UKZN Graduates its First SA Black Female Agrometeorologist

UKZN Graduates its First SA Black Female Agrometeorologist
Dr Zoleka Ncoyini-Manciya, who has made history as the first Black South African female to be capped with a PhD in Agrometeorology at UKZN, and only the second in the country.

Dr Zoleka Ncoyini-Manciya is the first South African Black female to be awarded a PhD in Agrometeorology from UKZN… and only the second in the country.

Ncoyini-Manciya’s thesis - supervised by Professor Michael Savage, Dr Alistair Clulow and Dr Sheldon Strydom - was titled: Observed and Projected Climate Change Effects on Localized Drought Events: A Case Study for the Sugarbelt within the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, South Africa.

Ncoyini-Manciya investigated climate change effects on localised drought events.

‘Most similar studies rely on one or two commonly-used drought indices,’ said Savage. ‘Zoleka applied a total of 17 unique indices to obtain in-depth analysis and conclusions on the nature of extremes for the area of study. Her work derives merit in attempting to focus on small communal farmers in terms of climate-related vulnerabilities of the resource-poor farming communities.’

Ncoyini-Manciya registered at UKZN for her PhD as she was keen to be part of the outstanding research output the University is known for. ‘I’m very interested in research and building my career in the academic profession so UKZN’s international reputation for academic excellence and its status of being a research-led institution motivated me.’

She elaborated on her research:- ‘My study focused on historical and future climate extreme trends (droughts) as well as the access and use of climate information by small-scale farmers to minimise the possible adverse effects of climate extremes.

‘The study, unlike previous studies that have been conducted on a similar topic, focused on localised climate change trends to understand the frequency and intensity of climate extremes farming communities are experiencing.

‘An understanding of localised trends would enable the identification and development of community-based adaptation strategies and thus subsequently reduce the vulnerability of small-scale farming to climate change.

‘Climate change is a real and serious issue that the world is currently facing,’ said Ncoyini-Manciya. ‘There is no doubt that its effects are going to be felt by all of us in different ways. However, its negative effects on food production are likely to be more severe, particularly, for small-scale farmers. Given that small-scale farming produces over 80% of the food that is utilised by underdeveloped and developing countries, climate change threats raise concerns about the sustainability of small-scale farming.’

Explaining the significance of her research, Ncoyini-Manciya said: ‘Normally climate-related effects are studied on a large scale and the recommendations made for a large scale may not be suitable for a local scale,’ she said. ‘Also, decisions related to climate change adaptation are often appropriate for large-scale farmers while small-scale farmers are left out. Assessment at a local scale expresses the need for appropriate mitigation and adaptation measures that are suitable for a particular area.

‘The outcomes of my study assist in ensuring that small-scale farmers are visible and call for the formulation of local strategies that prevent them from experiencing the negative effects of a changing climate.’

Ncoyini-Manciya acknowledged her colleagues and supervisors. ‘To work with people of such calibre has been an honour and I will forever be grateful to them.’ She also thanked her family who supported her from the outset. ‘Being a wife and mother to three beautiful girls made this journey more challenging but their support has been my driving force,’ she said.

Ncoyini-Manciya did not set out to be an agrometeorologist. ‘In 2015 I applied at UKZN for a developmental lecturer post in Agricultural Extension, which was my research background. Fortunately, my application was successful but not for the post I applied for. On my first day at work I was introduced to Dr Clulow as a person I was going to work with. I was shocked that I was to work in the Agrometeorology Discipline as my academic background was not related to agrometeorology. But I told myself that, despite my previous research not being aligned with climate-related issues, I was willing to learn. I’m glad that I was bold enough to take up the challenge.’

‘Also, working with Professor Savage allowed me to grow and become independent. He is such a good supervisor, even if you are struggling he never gives you a solution but helps you find a solution to your problem by yourself. This has made me believe in myself and enabled me to complete my studies within four years, although I’m new in this field.’

Nconyini-Manciya is currently lecturing Agrometeorology at UKZN and is focused on conducting interdisciplinary research and building her career as an academic. 

When asked what she does in her spare time, she laughed saying: ‘When I started my studies my little one was two years and few months old. During the past few years, I have hardly had spare time!’ 

Words: Sally Frost

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Fall Armyworm Resistant Maize Closer to Reality Following Research

Fall Armyworm Resistant Maize Closer to Reality Following Research
Newly capped plant breeder, Dr Chapwa Kasoma in the field.

‘There is hope for Africa,’ said newly capped Dr Chapwa Kasoma about her ground-breaking work on breeding maize resistant to the dreaded fall armyworm.

Kasoma conducted her PhD plant breeding research through UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) and her findings have come at an opportune time.

The fall armyworm (FAW), first spotted in Africa in 2016, is a global scourge, infecting 350 host-plant species, including maize and other staple crops, and causing annual losses of between US$2,5 billion and US$6,2 billion in the main maize-producing countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

‘Chapwa’s work is foundational to developing FAW resistant maize varieties in Zambia and sub-Saharan Africa,’ said her supervisor, Professor Hussein Shimelis explaining its significance.

‘She has developed experimental FAW resistant maize hybrids using landrace varieties and donor parents sourced from CIMMYT (The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center),’ said Shimelis. ‘She has also successfully developed and optimised the techniques for artificially rearing the FAW and controlled inoculation leading to reliable infestation, which has allowed effective evaluation and selection for FAW resistance under controlled environmental conditions.’

Kasoma’s novel approach has caught the attention of the global plant breeding community. A recent article by her and her team in the Journal of Crop Improvement drew reaction from the research community, and she received a Best Research award from ScienceFather for the value of her contribution to combatting this pest.

Kasoma’s interest in the improvement of plants was sparked while working in her mother’s garden - an educator with a farming background who grew maize and vegetables at their home in Lusaka, Zambia. Kasoma started her doctoral studies at the ACCI in 2017, after completing a Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics and a Masters in Plant Breeding and Seed Systems at the University of Zambia.

Explaining why she chose to focus on FAW, Kasoma said before starting her PhD, she had worked for several seed companies in Zambia, where she was exposed to the maize industry and its challenges, including the FAW.

‘I experienced first-hand its devastating effects on our staple crop,’ she said. ‘I was then working as a field research associate in R&D and knew something needed to be done about it.’

Her research comprised four steps. First was a series of interviews with maize farmers in some of the districts in central Zambia most affected by FAW, to understand their farming practices, challenges, and preferred maize traits.

In the second step, a large selection of candidate maize genotypes was collected according to the farmers’ specifications, planted and screened under natural populations of FAW to assess their reaction to it. A promising sub-set of this selection was then assessed under controlled conditions for validation purposes.

‘This required the use of a screen house and rearing of the FAW insect to provide populations for artificial infestation of screen house maize plants,’ said Kasoma. 

In the third step, promising genotypes were crossed to generate experimental hybrids and these were evaluated in three different locations representing two agroecological regions of Zambia.

‘This was conducted under natural populations of the FAW and was aimed at assessing the performance of the experimental hybrids with regards to their reaction to the FAW infestation and yield gains,’ said Kasoma. The performance of the experimental hybrids in terms of farmer preference was also assessed.

The final step, which will be a continuation of her PhD, will consist of advanced field evaluations to identify superior hybrids and open pollinated varieties for variety registration and release through the Zambia Agricultural Research institute (ZARI).

The recent appearance of the FAW in Africa created several challenges for Kasoma. ‘Firstly, zero prior experience with this pest in Africa meant that little or no information about its behaviour and biology under African conditions was available when we embarked on this work,’ she explained.

‘Many of the steps of the research required more effort to develop and optimise the protocols that were used in the data collection process. For instance, in assessing the reaction of the candidate maize collections in Step 2 (screening), I was required to develop a new protocol for damage rating, taking into account the pest’s behaviour under SSA conditions.

‘This meant that I first had to conduct a purely observational experiment to help me with information such as how long the pest takes to reach sufficient infestation levels before accurate damage ratings on maize could be done. Also, information such as how often to rate the maize plants and how many times to rate them in a single experiment required prior data such as the speed of feeding of the insect, and this was only obtainable through the observational study,’ said Kasoma.

