accuracy of indexing fruit parameters within seconds. Additionally, the models he developed can be applied at any stage in postharvest handling of citrus fruit and avocado pears, even to assess the nutritional value of the fruits in supermarkets.

‘Postharvest is a critical stage of food loss since there have been extensive investments during cultivation, and food wastage in postharvest storage is a serious threat to food security,’ said Ncama, who believes research in this field is important to curb food losses in developing countries.

He recommended that farmers, distributors, researchers and anyone involved in fruit quality maintenance consider the near-infrared radiation (NIR) spectrometer as an efficient, effortless and rapid instrument to use, if calibrated accurately.

He hopes his research results will form the basis for further studies of postharvest quality management and non-destructive analysis of fruit parameters. He has presented his research at two international conferences, published a book chapter as well as three journal papers on it.

Ncama’s work has potential in commercial application for the use of flavour and nutritional parameters, rather than fruit size, as a basis for determining purchase price.

The newly minted PhD graduate from the rural area of Ezinqoleni, who studied at UKZN from undergraduate level and received his master’s degree cum laude, dedicated this achievement to his mother who he thanked for her support throughout his academic career.

Ncama acknowledged the quality of supervision he received from supervisors Dr Lembe Magwaza, Dr Samson Tesfay and Dr Asanda Mditshwa, thanking them for their availability and encouraging him to think creatively about challenges he faced.

Having come from a disadvantaged background that made accessing further education a challenge, Ncama hopes he will serve as a positive example to other students in similar situations.

In addition to continuing with research in his current academic position, he hopes to contribute to the industry and develop patented organic coatings and models as well as develop further ideas to improve the quality of fruit and vegetables.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied and Gugu Mqadi

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Cum Laude Hydrology Graduates Set to Make Waves

<em>Cum Laude</em> Hydrology Graduates Set to Make Waves
Mr Ryshan Ramlall and Ms Kimera Sahadave were the only two students to graduate cum laude with BSc Honours degrees in Hydrology.

The saying: 'A drop of water is worth more than a sack of gold to a thirsty man' is highly relevant to two students who understand the scarcity of water as a natural resource and chose to pursue their honours degrees in the field of Hydrology.

They are Mr Ryshan Ramlall and Ms Kimera Sahadave – who both excelled, graduating cum laude.

Ramlall, who initially had no plans to pursue postgraduate studies, described his honours experience as ‘surreal’, saying the fact that he has graduated with excellent results still has to sink in.

His love for science and his determination to make a difference in alleviating the challenges that water scarcity poses is what convinced him to continue with his studies. He is currently registered for a Master’s degree in Hydrology.  His aim is to become a specialist equipped with sound knowledge that can assist South Africa’s decision makers to make meaningful progress in protecting the country’s water resources.

Ramlall was brought up in a close knit family which influenced his decision to study in his “home town”.  He attributed his excellent results to his family and friends and their unwavering support, adding that he thoroughly enjoyed his undergraduate years on Pietermaritzburg’s ‘beautiful and scenic campus.’

Sahadave said she viewed graduation as the first step on her journey to success. The feisty and energetic young graduate professes that she put in a lot of effort during her studies and so was grateful that she reaped the rewards. She particularly enjoyed her honours year as it built on her undergraduate degree and the fieldwork put the coursework and theory into perspective, with trips to the Kruger National Park and Cathedral Peak in the Drakensberg being particularly memorable.

Sahadave said she did her homework thoroughly before choosing to study Hydrology at UKZN, believing it had the best courses and lecturers. ‘I am grateful for the accomplished and knowledgeable lecturers that I was blessed with in the discipline.’

Sahadave attributed her success and excellent results to her family and supervisor, Dr Michele Warburton-Toucher. Whilst she is currently enjoying a gap year and taking some time out to indulge her passion for aviation, her plan is to pursue a Master’s in Hydrology at UKZN as she feels such a  degree will equip her with the best chance of being employed at institutions that make meaningful decisions in this specialised field.

‘Water is the medium of all aspects of life, hence understanding hydrology is so important to guide water management decisions,’ said Sahadave. ‘I want to further my knowledge of hydrology, especially the impact it has on global environmental change.’