The second challenge was that some of the activities involved in the various steps of the research required specialised facilities which were not readily available in Zambia owing to the novelty of the research subject.

‘For instance, optimised screening and insect rearing facilities had to be carefully planned for and a lot of collaboration and improvising went into helping us achieve these objectives,’ said Kasoma.

A third challenge - that she did not foresee, but which turned out to be a great learning experience - was the scrutiny from experts who research findings on a topical issue such as FAW attracted.

‘The rigorous criticism I received from the peer review process involved in the dissemination of my findings built my competence beyond what I initially expected,’ said Kasoma.

‘I was blessed with a brilliant PhD supervisory team at the ACCI that provided me with very sound guidance on the research. Prof Shimelis and Prof (Mark) Laing have not only been my supervisors, but great mentors in my doctoral journey. I have gained more experience in scientific writing and data analysis; skills that have enabled me to advance my work and offer support to other researchers in turn.’

Kasoma said her research had produced some interesting findings.

‘The remarkable variation in the reaction to FAW attack that I observed in the maize genotypes I evaluated is indicative of the inert partial resistance that can be harnessed through breeding to develop cultivars with commercially acceptable levels of fall resistance,’ she said.

‘Local maize in hybrid combination with improved maize genotypes generates promising experimental hybrids that combine well with farmers’ preferred traits and exploitable FAW resistance. There is hope for Africa to develop locally-adapted FAW-resistant maize, as has happened in the Americas, where the FAW originated and where resistant varieties exist.’

She says while additional efforts are required to build on the current research, it lays the foundation for FAW resistance breeding in Africa, and technologies such as next generation sequencing (NGS) which can expedite the process of developing the desired cultivars.

Another source of reward was the insect rearing process. Kasoma said this had presented interesting observations about the FAW’s biology and how knowledge of the insect’s behaviour can be used in plant breeding to develop variants of crop species with less attractive attributes to the pest.

‘I was surprised to find that the fall armyworm is actually a relatively easy insect to rear for study purposes,’ she said.

Kasoma’s research was funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and supported by ZARI. Moving forward, she hopes to apply her knowledge, skills and experience in the research and development sector of a leading agricultural institution in order to tackle some of the problems farmers face and help alleviate food and nutritional insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

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Graduate Breeds New Drought-Tolerant Wheat for Ethiopia

Graduate Breeds New Drought-Tolerant Wheat for Ethiopia
Dr Yared Belete who has a keen interest in improving crop cultivars.

Climate change is a growing challenge for farmers, especially in Africa where temperatures are expected to increase more than in other regions of the world. Breeding crops that are adapted to drought-prone environments therefore makes sense as a sustainable strategy.

For his PhD study, Dr Yared Semahegn Belete chose to work on developing drought tolerance in bread wheat for Ethiopia.

Belete comes from a farming background in Ethiopia and has a keen interest in improving crop cultivars. ‘As an agricultural professional, I believe that any activities that are tailored to the needs of farmers have the potential to improve their livelihood,’ he said.

He obtained his first degree in Dryland Crop Science at Mekelle University, and a second degree in Plant Breeding at Jimma University, both in Ethiopia, before joining the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) PhD programme at UKZN in 2017. His studies were sponsored by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Belete started with conducting a survey on bread wheat farmers’ needs, challenges and preference to inform his breeding work, an exercise he found enlightening.

‘Assessing farmers’ practices, production constraints and their preferences was an interesting part of my research, which should be followed as an essential approach for any intervention in the improvement of the livelihood of farmers, including breeding improved crop varieties for farmers. Varietal traits preferences of the farmers were amazing, and should be aligned with each breeding step, including genomic selection, in order to enhance the genetic gain,’ he said.

Bread wheat genotypes were screened for drought-tolerance using phenotypic analysis to select promising lines for use in breeding for drought-tolerance. The genetic parameters and association of yield and yield components were estimated to determine selection criteria for increasing genetic gains under drought-stress conditions.

‘I also assessed the genetic diversity and relationships among the selected wheat genotypes using SSR molecular markers in order to complement the phenotypic data in identifying complementary parents for further breeding for drought-tolerance,’ he said.

The final step was to determine combining ability effects of the selected wheat genotypes, thereby deducing gene action controlling traits of interest and identifying promising families for drought-stress conditions. These families will then be advanced through the single-seed descent selection method.

‘Yared has developed new generation bread wheat lines which are considerably drought tolerant, high and stable-yielding with farmers’ preferred traits,’ said his supervisor, Professor Hussein Shimelis. ‘The new breeds will enhance productivity in marginal and drought-prone wheat production areas in Ethiopia.’

Four scientific papers based on results of this study have been published in high impact journals.

Belete is currently working as a plant breeder in the Crop Research directorate at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

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Improved Cowpea Could Be A Boon for Farmers

Improved Cowpea Could Be A Boon for Farmers
Dr Nelia Nkhoma Phiri who earned her PhD in Plant Breeding.

As a child, Dr Nelia Nkhoma Phiri had intimate knowledge of cowpea, the crop she focused on for her doctoral research through UKZN.

She spent time living with her grandmother, a subsistence farmer in rural Zambia whose favourite crop was this indigenous legume.

‘We would eat the cowpea leaves throughout the year because we preserved some by drying them in the sun after boiling them a bit. As a young person, I got tired of eating the same things all year round. This inspired me to study plant breeding so that I could breed many different varieties and my grandmother could at least have variety,’ she said.

Phiri, the oldest of seven children whose parents died when she was 16, obtained a diploma in agriculture in 2004, a BSc in Agricultural Sciences in 2009 and an MSc in Plant Breeding and Seed Systems in 2014. Her degrees were from the University of Zambia and she started her PhD studies in Plant Breeding in 2017 at UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) where her supervisors were Professor Hussein Shimelis and Professor Mark Laing.

‘For my doctoral project, I developed candidate cowpea breeding populations that are very high-yielding and resistant to diseases, drought and heat stress,’ said Phiri. ‘Farmers are using low-yielding cowpea varieties such as landraces and introduced varieties that are affected by many biotic and abiotic constraints prevalent in Zambia, and my objectives were to address these challenges.’

Cowpea is an important source of protein for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. It complements the nutrition provided by the dominant cereal crops in the region, supplying protein and amino acids essential for building and repairing the body. It is also drought-tolerant and used to feed both people and animals.

The first step of Phiri’s research was to identify cowpea farmers’ preferences and production constraints in Zambia to guide pre-breeding. Using participatory rural appraisal (PRA) research tools and focus group discussions, she interviewed 230 farmers in eastern, southern and northern Zambia, 93% of whom said they used landraces for production. Forty-five percent said low yields were a challenge, as were limited access to production inputs and insect pests and diseases. Farmers wanted high-yielding cowpea varieties that were disease-resistant and they indicated a willingness to adopt improved varieties.

‘My second step was to assess the genetic diversity among cowpea genotypes using phenotypic traits and single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers, and to select distinct and complementary genotypes for developing improved cultivars,’ said Phiri.

A collection of 100 cowpea accessions from Zambia and Malawi were examined for different yield traits. Thereafter, 11 genotypes were selected as parents, based on genetic diversity as well as yield performance. The eleven genotypes were crossed using a half-diallel mating design that produced 55 F1 progenies.

The third step entailed determining combining ability and gene action controlling the yield and yield components among the crosses derived from 11 selected cowpea parents.

The progenies (F1s) and 11 parental lines were then evaluated to determine the combining ability effects, gene action controlling yield, and yield components among them. ‘Both progenies and parents exhibited significant (P<0.05) variation for the assessed yield and yield components,’ said Phiri.

In the fourth step, the F2 families were evaluated across four environments in Zambia and 30 families were selected with higher yield, yield-stability and adaptation. Analysis using additive main effects and multiplicative interaction (AMMI) indicated that the environment, genotype, and GEI effects were highly significant and the best families were identified for future breeding programmes.

Climate change-related stresses such as drought and heat are major challenges for sub-Saharan Africa and Phiri’s research was directly affected by this. ‘Zambia experienced a drought in the 2018/19 growing season which contributed to lower yields of some of the cowpea crosses that were evaluated in multiple environments. The annual rainfall decreased by 50% affecting rain-fed agriculture systems,’ said Phiri.