Words: Swastika Maney 

Photographs: Gugu Mqadi

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PhD Graduates Investigate Threats to Staple Crops

PhD Graduates Investigate Threats to Staple Crops
PhD plant breeders Drs Admire Shayanowako (left) and Isack Mathew.

Novel research investigating how to combat the threats of environmental stress and parasites on wheat and maize led to Dr Isack Mathew and Dr Admire Shayanowako receiving PhDs in Plant Breeding.

Mathew completed his research on the topic of pre-breeding of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) for biomass allocation and drought tolerance. The production and productivity of this cereal crop, one of the most important globally after maize and rice, is affected by recurrent drought and declining soil fertility.

‘Wheat cultivars with a well-balanced biomass allocation and improved root systems have better water- and nutrient-use efficiency and, hence, increased productivity under dry-land farming systems,’ said Mathew’s supervisor, Professor Hussein Shimelis. ‘The enhanced ability of cultivars with well-balanced biomass allocation to extract and use water efficiently contributes to “climate-smart” agriculture by increasing yield potential while retaining carbon-rich residues for soil restitution. This will also have spill over benefits of carbon sequestration,’ said Shimelis. 

Mathew, who set out to develop breeding populations of wheat with enhanced drought tolerance and biomass allocation under water-limited conditions, identified elite genotypes that can be used to develop high yielding wheat varieties that are drought tolerant and have enhanced capacity to sequester carbon into the soil. He was also able to identify possible candidate genetic regions responsible for controlling biomass allocation in wheat, providing important information for wheat breeding programmes.

Mathew’s research has been published in several international, peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Agronomy and Crop ScienceEuphytica, and Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, increasing the reach of his work to impact the agricultural development community. He presented his research at the 2017 and 2019 Combined Congress, and the 12th Southern African Plant Breeding Symposium in 2018.

During his studies, Mathew served as a supplemental instruction tutor, providing academic support to students in high-risk modules in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), and assisted several master’s students in Plant Breeding and Crop Science.

He acknowledged his supervisors, Shimelis and Dr Vincent Chaplot, for their guidance and mentorship which motivated him to achieve this milestone. He also thanked his family for their support.

Shayanowako’s research dealt with integrated management of Striga asiatica (L.) Kuntze in maize through resistance breeding and biocontrol.

Striga, a parasitic weed, is one of the major biotic constraints limiting production and productivity in Africa in cereal crops including maize, sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet and rice,’ said Shimelis, who was also Shayanowako’s supervisor. ‘Yield losses of 30 to 90% have been reported regularly in the semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa.’

With several proposed cultural, chemical and host resistance measures not being taken up by affected farmers because of high costs or the ineffectiveness of the control method, an alternative was needed. Exploration of the combination of partial resistance in the host crops, together with a biological control agent, Fusarium oxysporum f.sp strigae (FOS), have provided excellent control of Striga’s hermonthica and asiatica species in maize and sorghum crops.

In his research, Shayanowako developed maize cultivars with Striga resistance and FOS compatibility.

This work attracted international interest and collaborations. Shayanowako was invited by Montana State University in the United States to participate in three weeks of training on the biocontrol of weeds through the Toothpick Project, an initiative aimed at commercialisation of FOS throughout Africa. His research also identified quantitative trait loci (QTL) conditioning Striga resistance in maize using genomic analysis through a collaboration with the Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute Hub in Kenya.

Shayanowako has published his research in the International Journal of Pest Management, Maydica, Cereal Research Communications and Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica. He presented his research results at the 2019 Combined Congress, the 2018 College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium, the 12th Southern African Plant Breeding Symposium and the 26th Asian-Pacific Weed Science Society Conference in Japan.

Having completed their doctorates, both Mathew and Shayanowako have taken up postdoctoral research posts at UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement to continue their Plant Breeding research.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Overcoming Challenges to Master Agriculture

Overcoming Challenges to Master Agriculture
Ms Simphiwe Hlatshwayo graduated with a Master’s degree in Agriculture.

Ms Simphiwe Hlatshwayo has harvested a Master’s degree in Agriculture (Food Security) after assessing local economic sustainability under smallholder subsistence farming as part of the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) project – an inter-institutional venture focused on the intersection of the environment, food systems and health.

Hlatshwayo, a research assistant at SHEFS, is from the rural area of Dundonald in Mpumalanga. She completed her undergraduate and honours studies at UKZN and as she was about to start her master’s work she was stunned by the death of her mother – her only parent. Despite the devastating loss, Hlatshwayo decided to continue with her studies leaning heavily on support from family and friends, and has now dedicated her degree to her late mom.

In her research, which included assessing production and harvesting consumption, she found smallholder farmers still do not produce their crops in a sustainable way as they are faced with a number of challenges and, in the area of traditional crops, they consume more than they sell.

Hlatswayo concluded that more interventions were needed under subsistence farming to improve productivity.

‘My research was interesting as it focused on what smallholder farmers are faced with on a daily basis during production, and how they cope with the challenges,’ she said. ‘The study made some recommendations that will hopefully help with strategies to overcome the issues.’

Hlatshwayo plans to do a PhD and then begin a career in academia.

‘I want to set an example to young children, especially those who do not have parents, and show them that anything is possible,’ she said.

Hlatshwayo thanked her supervisor, Professor Albert Modi, for encouraging her to pursue her dreams, and for his support and guidance, and the SHEFS team for providing support and funding for her studies.

Hlatshwayo paid tribute to her family, particularly her grandparents and uncle, for their unconditional love and support.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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PhD for Investigations into Groundnut Disease

PhD for Investigations into Groundnut Disease
Dr Eliud Kongola graduated with a PhD for his research on breeding for durable resistance to Cercospora leaf spot diseases in groundnuts.

Dr Eliud Kongola graduated with a PhD through the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) at UKZN after doing research on breeding for durable resistance to Cercospora leaf spot diseases in groundnuts (Arachis hypogeae L) in Tanzania.

Kongola, who completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in Agronomy and Crop Science at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, is an Agricultural Research Officer at the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute’s (TARI) Hombolo Agricultural Research Centre.

He enrolled with the ACCI to add plant breeding to his knowledge of agronomy and plant protection, referring to them as the three pillars of crop science.

Using various breeding techniques, Kongola identified constraints faced and traits preferred by farmers and other stakeholders in the groundnut value chain, and evaluated groundnut genotypes from different sources, including the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the National Plant genetic resource centre of Tanzania, local markets and smallholder farmers for yield, yield-related traits and reaction to Cercospora leaf spot diseases.

Kongola got inspiration to do the research after seeing the increasing incidence of the disease over time, and the resultant reduction in groundnut cultivation. He was interested in whether there was a lack of improved groundnut varieties resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses, or if those growing the crop did not adopt available varieties because their preferences were not taken into account when these were developed.

‘The use of resistant or tolerant cultivars with stakeholders’ preferred traits is the more effective, economical and environmentally friendly control measure when compared to chemical control,’ said Kongola.

He identified possible sources of genes with desirable agronomic performance and disease resistance for further improvement, and isolated the gene action controlling Cercospora leaf spot disease resistance, grain yield and yield related traits.

He hopes that through incorporating his discoveries, additional programmes working to improve this crop will enhance groundnut production towards improved food and nutritional security, income and livelihood of farmers and other stakeholders in the groundnut value chain.

Kongola believes that consideration of these stakeholders’ constraints and preferences will help breeders improve production while keeping in mind farmers’ needs. He also wants to see sources of genes and gene action governing inheritance of yield and disease resistance being applied to breeding programmes for improving either yield and/or Cercospora leaf spot disease resistance.

Kongola indicated that his identification of the trait association could assist in shortening the breeding period.

During his research, Kongola was surprised to find that more than 90% of the farmers in his study area had seen the disease in their fields but took no action in controlling it, mistakenly thinking that the signs of disease pointed to crop maturity. Kongola recommended that those growing these crops consult agricultural experts when encountering unfamiliar symptoms in their crops, and said agricultural research departments should supply their results to extension officers to link new technologies to the end users.

Applying innovation and hard work, Kongola overcame the challenges of low rainfall and a lack of irrigation systems to complete his research, and recalls travelling long distances on a motorcycle to visit his trials.