This hard reality is faced by smallholder farmers, as most cowpea growers in sub-Saharan Africa are dominated by rain-fed agriculture systems that are vulnerable to rainfall variability due to climate change.

Cowpea production is affected by all the main insect pests such as aphids (Aphis craccivora Koch), leafhoppers and diseases like cowpea aphid-borne mosaic virus (CABMV), cowpea mosaic virus (CMV) and cowpea mottle virus (CPMoV). ‘Breeding for disease and insect pest resistance becomes a major focus of cowpea improvement programmes in Zambia. However, there is limited cowpea germplasm with durable or horizontal pest and disease resistance, so evaluation of a diverse germplasm pool against several diseases and insect pests prevalent in the target environments is key to selecting breeding parents,’ said Phiri.

‘Overall, the study appraised the major preferences and perceived production constraints of cowpea growers for variety design and release. Also, new cowpea breeding populations were developed with enhanced yield and yield components for further genetic advancement and multi-location selection for variety release and deployment in Zambia,’ said Phiri.

Phiri hopes to release farmer-preferred cowpea varieties with market potential. ‘Future foods must consider high grain yield, drought tolerance and high nutritional and processing quality to help meet the desired level of food and nutrition security requirements, in the face of climate change,’ said Phiri, whose studies were supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Phiri, who is employed by the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture under the Department of Seed Control and Certification Institute, will continue to work on the new cowpea breeding populations to advance and improve for yield gains and tolerance to field insect pests (eg aphids) and storage insect pests (eg weevils).

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Child!

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child!
Ms Noxolo Thabethe who graduated cum laude with a Master of Agriculture in Food Security degree.

The African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child” is apt in the life of Master of Agriculture in Food Security graduate Ms Noxolo Thabethe.

After losing her mother - who was her pillar of strength - when she was about to write her matric examinations, Thabethe was surrounded and supported by her community.

Her teacher and principal from Edendale Technical High School helped pay first-year registration fees at UKZN while her family and members of the Smero community assisted with the necessities of life, especially during her undergraduate years.

Thabethe excelled at UKZN and was awarded funding by the Moses Kotane Institute for all her undergraduate studies. Meanwhile, counsellors from the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science helped her cope with her work and adjustment to university life.

Thabethe encountered the subject of Food Security in her third year when she undertook the Food Security 360 module and thoroughly enjoyed it although it was something she had never learned or heard about before. She decided that given the opportunity, she would pursue the subject at postgraduate level. 

Now she has obtained her Master of Agriculture in Food Security degree cum laude!

Thabethe’s supervisor, Professor Joyce Chitja made her aware of the importance of market access for smallholder farmers and how vital “women empowerment” was for the agricultural sector.

Thabethe believed she could make a contribution to the empowerment of smallholder female farmers through her research by shedding light on how crucial it is for farmers to be market-orientated and how vital women’s participation in the agricultural value chain is.

She noted that farmers, and especially female smallholder farmers, were vital in improving household food security in South Africa as they were usually the ones who engaged in agricultural activities, making their empowerment and improved access to markets of outmost importance. ‘Helping smallholder farmers reach a commercial level is one of the significant goals for the agricultural sector,’ said Thabethe. ‘My research addressed factors contributing towards achieving this goal.’

Thabethe thanked Chitja, who not only supervised her work but helped fund her coursework tuition and living expenses from her Water Research Commission projects. ‘She saw potential in me that I did not even realise I had. She instilled and equipped me with new skills and confidence which improved my self-esteem,’ she said.

Dr Ojo Temitope also contributed significantly to her work. ‘He was a big help in my analysis,’ said Thabethe. ‘My fellow students also motivated and helped me, and we kept encouraging each other to do our best and to get good results.’ She also thanked her cousins Ntombenhle and Bongani Ndawonde, the TFCK Church and God.

Thabethe plans to work as an agricultural economist or a researcher so that she can continue contributing to improving the smallholder agricultural sector. She plans to do her PhD in Food Security.

To other students, especially those facing hardships, she said: ‘Help is out there, never give up.’

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

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Lightning Detection System a Life-Saver for Rural Communities

Lightning Detection System a Life-Saver for Rural Communities
PhD candidate Dr Maqsooda Mahomed with her family and in the field.

Dr Maqsooda Mahomed’s postgraduate journey started with water.

‘My honours and master's research focused on tackling challenges within the water cycle,’ said Mahomed.

‘I researched satellite earth observation data as an alternate way to obtain critical hydrological estimates for the effective management of droughts and for the allocation of water resources in South Africa.’

For her PhD - which she started in July 2018 - Mahomed changed tack, choosing to explore a different project in order to advance her research and innovation skills. She chose a scarce yet fascinating and crucial element - lightning.

Mahomed explained that South Africa had a lightning mortality rate four times higher than the global average and the second highest number of lightning deaths per capita. Despite the country having made considerably more progress in the field of lightning research than most African countries and possessing one of the three ground-based lightning detection networks in the southern hemisphere, rural communities in South Africa, and on the African continent, are still vulnerable to lightning.

‘In an attempt to improve detection and warning of lightning threats at a local/community scale, a system with monitoring and predictive capacity to detect lightning occurrences and assist rural communities in preparing for lightning through risk knowledge and near real- time/early warning systems is ultimately needed,’ said Mahomed.

Her PhD research focused on the development and assessment of a community ground-based near-real time lightning warning system (NRT-LWS) to detect and disseminate lightning threats and alerts in a timeous and comprehensible manner within a rural community in KwaZulu-Natal.

‘The system is comprised of an electrical field meter and a lightning flash sensor with warnings disseminated via audible (siren) and visible (beacon lights) alarms on-site and with a remote server issuing SMSs and email alerts,’ she explained.

Mahomed’s research contributed to the first ever community-based lightning early warning system and provided insight into lightning detection and monitoring at a local/community-level for South Africa.

It also provided a first insight into the use of the South African Lightning Detection Network (SALDN) for local scales, encouraging the South African Weather Service (SAWS) to expand its lightning warnings to rural communities across the country.

Furthermore, the study investigated lightning as a short-term predictor to tornadoes and supercell events for South Africa.

Mahomed’s research has attracted a lot of interest in the media, featuring in The Mercury newspaper under the most read articles and as the editor’s-choice in Women in Science, an online portal that provides the first-ever comprehensive database of women in science on the African continent and recognises women’s participation in scientific fields by spotlighting their challenges and achievements. Her research was also selected as the editor’s choice in the January/February 2021 edition of the South African Journal of Science.

Mahomed has won prizes at every conference she has presented her research at, including the 4th National Global Change Conference (2018); the 35th Annual Conference of the South African Society for Atmospheric Sciences (SASAS-2019); the annual research day of the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP 2019 and 2020); as well as the UKZN College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium (PRIS-2020).

‘A particular honour was to present my research on request to the US lightning safety council that consists of lightning experts who have more than 40 years of experience in lightning,’ said Mahomed. ‘The study’s research efforts were praised and appreciated, with further discussions on how better to manage future lightning detection on local-scales in South Africa.’

With her PhD completed in under three years, Mahomed said she was particularly indebted to her supervisor, Dr Alistair Clulow. ‘He was the one who provided that spark and enthusiasm which led to me undertaking this research,’ she said. ‘In addition, without his technical assistance, this study would not have been completed.’ 

Mahomed also thanked her co-supervisors Professor Michael Savage, Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, Mrs Kershani Chetty and Dr Sheldon Strydom for their valuable input and time.

Words: Sally Frost

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Sewage to Help Alleviate Poverty?

Sewage to Help Alleviate Poverty?
Mr Sisekelo Sihlongonyane with his hydroponic system.

Discovering how to use nutrients processed from human excreta effectively for the hydroponic production of vegetables as part of a strategy towards alleviating poverty in informal settlements was the focus of research by Mr Sisekelo Sihlongonyane.

The investigation earned Sihlongonyane a master’s degree and he now plans to study for a PhD.

Sihlongonyane began his higher education at the Metropolitan International College before moving to UKZN where he completed an honours degree and then decided to take a gap year.

After that he registered for a Master of Science in Agriculture degree, specialising in Crop Science with his goal being to learn more about urban agriculture (hydroponics) in the production of vegetables.

In his dissertation, supervised by Professor Lembe Magwaza, Professor Alfred Odindo, Professor Chris Buckley and Professor Daniel Yeh, Sihlongonyane evaluated the use of human-excreta-derived materials for the hydroponic production of Swiss chard and non-heading Chinese cabbage in a vertical hydroponic system.

His project involved close collaboration with UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences; the Water Sanitation and Hygiene Research and Development Centre (UKZN WASH R&D); the University of South Florida in the United States; and eThekwini Municipality.

Sihlongonyane focused on finding out how nutrients processed from human excreta can be effectively used for the hydroponic production of vegetables as part of a strategy towards alleviating poverty in informal settlements. Nutrients were processed by a sanitation technology known as NEWgenerator, which was connected to a community ablution block in an informal settlement in Durban.

His findings provide information on how the roll-out of sanitation technologies with the ability to recover liquid fertilisers can be used to address global food poverty through sustainable innovations. And they reached an unexpected audience when the University of South Florida forwarded the research results to NASA as a suggestion for how astronauts could produce their own food while in space using NEWgenerator and its vertical hydroponic system.

Sihlongonyane shared what motivated him: ‘I wanted to be part of a team whose goal was to help alleviate the global sanitation crisis by providing improved sanitation services while addressing food poverty through innovative sanitation and agricultural technologies.’

He said the road to his master’s degree had not been easy. ‘But there were a lot of things I learned through working with international research partners in successfully carrying out a project,’ he said. ‘The greatest lessons were always to stay humble, be ready to listen and don’t be afraid to commit mistakes while learning.’

Sihlongonyane, now involved in a farming business which produces vegetables, thanked a variety of people for their contributions to his academic success, including his four supervisors as well as Dr W Musazura, Dr S Shezi, Dr TS Phoku-Magwaza, researchers from the University of South Florida, Sanitation Technology Engineer Mr LP Xaba, Mr Bonginkosi Ndwandwe, the Thandanani informal settlement community, eThekwini Municipality Sanitation Unit, staff at the Newlands-Mashu research site, UKZN WASH R&D Centre colleagues, Ms Lindiwe Khoza, as well as his close friends and family in Swaziland and in Durban.

Words: Ntokozo Dladla

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Rural Upbringing Triggers Interest in Food Security Studies

Rural Upbringing Triggers Interest in Food Security Studies
Dr Nthabeleng Tamako studied agricultural knowledge systems and farmer empowerment in relation to food security.

Doctoral graduate, Dr Nthabeleng Tamako grew up in the Mount Fletcher area of the Eastern Cape where subsistence farming is widespread.

Her parents grew and sold vegetables and kept livestock to earn money to pay for necessities, including school fees for her and her siblings.

The value and impact of the rural farming experience in her early life spurred Tamako’s love for agriculture and motivated her to continue her studies in that field after earning an MSc degree in Food Security cum laude.

She was keen to learn more about food production to advance her knowledge of farming and to transfer that knowledge back to her roots.

Her years of hard work, which culminated in a PhD in Food Security, are not the end of her academic story. She plans to continue with postdoctoral research and engage in projects that aim to empower and transform smallholder farmers to gain access to markets to improve their livelihoods.

Tamako has also launched her own crop production project, Green Leafy Veggies, which she hopes to expand in the near future.

Having previous knowledge about the dynamics of social capital within farming societies, Tamako was keen to understand why some farmers could solve local farming issues and progress while others failed to do so even though they were in close proximity. Her research focused on exploring how agricultural knowledge systems impact on the empowerment and food security of farmers.

She wanted to assess and understand knowledge systems in a community of smallholder farmers, and identify the opinion leaders among them and measure the extent to which they influence/improve the knowledge of their colleagues. She also analysed the effect of agricultural knowledge systems with regard to farmers’ empowerment levels and food security.

Tamako’s research results - significant given the current COVID-19 pandemic - clearly indicate that local food systems need to be overhauled, especially where smallholders operate. She also found that the knowledge systems’ strengths and weaknesses are dynamic and valuable, especially in the delivery of transformative knowledge to improve the food security of farmers. ‘It is important to assess these weaknesses and strengths as they affect the extent and effort applied to achieve the activity. It is necessary to build resilient and transformational systems of agricultural information for effective and efficient information delivery to farmers.’

She attributes her success to the constant support and encouragement she received from her entire family. She also thanked her supervisors, Professor Joyce Chitja and Professor Maxwell Mudhara; her mentors, Dr Vongai Murugani and Mr Denver Naidoo; and her friends from Food Security and other departments at UKZN who all advised and guided her throughout her academic studies.

She thoroughly enjoys taking long walks and hikes to rejuvenate herself and uses it as a way to stay mentally healthy.

Speaking about some of the many things she has learned during her studies, she said: ‘As difficult as it can get, the end result is always worth it, one simply needs to be patient and trust the process.’

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

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Fighting Dread Diseases Inspires this Health and Wellbeing Warrior

Fighting Dread Diseases Inspires this Health and Wellbeing Warrior
High achiever Biochemistry graduate, Mr Keelan Jagaran.

MSc Biochemistry summa cum laude graduate, Mr Keelan Jagaran is passionate about science and it shows in his outstanding academic achievements.

After matriculating from Raisethorpe Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg, Jagaran completed a BSc degree, majoring in Biological Sciences and Genetics. ‘UKZN has always been a highly esteemed university where I knew I would get a high-calibre education,’ he said.

Jagaran did his BSc Honours graduating cum laude, before going on to do even better with his MSc degree for which his dissertation was titled: Targeted Gene Delivery to Cervical Cancer Cells in vitro using Green Synthesized Copper Oxide Nanoparticles.

Jagaran was inspired by lectures on cancer biochemistry during his undergraduate studies. ‘Professor Mogie Singh’s lectures developed a great interest in me to fight dread diseases and add to science and medicine in this regard,’ he said.

‘Following the completion of my honours, I looked in depth at the research that Prof Singh conducts in her laboratory and this really caught my attention. It was something which is novel and has a great impact. It was an opportunity that I could not pass up.’

Jagaran’s research has given him the opportunity to impact people’s lives positively by studying the mechanisms through which certain diseases progress. ‘My research always had me thinking of possible ways in which I could contribute to science to aid in helping these people,’ he said.

In his research, Jagaran focused on an alternative treatment for cervical cancer. ‘Cervical cancer is a global health problem and the fourth most frequent cancer affecting women, with 90% of the related deaths occurring in low-to-middle-income countries, predominantly due to the high-cost factor related to treatment.’

His research employed green synthesised nanoparticles for the delivery of a gene to cervical cancer cells. This was designed to overcome the many side effects faced by traditional treatment options such as chemotherapy. The study was highly specific to the cervical cancer cells compared to normal cells suggesting a potential safe strategy with low costs and minimal side effects.

‘This research has a strong impact on society as it affects cancer research and the principles behind it can be used to treat any other form of cancer as well,’ he said. ‘The study portrayed the biological synthesis of nanoparticles which makes it a safer, cheaper and possibly a more effective option. As a result, this alternative treatment can help individuals in the lower income brackets and thus reduce the mortality rate of patients with cervical cancer.’

Singh, who supervised Jagaran’s research, described him as an exceptional student who knew what he wanted to do and started reading literature for his MSc when he was still completing his honours. ‘This is the reason he was able to start his laboratory research immediately,’ she said. ‘Lockdown was a minor setback for him and upon return to campus, he worked tirelessly to complete his study and fortunately was able to submit his thesis in January.’

‘Keelan wrote up as he went along, making it easier to finalise his work, although this did keep me busy as well,’ added Singh.

During lockdown, Jagaran drafted a manuscript relating his nanoparticles to COVID-19 research titled: Nanomedicine for COVID-19: Potential for Copper Nanoparticles, which is being presented virtually this month at the annual congress of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy.

‘I am proud of Keelan’s achievements thus far and hope he takes this momentum forward into his PhD, which he is currently registered for,’ said Singh.

Jagaran believes in the ‘work hard, play hard’ strategy. He enjoys being in nature, engaging in activities such as hiking, sitting outside with family or beach days, all while enjoying good music.