Following completion of his PhD, Kongola now leads a project on seed production and delivery systems on the Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement (HOPE) of Sorghum and Millet under ICRISAT. He also now heads a department of Research and Innovation at his research station.

He hopes to start a seed business focusing on climate-resilient dryland cereals and legumes, since these are not readily available and because the growing effects of climate change are already affecting food security in many countries.

'Growing these crops is the way to go in climate change mitigation,' he said.

Kongola thanked his parents, Francis and Mary Kongola, for providing him with an education; his wife for taking care of the family during his studies; his supervisors, Professor Rob Melis and Dr Julia Sibiya for their guidance; and classmates for their support.

He also acknowledged the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa for funding his studies through the ACCI.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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UKZN Graduates its First Black SA Agricultural Economics PhD

UKZN Graduates its First Black SA Agricultural Economics PhD
Dr Grany Senyolo is the first Black South African to graduate with a PhD in Agricultural Economics from UKZN.

Dr Grany Mmatsatsi Senyolo was overjoyed to graduate with a PhD in Agricultural Economics from UKZN – the first Black South African to do so.

The Tshwane University of Technology lecturer was formerly employed as an Agricultural Economics lecturer at UKZN where she got the opportunity to register for her PhD.  ‘It was my dream to work with some of the best Agricultural Economist researchers in the country,’ she explained.

Senyolo’s thesis: Value Chain Analysis and Determinants of Production and Consumption of African Leafy Vegetables in Limpopo Province of South Africa, was supervised by Professor Edilegnaw Wale Zegeye and Professor Gerald Ortmann.

‘There has been a decline in the production, use and diversity of African Leafy Vegetables (ALVs) in South Africa,’ said Senyolo. ‘My study employed various econometric approaches to analyse the value chain and determine the factors influencing production and consumption of ALVs in Limpopo.’

Her study revealed that socioeconomic and perception factors determined consumption and production.

Senyolo has had three papers published in accredited journals and all the empirical chapters of her thesis were presented at international and local conferences.

Said Senyolo:  ‘Africans have forgotten who they are and what they eat owing to Western influences. Consumption of African leafy vegetables such as collard greens, mustard greens, amaranth and spider plants has declined, however it is important to go back to who we really are, consuming our indigenous food as this is highly nutritious and affordable compared to exotic food introduced by Europeans into Africa.

‘There is a need to build agro-processing plants for value addition to meet people’s preference, especially the youth and urban dwellers.’

Senyolo explained the motivation behind her research: ‘I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Texas A&M University in the United States in 2009. When I went to a grocery store there, I was surprised to find fresh African leafy vegetables in the fridge. These were the very same vegetables that our people consumed many years ago and now look down upon as “poor man’s” food.

‘I realised that if Americans can have them in formal grocery stores and restaurants, why not us? I decided to come back and look at the opportunities to commercialise African leafy vegetables for access by the educated, young, rich and urban dwellers.’

Senyolo’s research is significant in bringing back awareness and appreciation of the value of ALVs, and encourages their production and consumption through value adding and commercialisation in formal markets in both rural and urban areas.

Senyolo hopes to help ensure that there are agro-processing companies that deal with value addition to all ALVs, including wild fruits.

Senyolo thanked her supervisors for being there for her as well as her mother for being a pillar of strength.  ‘When life situations kicked me hard and I considered giving up on my studies, mom would call and say:  “No-one will take your PhD away, Grany, please finish!”'

‘Being the first Black South African to be awarded a PhD in Agricultural Economics at this University is an honour and a blessing. To God be the glory.’

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph:  Gugu Mqadi

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A PhD “Century” Plus One for UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science

A PhD “Century” Plus One for UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science
The College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science graduated a total of 101 PhDs in April 2019.

UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) once again made a significant contribution to South Africa’s much-needed brain pool of highly-qualified science, technology and engineering specialists, awarding an impressive 101 PhDs out of a university total of 276 during this year’s April Graduation ceremonies.

The College’s steady production of doctoral graduates is in line with UKZN’s strategic imperative to become the leading research-based university in South Africa.