‘I believe that in life, imperfection is a fundamental aspect and as a result we should openly learn from others and what we read and what we go through, to be the best version of ourselves,’ said Jagaran.

He admitted that although he kept his cool, 2020 had been a very challenging year. Faced with a pandemic and having to adjust to the new normal was not easy. This did not stop him, however, from being a prize winner at the annual Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium (PRIS) hosted by UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Keelan has jumped straight into his PhD work. The focus of his current scientific investigations is on nanomedicine to treat neurodegenerative disorders, focusing mainly on Parkinson’s disease.

Words: Samantha Ngcongo

Photograph: Supplied

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Graduate Passionate about Market Access for Small Farmers

Graduate Passionate about Market Access for Small Farmers
Food security specialist, Mr Phiwokuhle Ndlovu.

Master of Agriculture in Food Security graduate, Mr Phiwokuhle Ndlovu had a desire to improve the livelihood of small farmers and this led him to focus his research on small farmer empowerment and access to markets for improved food security.

Ndlovu identified and explored factors influencing the level of vegetable value chain participation and implications on smallholder farming and food security in Swayimane, KwaZulu-Natal.The approach his study took was towards community-based participatory and translational research that also involved training and empowering smallholder farmers.

The training and empowerment processes were conducted to transform farmers to be market-orientated and to equip them with skills to conduct market assessments. His research also identified business linkages between farmers and market factors.

Ndlovu realised that smallholder farmers experienced constraints along the value chain that prevented them from accessing high-value markets to increase their income. His research introduced, initiated and tested the Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment and Promotion (SHEP) model for vegetable value chain development. The SHEP model has been successful in raising farmers’ income in Kenya and other African countries and Phiwokhule’s research aimed to introduce this model to smallholder farmers in Swayimane.

The SHEP model was implemented to assist smallholder farmers to be more competitive in the vegetable value chain, by offering training and skills development to empower them to be more market-orientated and commercialised.

Ndlovu’s research exposed weaknesses along the vegetable value chain that reduced the level of participation among farmers. ‘This is key to understanding what needs to be changed when developing value chain development interventions and policies,’ he said.

Ndlovu is a supporter of participatory research as, he says, it enables farmers to be active participants throughout a research process in which they are educated and empowered with skills they can use to alleviate poverty and improve their livelihoods.

‘I believe that the research we conduct as agricultural researchers should result in transformation for the farmers, and if there is no transformation, we have failed as researchers,’ he said.

He is grateful to his supervisor, Professor Joyce Chitja for the hand she offered throughout his studies. ‘Prof Chitja has developed my research skills and has played a very important role in my academic and research journey. Her guidance and supervision have got me to where I am today,’ he said. ‘I am also motivated by her accomplishments as a Black female researcher in South Africa and want to follow in her footsteps.’

Ndlovu, currently pursuing his PhD, says he unwinds by doing body-building exercises, swimming and spending time with family and friends.

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

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Graduate Makes her Family Proud

Graduate Makes her Family Proud
MSc in Microbiology graduate, Ms Farzana Mohamed.

The first in her family to complete a postgraduate degree, Ms Farzana Mohamed has graduated with 73% for her MSc in Microbiology.

Mohamed, who attributes her Science acumen to her late teacher, Ms A Ramishwar, says her preferred choice of institution was UKZN which is ranked among the top five universities in South Africa.

Mohamed registered for a Bachelor of Medical Science degree in Physiology (with majors in Physiology and Microbiology) but it was during studies for her honour’s degree that she became fascinated with the world of microbes.

‘Microbiology will always be relevant in health science and technology. We need microbiologists to create advances in biotechnology through the manipulation and control of micro-organisms,’ she said. This interest in nanotechnology and microbiology motivated her to continue to an MSc.

Mohamed’s research involved using eco-friendly metallic nanoparticles to jam the social network (aka quorum sensing) that bacteria use to communicate with each other. Bacteria use quorum sensing to carry out activities related to their infectivity and fouling of surfaces.

The nanoparticles generated during her research can be used for various applications where infections and biofilms are a problem, particularly in the field of medical biotechnology.

‘Currently, toxic chemicals are used to combat biofilms but our solution is to biosynthesize nanoparticles which can jam the communication mechanism used by microorganisms to form communities,’ said Mohamed.

‘The majority of nanoparticles currently synthesised utilise toxic chemical synthesis techniques involving metals such as silver and zinc. These chemically synthesised nanoparticles demonstrate toxicity to the environment and host cells. This, therefore, creates a niche for using microorganisms for the biosynthesis of less toxic, environmentally-friendly nanoparticles.’

Mohamed’s project was carried out in collaboration with the Technology Innovation Agency of South Africa with the aim of bridging the gap between research and development. She is also working on patenting the process in the near future. In addition, the promising results from the nanoparticles for anti-HIV activities has allowed her to pursue the research through to her current PhD studies. She wants to determine the full range of potential applications for the nanoparticles.

Currently Mohamed is gaining experience working with cancer cell lines and testing the nanoparticles for in vitro anti-cancer effects. She plans to become an academic researcher with research expertise in nanotechnology, nanoparticles for drug-delivery and biotechnology. ‘I’m also hoping to take the toolbox of skills I’ve acquired and translate them into a business idea,’ said Mohamed.

‘Research has undoubtedly and unquestionably been one of the most rewarding and most difficult components of my entire education,’ she said.

Mohamed acknowledged her supervisor in UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, Dr Hafizah Chenia who was always willing to teach and advise her.

Said Chenia: ‘Farzana has a vision for her future and a drive to be a good researcher. She paves the way for her family and peers in showing how determination and self-belief can lead to success. She is passionate about her research and is constantly wanting to improve her skills. She is an excellent mentor to junior postgraduates and is always willing to go the extra mile in ensuring that good quality research is being undertaken.’

Dr Roshini Govinden, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Microbiology, said: ‘Ms Mohammed is not only an excellent researcher who has excelled in her lab bench work, she has a keen and inquiring mind which has made her strive to obtain the answers she seeks. She is dedicated, diligent, meticulous, highly organised with a determination to succeed at what she attempts. Farzana is also blessed with a lovely personality, she is highly presentable, professional, and articulate and is a team player who interacts well with her peers and superiors. It has been a joy to watch her blossom as a researcher.’

Proud parents Mr and Mrs Mohamed said: ‘It was a difficult process with many challenges, but she overcame them all like the confident young woman she is. Her sincere efforts, hard work and sleepless nights have finally paid off. We wish her all the best with her PhD. Keep working hard and making us proud!’

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Udayshia Vencatasu

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Warrior for Infant and Child Nutrition Aims to Influence Policy

Warrior for Infant and Child Nutrition Aims to Influence Policy
University of Venda lecturer and UKZN graduate, Dr Tshifhiwa Mandiwana.

Nutritionist and University of Venda lecturer Dr Tshifhiwa Mandiwana is passionate about maternal and child health, so when she decided to study for a PhD her focus was on aspects that improve the nutritional status of infants and young children.

She chose UKZN because of its status as one of the top South African universities in terms of research.

Titled: The Efficacy and Related Factors of the Growth Monitoring and Promotion Programme in Clinics of Vhembe District, South Africa, her study focused on Growth Monitoring and Promotion (GMP). The primary benefits of GMP, especially in developing countries, are related to a reduction in the prevalence of being underweight, and morbidity and mortality in infants and young children (IYC) under five years old.

Mandiwana’s research asked the question:- ‘What is the GMP-related knowledge, perceptions and skills of nursing staff and mothers with IYC younger than five years old at the selected rural clinics that could serve as potential barriers to the successful implementation of GMP in the district?’

Through her research, she was able to obtain the opinions of both nurses and mothers regarding the successful implementation of the GMP programme and address the documented prevalence of moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) and severe acute malnutrition (SAM).

Her observation of nurses throughout the whole process of GMP gave her a better understanding of their work environment and the challenges they encounter in different areas or at particular clinics. She found that there was a need for training of nurses regarding the interpretation of growth curves, especially with the new Road-to-Health Booklet (RTHB).

Regarding mothers, she noted that they blamed factors such as ignorance and not knowing the importance of the programme being documented for not complying with the GMP schedule. However, the mothers were aware of the fact that childhood immunisations (injections) help to prevent diseases. The latter provided insight into how mothers can be motivated or encouraged to take their children to health facilities as scheduled - not only for immunisations, but also for GMP.

Mandiwana hopes that outcomes from her study will influence policy makers to take appropriate action to reduce the prevalence of malnutrition. She says her research recommendations also have the potential to have an impact on the attitude and behaviour towards GMP exhibited by mothers, nursing staff and the community at large.

Mandiwana thanked her supervisor, Professor Suna Kassier and co-supervisor, Professor Frederick Veldman, who she said encouraged and supported her throughout her research. Her parents also played a huge role in her PhD journey, especially her father. ‘He always wanted me to wear a red gown!’ she said.

Mandiwana coped with the stress of her studies through gardening and spending time with her family.

With her sights set on becoming a professor, Mandiwana is currently immersing herself in postdoctoral research as well as supervising students, while also participating in collaborative research projects.

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

Photograph: Supplied

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Pigeonpea Focus of Doctoral Research by Mother of Three

Pigeonpea Focus of Doctoral Research by Mother of Three
Plant breeder, Dr Esnart Yohane.

The improvement of a lesser-known legume that could be a major contributor to continental food security was the goal of Dr Esnart Yohane when she began her PhD research project in 2017.

The legume, Pigeonpea, contains high levels of protein, amino acids, minerals and vitamins as well as being drought tolerant. Esnart chose to work on pigeonpea [Cajanus cajan (L) Millspaugh) because ‘it is one of the most important legume crops in Malawi’.

Reeling off its attributes, she said it is ‘a good source of protein and cash income for millions of farmers. Pigeonpea crop residues form excellent animal feed and it also serves in atmospheric nitrogen fixation and biomass allocation in the soil.’

Malawi is a major pigeonpea grower in Africa, producing 403 519 tonnes on 248 400h. Grain yield, however, is low compared with the potential yield of the crop (2000 kg ha-1).

‘The yield gap is due to various production constraints, including Fusarium wilt disease, insect pests, and lack of early maturing and high yielding varieties that are photoperiod insensitive,’ said Esnart. ‘Breeding and deployment of high yielding, early maturing, and Fusarium-wilt-resistant cultivars have the potential to enhance pigeonpea production and productivity, hence my study focus,’ she said.

Esnart grew up in a farming community and her parents have farmed - mostly maize and legumes - for as long as she can remember.

‘All along, my parents have been growing local varieties because of their unique traits, though they are low yielding. I was inspired to study plant breeding so that I could develop improved varieties that are high yielding with unique traits that they prefer.’

Before embarking on her PhD studies and research, Esnart obtained a diploma in agriculture from the Natural Resource College in Malawi, a BSc in Forestry from Mzuzu University also in Malawi, and an MSc Agronomy from the University of Malawi’s Bunda College of Agriculture.

Her PhD research, titled: Genetic Improvement of Pigeonpea [Cajanus cajan (L.) Millspaugh] for Yield, Earliness and Resistance to Fusarium Wilt (Fusarium udum Butler) in Malawi, was funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

After conducting a survey in four pigeonpea-growing districts in southern Malawi, where farmers’ trait preferences and production constraints were identified, the next step was to assess the phenotypic diversity among pigeonpea accessions in selected target production environments as a basis to select complementary and unique genotypes for breeding. Eighty-one pigeonpea genotypes were evaluated in six environments in Malawi. The morphological markers confirmed the genetic diversity among the genotypes.

‘My third step was to examine genetic relationships among 81 genotypes using 4 122 single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers. The SNP markers confirmed the genetic diversity among the genotypes,’ said Esnart.

Finally, she determined the combining ability and gene action controlling the agronomic traits and resistance to Fusarium wilt (Fusarium udum Butler) in pigeonpea. The best and most diverse genotypes from the diversity studies with early maturity, Fusarium wilt (FW) resistance from diversity studies and farmer-preferred varieties, were selected for crosses and 25 progenies were successfully developed.

The parents and progenies were evaluated at two locations. The test genotypes were evaluated for FW resistance through a root dip inoculation technique. Both the parents and hybrids showed significant genetic variation for days to 50% flowering (DTF), days to 75% maturity (DTM), plant height (PH), 100 seed weight (HSWT), FW resistance and grain yield (GYD).

Esnart faced several challenges during her four years of research work, including losing precious research time due to an agronomical setback and having to water plants by hand during a dry spell. Her biggest test, however, was having to leave her three small daughters behind when she came to South Africa to do her course work. Like many of the African Centre for Crop Improvement’s (ACCI) female students, she found balancing her studies and family responsibilities stressful.

‘I felt guilty and at times it distracted my focus. I thank God for keeping my daughters safe and mostly I thank my dear husband for taking good care of them,’ she said.

‘During my study time, I have realised that determination and hard work are key for one’s success. In my case, I had so many issues that could have prevented me from finishing my PhD study, such as doing my write-up at home where the internet and electricity are not stable, and on top of that I had family to look after but I told myself to be focused and work as a servant. I used to lock myself in my office from morning up until 10pm (while) doing my write-up.’

Esnart is currently working as a legume breeder with the Department of Agricultural Research Services in Malawi. ‘I work on three legumes - pigeonpea, soybean and cowpea.’

Her research work looks set to have a lasting impact on Malawi’s pigeonpea farmers. ‘I can happily say I have initiated a pigeonpea breeding programme in Malawi which has not been there for decades. The breeding population developed during my study will be start-up materials,’ she said.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

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Passion to Strengthen Child Survival Strategies Leads to PhD

Passion to Strengthen Child Survival Strategies Leads to PhD
Newly capped graduate, Dr Magda Botha.

As a young girl, Dr Magda Botha dreamed about getting a PhD.

Then later in life, she heard about a friend’s rewarding experience of being a student and lecturer at UKZN which led to her decision to pursue her doctorate through the University’s Discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition.

Throughout her work and academic career, Botha noticed that despite the development and evolution of malnutrition treatment protocols, infant and child morbidity and mortality remained high in South Africa. Her passion to contribute to strengthening child survival strategies was fuelled through seeing malnourished infants and young children (IYC) suffering from a vicious cycle between hospital admission, discharge, relapse and readmission - which in many cases resulted in death.

‘I was well aware that child survival was a global public health problem despite the adoption and implementation of various projects, programmes and interventions,’ said Botha. One such programme, she explained, was the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Ten Steps in the Management of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) for IYC.

‘South African policy for the inpatient management of SAM among hospitalised IYC is based on these WHO Ten Steps,’ said Botha. ‘The aim of my research was to determine if compliance with the feeding regimes as described in the SA SAM treatment protocols would improve nutritional and clinical status and recovery rates amongst malnourished IYC hospitalised for the management of SAM.’

Botha’s research findings suggested that compliance with the SAM treatment protocol was average, with premature discharge increasing the risk for relapse, readmission and mortality.

Her supervisors, Professor Frederick Veldman and Professor Suna Kassier, said the results of Botha’s study could be used by global and national policymakers and programme designers to strengthen SAM treatment protocols to contribute to the reduction of IYC mortality.

‘The findings can also assist implementers of the guidelines to improve the quality of health services provided to malnourished IYC and strengthen multidisciplinary team collaboration in achieving the same goal when treating an IYC hospitalised for the management of SAM,’ said Kassier.

Botha acknowledged the role her supervisors played in her success as well as her parents and sister, who encouraged her never to give up and taught her that hard work, endurance, tenacity and commitment play an important role in reaching one’s dreams.

She gave thanks to God: ‘God has opened doors for me and leads me in His power and strength to follow and reach my dreams.’

Botha plans to continue supporting national and international initiatives aimed at improving and strengthening maternal and child survival.

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

Photograph: Supplied

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Research Results May Lead to Alternative to Conventional Medical Therapy

Research Results May Lead to Alternative to Conventional Medical Therapy
MSc in Microbiology graduate, Ms Seetha Govender.

Ms Seetha Govender hopes to commercialise a formulation created during research work she did for her MSc degree which will in turn contribute towards the bio-economy of South Africa.