PhD research showcased by CAES at the 2019 graduations produced a rich and varied body of knowledge across the agricultural, scientific and engineering disciplines.

Research topics included a study of soil indigenous knowledge and its agricultural and non-agricultural uses among KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape communities by UKZN lecturer, Dr Nkosinomusa Dube; managing fruit quality by Dr Khayelihle Ncama; aspects of the ecology of African Woolly-necked Storks (Ciconia microscelis) by Dr Vuyisile Thabethe; an ethnopharmacological study on plants used for skincare and beauty by Xhosa communities by Dr Vuyisile Thibane; how to mitigate against rain-fade in wireless communication during intense storms by Kenyan Dr Mary Nabangala Ahuna; and in an effort to deal with treatment non-compliance, a biostatistical study of when best to start treatment for HIV patients co-infected with TB by CAPRISA head statistician, Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma.

Not only does CAES aim to increase its PhD graduates, it also maintains a flourishing postdoctoral research programme and currently supports 117 postdoctoral scholars.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College Professor Albert Modi said: ‘The success of the College is the end result of the commitment and hard work of its academics, professional staff and students. It is an honour to lead this group of individuals.’

The College conferred 1 665 degrees out of a university total of 9 680.  In addition to the 101 PhDs awarded, 200 students graduated with their master’s degrees out of a university total of 787.  UKZN will confer further degrees in September 2019. 

Words:  Sally Frost 

Photograph: Itumeleng Masa

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Cum Laude Master’s Graduates Conduct Novel Research on Wheat and Sugarcane

<em>Cum Laude</em> Master’s Graduates Conduct Novel Research on Wheat and Sugarcane
Master plant breeders, Mr Sbongeleni Duma (left) and Mr Kwame Shamuyarira, conducted innovative research on sugarcane and wheat crops respectively.

Cum laude graduates Mr Sbongeleni Duma and Mr Kwame Shamuyarira received their Master of Science in Agriculture and Master of Science degrees respectively in the Discipline of Plant Breeding after undertaking innovative research on sugarcane and wheat.

Duma, the recipient of a scholarship from the South African Cultivar Technologies Agency (SACTA) that will enable him to pursue PhD studies, conducted his MScAgric research on the topic of optimising post-release sugarcane variety evaluation in the South African sugar industry.

He has developed a number of research papers and presented the results at the Southern African Plant Breeding Symposium in 2018, the 2018 South African Sugar Technologists’ Congress, UKZN’s 2018 Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium, and the 2019 Combined Congress

‘Sugarcane yields in South Africa are affected by the genotype by environment interaction (GxE), resulting in variable productivity and quality performance,’ explained Professor Hussein Shimelis, Duma’s supervisor. Shimelis indicated that the country’s sugar industry develops commercial cultivars across five regional breeding programmes. The extent of GxE interactions across the five regions is not currently clear for optimum breeding and resource allocation.

Duma evaluated GxE interactions of a set of sugarcane cultivars across coastal, midlands and irrigated regions; identifying high yielding genotypes as the best performers across the regions. In his work, two mega-environments were also identified.

He recommended that to achieve optimal tons of estimated recoverable crystal sugar per hectare, the best resource combination was four testing replications, five crop selection cycles and more than 10 locations. This recommendation will allow breeders to determine the best yielding and high quality genotypes across the selection sites of the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI).

Duma is doing PhD studies on the pre-breeding of wheat for drought tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency. ‘Doing a PhD will expose my expertise to international standards and I will be able to make positive development impacts in Agronomy and in food security for the country,’ said Duma, who plans to expand his research and teaching skills.

He thanked his supervisor, Shimelis, and co-supervisor Dr Sanesh Ramburan for their guidance and support, as well as UKZN and SASRI for providing the facilities needed for his research.

Shamuyarira’s MSc research involved early generation selection of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) genotypes for drought tolerance, and was deemed innovative and creative by external examiners.

Dryland production of wheat, the most important cereal crop after maize in South Africa, is threatened by recurrent drought leading to low profitability for farmers.

‘Development of drought tolerant wheat genotypes presents the most sustainable strategy to mitigate the effects of drought stress associated with climate change,’ said Shimelis, who also supervised Shamuyarira’s research.