Govender matriculated with exceptional results from Buffelsdale Secondary School in Tongaat and then completed a BSc majoring in Genetics and Microbiology.

After completing the K-RITH & SANTHE Mycobacterial Genetics course and passing with a merit during her final year, Govender decided she wanted to become a research scientist and registered for an Honours degree. Her research project focused on cloning and protein expression.

Govender later registered for a Masters with a research project that combined nanotechnology and enzymology. The focus of her Masters dissertation was the creation of metallic nanoparticles that aim to disrupt the communication systems of multiple disease-associated bacteria, with potential future applications in medicine and technology. In the age of widespread bacterial drug resistance, Govender’s wish is that her research can one day provide an alternative to conventional medical therapy.

She hopes to commercialise the formulation from her Masters research, which will in turn contribute towards the bio-economy of South Africa.

Currently employed part-time at Test It LAB as a laboratory analyst, Govender intends pursuing a PhD in Microbiology. ‘Microbiology remains a vast field with a broad scope of practice. It is a field that has demonstrated rapid progression of late on both an international and national level, and as such, promoting research is paramount to its evolution in the local context.’

‘I am the first person in my family to do postgraduate studies, receiving a bursary during undergrad and scholarships (NRF) for my postgraduate studies,’ said Govender.

Govender’s advice to other students is this: ‘Regardless of circumstances, continue to work-hard, apply for bursaries and do not give up!’

Her mother Ms S Govender said: ‘Seetha’s hard work and dedication to the progression within her field are an indication of her relentless ambition and willingness to triumph under the most trying circumstances. From undergraduate to postgraduate level, her standards have been of the highest quality. She has been a pillar of strength and a source of inspiration to both her younger siblings.’

Govender’s supervisor, Dr Hafizah Chenia of the School of Life Sciences said: ‘Seetha has faced overwhelming personal and financial difficulties to reach this point. What makes her stand out is her drive to succeed. She has a natural curiosity and desire to learn more which drives her development as a scientist. A hunger to succeed and passion for what she does is how she can be defined and this makes her the type of postgraduate student that one wants in the lab.’

Words: Leena Rajpal

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African Elephant Management in Research Spotlight

African Elephant Management in Research Spotlight
Dr Audrey Delsink at an elephant translocation.

Having done her masters at UKZN - supervised by Professor Rob Slotow - on the costs and consequences of immunocontraception implementation in elephants, it was only natural that Dr Audrey Delsink continued with doctoral research at the same institution and with the same supervisor.

Now she has a PhD degree in Biology focusing on the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), in particular issues of spatial ecology, population control and human interactions, and the implications for management.

‘My research focuses on how, as managers and stakeholders, our interactions drive African Savanna elephant movements and behaviours over space and time, and how this understanding can better inform policy in a way that is biologically relevant to elephant and addresses all stakeholder objectives,’ said Delsink.

The African Savanna elephant is acknowledged as an endangered species but despite its dwindling numbers (in 2016 there were estimated to be less than 450 000 Forest and Savanna elephants left in Africa), the species is under increasing human-induced pressures and consequently, facing increasing conflict.

‘The elephant is one of the top three species killed as an assumed “problem animal”,’ said Delsink. ‘All too often, elephants are lethally destroyed as the first line of defence, which does not solve the root of the problem. We need to focus on co-existence rather than conflict, and we need innovative, practical and cost-effective solutions.

‘My research proposes novel, risk-based, practical solutions that incorporates elephant spatial ecology into management planning, in a way that is adaptive but speaks to all stakeholders and the reserve-specific objectives. This will contextualise and significantly improve management applications and outcomes, critical for sound policy development, but in a way that is biologically relevant to this unique species,’ she said.

‘Audrey investigated approaches to management of endangered African elephants, using understanding gained from studying their movements and behavior,’ said Slotow. ‘She demonstrated that immunocontraception implementation has no social or behavioural consequences and showed the importance of considering the large home range of elephants when addressing localised problems. She also developed a novel, risk assessment approach for effective pre-emptive conflict mitigation. Incorporating elephant spatial ecology into management planning contextualises and improves management applications and outcomes.’

Delsink plans to continue research on human-wildlife co-existence and conflict mitigation with a focus on alleviating the biodiversity crisis being faced currently.

‘The change starts within each of us, but we need a global policy that sets this stage,’ said Delsink. ‘I hope to make this change through structured engagement processes with key stakeholders.

‘I extend my sincere gratitude to Prof Slotow for his immeasurable patience, support and guidance through the genesis and completion of this dissertation. Like my study subject, the majestic African elephant, my PhD studies of more than 10 years have been long-lived and certainly followed significant paths of tortuosity as I juggled life’s loves and losses.’

She also thanked ‘an incredible mentor and friend, the late great’ Dr Jay Kirkpatrick. ‘Having been the pioneer of immunocontraception in wild horses, fighting to save the species through science, field implementation and policy, Jay saw something in me I did not see in myself, and for that I am truly honoured.’

Delsink is currently the Wildlife Director for Humane Society International - Africa, an international, science-based animal welfare organisation. 

She had this advice for students: ‘The last year has been incredibly difficult on all of us as we adjust to a new “normal” in the wake of COVID-19. For those completing their studies while juggling life’s challenges, remember: “small hops can take you far”. Some days will be slower than others, but just keep moving!’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Bernadette Riekert

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Tea Research Assists in Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes

Tea Research Assists in Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes
Dr Xin Xiao.

Tea was the subject of research by Chinese national Dr Xin Xiao who graduated with a PhD in Biochemistry.

Xiao examined the antioxidative and antidiabetic potential of a variety of widely consumed Chinese and South African indigenous teas, contributing significantly to Type 2 diabetes treatment using alternative medicine.

He was overjoyed at his success saying: ‘I love South Africa, I love UKZN. Thank you for fulfilling my dreams and giving me wonderful memories.’

Xiao became interested in UKZN while working as a Chinese language teacher in the Confucius Institute at the Durban University of Technology from 2014 to 2017. ‘At that time, I was also looking for an available PhD position and happened to know that Professor Shahidul Islam was working on type 2 diabetes, which is the exact research field I was interested in,’ he said.

‘Diabetes mellitus is one of the global epidemics of the 21st century,’ explained Xiao. ‘The effectiveness of Chinese teas and South African teas in the management and treatment of Type 2 diabetes has been reported. With the demand for alternate therapies due to the deficiencies found in antidiabetic synthetic drugs, there is a need to do more research with teas.

‘My study compared five widely used Chinese and South African teas in order to identify their antidiabetic potential in the management of diabetes.’

Xiao said he had always been keen on Chinese teas and had focused on tea science for his masters at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University in China.

‘My father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 10 years ago so I know it is not easy for diabetic patients,’ said Xiao. ‘I wanted to do something good for my father and others who have diabetes like him.’

The results of Xiao’s doctoral research indicate promising anti-T2D properties of the studied teas. ‘This supports their use as functional foods in the management and treatment of Type 2 diabetes,’ said Islam.

Several papers have been published from Xiao’s thesis in international peer-reviewed journals. ‘This research will help diabetics to choose improved antidiabetic teas and develop tea-based food supplements,’ added Islam.

Xiao has returned to China in search of a postdoctoral position and to continue doing research on tea and human health. He hopes to do more research collaboration with UKZN. ‘Hopefully this will help people to improve management of their health conditions in both China and South Africa,’ he said.

Xiao thanked his family and fiancée for their spiritual and financial support and for encouraging him to pursue his dreams. ‘I would also like to thank Professor Islam, Dr Ochuko Erukainure, and my fellow lab mates who helped me throughout my research and writing of the thesis. My thanks also to Mr Nelson Chen and My Frank Wu, who supported my living challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. And last, but not the least, Dr Chaobo Fu, who made my work and study possible in South Africa from the very beginning.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied

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UKZN Autumn Grad by Numbers

UKZN Autumn Grad by Numbers
UKZN graduates who will receive their respective degrees during the 2021 Autumn Graduation ceremonies, (from left): Mr Prince Dlamini; Ms Ncebakazi Latsha; twins, Trishana and Trevisha Chetty; and Mr Siyabonga Ndlela.

Of the 10 313 graduands being awarded degrees and diplomas during the 2021 UKZN Autumn virtual Graduation ceremonies, 382 will graduate cum laude and 149 summa cum laude - with women making up 68% of the top achievers!

The virtual Graduation ceremonies - all starting at 11h00 - will be broadcast by the University between 25 and 28 May, starting with the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, followed by the College of Health Sciences, College of Humanities, and lastly, the College of Law and Management Studies.

Degrees will be conferred on graduands who have succeeded in fulfilling relevant academic requirements and whose names appear on the graduation programme, including those whose qualifications are being awarded posthumously.

Acting Executive Director of UKZN’s Corporate Relations Division, Ms Normah Zondo said: ‘The University had hoped that by 2021, we would be able to hold our Graduation celebrations the traditional way. Unfortunately, due to the unprecedented challenges brought about by COVID-19, the University has had once again to change significantly the manner in which it confers qualifications and distributes its degree and diploma certificates. As one of the largest universities in the country, this is an enormous undertaking.’

Zondo says the University will confer 7 399 undergraduate degrees and 2 914 postgraduate degrees, of which 362 are master’s (thesis) qualifications and 257 doctoral degrees. ‘The University is incredibly proud of the achievements of 90 students with disabilities, 26 of whom completed postgraduate studies as well as three exceptional achievers who will graduate with PhDs and six with master’s qualifications,’ added Zondo.

Included among the graduates are 245 international students, 200 of whom will receive postgraduate degrees.

A total of 1 781 degrees will be conferred in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science; 5 362 in the College of Humanities; 2 011 in the College of Law and Management Studies; and 1 159 in the College of Health Sciences.

The ceremonies will be aired online for viewing by graduates, family and friends; while a recording of the event as well as programme will be shared with graduands on the day of their respective College Graduation ceremony.

In her communique, University Registrar Dr Kathy Cleland advised graduands that digital academic transcripts (e-Transcripts) and digital degree/diploma certificates (e-Certificates) will again be made available straight after each ceremony. ‘The digital transcript and certificate have distinct advantages in that they will always be available online anywhere in the world. Certificates can be shared with up to three contacts, including prospective employers, and all parties can immediately confirm the authenticity and veracity of the certificate,’ said Cleland. 

‘We are not alone in providing digital documentation - this has become a sector norm,’ she added.

Words: Sithembile Shabangu and Indumathie Moodley

Photograph: Rogan Ward

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Mutation Breeding Increases Climate Change Resilience in Wheat

Mutation Breeding Increases Climate Change Resilience in Wheat
PhD graduate in Plant Breeding, Dr Boluwatife OlaOlorun.

For her PhD research into Plant Breeding, Dr Boluwatife OlaOlorun, who arrived at UKZN from Nigeria in July 2017, focused on inducing genetic variation in wheat, using mutation breeding to harness the traits of drought tolerance and carbon sequestration.

OlaOlorun’s work forms part of an extended project by students within UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) to breed climate smart wheat with a bigger root mass.

Her work was supervised by Professor Hussein Shimelis and Professor Mark Laing.

The long-term goal is to develop wheat cultivars that have bigger root systems and are better able to withstand drought and sequestrate atmospheric carbon in the soil, thereby helping to mitigate the effect of climate change.

In plant breeding, the preoccupation with increasing yield has meant that the size of root mass has decreased in many varieties. Now, that trend is being reversed to increase crop resilience to climate change through yield gains, drought tolerance and carbon sequestration.

OlaOlorun got involved in plant breeding by accident when her desire to study veterinary medicine was thwarted by lack of access. She started studying plant breeding, intending to change, but got interested and carried on. ‘I felt there was a niche as plant breeding was a silent field in agriculture. Not many people - and very few women - were going into it,’ she said.

Her PhD focus has been on working with chemical mutagenesis using Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS) to create genetic variability in wheat genotypes. The aim of her research is to develop early generation wheat mutants for drought tolerance and improved biomass allocation – ie produce bigger roots and better root-to-shoot allocation.

‘Chemical mutagenesis is a fast way to create genetic variability when compared to hybridisation. It’s done in the lab, where a chemical causes a change in DNA sequence after seed mutagenesis treatment,’ she explained.

This is done using protocols including varying temperatures, times and doses of EMS to identify optimal conditions.

OlaOlorun started her preliminary research by choosing three genotypes that had potential for drought tolerance.

‘The focus was on optimising EMS treatment conditions (temperature, dose concentration and time of exposure) in three different wheat genotypes with a particular treatment condition for each genotype,’ she said. This produced 81 different combinations that she planted to see what worked best.

‘After the chemical application, I could see promising seedlings at an early stage. Seedlings from treatment conditions which gave 50% germination and vigour were considered ideal. Once promising seedlings had been selected I went back to the lab and exposed a large number of seeds to those conditions.’

An optimal treatment for each of the three genotypes was determined and the 2 500 seeds produced for each treatment were then planted and exposed to different conditions in the field and the greenhouse.

OlaOlorun targeted to get to the fourth generation so she had to plan to produce two generations per year. The first generation was planted in March 2018 and harvested after six months while the fourth generation was harvested recently.

‘With the first generation, the plants looked the same with no abnormalities. However, in the second generation I began to see variations in both quantitative and qualitative traits and segregation patterns, with some plants looking promising. Based on their physical appearance, I selected seeds from 180 healthy and normal-looking plants as well as those with high yield-related traits,’ she said.

The third and fourth generation seeds were planted in controlled and field conditions and fourth generation plants were analysed to determine high root and shoot biomass after being subjected to drought and non-drought conditions.

‘The end goal of my research was to recommend a certain number of individual mutants that have been improved for drought tolerance and biomass allocation,’ said OlaOlorun.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

Photograph: Supplied

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PhD Focuses on Breeding Groundnut for Rust Resistance in Tanzania

PhD Focuses on Breeding Groundnut for Rust Resistance in Tanzania
Plant breeder, Dr Happy Daudi.

Groundnut is a vital crop for commercial and smallholder farmers in Africa because of its high edible oil and protein content, but it is vulnerable to pests and diseases. One of the worst culprits is rust caused by pathogenic fungi of the order Pucciniales.

African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) graduate, Dr Happy Daudi focused her PhD research on breeding groundnut for resistance to this disease in Tanzania. Her interest was sparked by prior experience of rust’s impact while working for the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI), where she has been employed since 2010.

Daudi, who completed her first degree and an MSc at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, said her love of science, especially genetics and biology, plus the influence of working with an inspiring plant breeder at TARI, led her to join the ACCI’s PhD plant breeding programme in 2017.

‘I had an idea of the crop and its challenges. Then the topic (rust) was confirmed, with a survey conducted with 170 groundnut farmers, as the first for my study,’ she said. Daudi’s research found that 30% of the farmers reported that groundnut rust was a major cause of yield reduction. The survey also found that high yield was the agronomic attribute most prized by the farmers, so this trait was included in Daudi’s design.

This first stage of her research also entailed documenting groundnut farmers’ major production constraints, farming systems and varietal trait preferences in selected agroecologies, to guide breeding.

Daudi’s next step was to determine the extent of genetic variation among diverse groundnut collections using phenotypic traits and simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers, to select distinct and complementary genotypes for breeding.

This was followed by assessing the genotype-by-environment interaction (GEI) effect on kernel yield and selecting the best adapted groundnut genotypes in target production environments in Tanzania.

Finally, she set out to determine the combining ability effects and gene action controlling rust resistance and agronomic traits in groundnut genotypes for further breeding.

There were obstacles along the way. ‘The main challenge was climate change. I experienced flooding at one site in 2019,’ said Daudi. ‘The second challenge was the multiplication ratio of the crop itself; in order to fit in with my schedule, it needed a combination of rain and irrigation to multiply and produce enough seed for evaluation.’

The result of Daudi’s research was the development of new breeding families with high combining ability effects for rust resistance and kernel yield. She has also published three scientific papers from the study.

Daudi’s research was funded by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics/India through Tropical Legumes III project. She is currently working as a plant breeder for groundnut and sesame at TARI and supervising two groundnut projects (AVISA & TRICOT) in collaboration with ICRISAT and Bioversity International.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

Photograph: Supplied

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