As part of a wheat research group at UKZN collaborating with the Agricultural Research Council’s Small Grain Institute to develop drought-tolerant wheat varieties by developing breeding populations, Shamuyarira developed superior drought-tolerant bread wheat families for further screening in advanced generations. His work has formed the basis of a number of research papers for publication in journals, and he presented his research at the 2019 Combined Congress.

Shamuyarira thanked the staff and the 2017 cohort at the African Centre for Crop Improvement, and his supervisors Shimelis and Professor Toi Tsilo for their support and encouragement in his studies. He is now pursuing his PhD, conducting further investigations into the drought tolerance and carbon sequestration of bread wheat.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photographs: Christine Cuénod

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Agrometeorology PhD for Botswanan Academic

Agrometeorology PhD for Botswanan Academic
PhD in Agrometeorology graduate, Dr Nicholas Mbangiwa.

A lecturer at the University of Botswana (UB), Dr Nicholas Mbangiwa, graduated with a PhD in Agrometeorology following research on the evapotranspiration over rainfed/dryland maize and soybean, quantifying their water use by means of micrometeorological methods, the AquaCrop model and remote sensing.

After encountering micrometeorological experiments as a master’s candidate in Agrometeorology at UKZN, Mbangiwa, who enjoys doing experimental work, expanded on his experience using surface renewal and eddy covariance (EC) to study the energy fluxes of a mixed species grassland at the Ukulinga Research Farm for his degree.

His PhD made use of UKZN’s new state-of-the-art EC equipment that measured all the energy balance components directly, including carbon dioxide fluxes.

Mbangiwa’s PhD formed part of a Water Research Commission project on the validation of the variables (evaporation and soil moisture) in hydrometeorological models, working alongside experienced researchers including Professor Colin Everson and Dr Michael Mengistu.

His experiments were carried out at Baynesfield Estate and results obtained during a period of water shortages owing to erratic rainfall in South Africa indicated that maize was more water efficient than soybean.

Mbangiwa presented results from his PhD research at UKZN’s Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in 2013, receiving an award for the best oral presentation which enabled him to present at the 17th WaterNet/WARFSA/GWP-SA Symposium in Botswana in 2016, where he received the Best Young Water Scientist Award for his poster presentation. In 2015, he also presented a poster at the 95th American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in the United States, funded by a poster prize he received at the first Global Change Conference in 2012, hosted by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation and the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Mbangiwa has also published results from his PhD in the international journal of Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, the top journal in his field.

Mbangiwa began his journey at UKZN in 2001 in its Science Foundation Programme, being a member of a cohort sponsored by the Botswanan Government. After completing his BSc in Applied Environmental Sciences and remaining unemployed for two years, he sought opportunities in South Africa, and found himself back at UKZN as an Agrometeorology Instrumentation Technician. He received training from Professor Michael Savage and several other postgraduate students including Mengistu, Dr Michael Abraha, Dr George Odhiambo and Dr Eltayeb Sulieman Nile, who he credited for creating a friendly and supportive environment. He was able to complete his honours degree and his master’s cum laude while in the position.

His experience and collaboration with UKZN Agrometeorology staff have contributed to his work at UB. Facing a shortage of instrumentation and suitable equipment when he began teaching agrometeorology, electronic instrumentation and other related atmospheric courses in 2014, Mbangiwa approached his supervisor, Savage, for ideas. This resulted in an agreement through which UKZN’s Discipline of Agrometeorology loaned its equipment to UB when not in use. He has since secured funding that enabled UB to purchase equipment to ensure that their experimental courses run optimally.

Mbangiwa, who said he fell in love with agrometeorology through Savage’s presentation of the concepts in second year, is excited about contributing to his field and to society.

‘I am now giving back to the community, mentoring other emerging scientists and continuing with research in the field of agrometeorology for the benefit of humanity especially during these challenging times faced with climate change effects,’ said Mbangiwa. ‘There are very few agrometeorologists locally and regionally – so today I have joined the ranks of the very few thanks to Prof Savage.’

Mbangiwa gave especial thanks to Savage for his mentorship, encouragement and guidance.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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