Young PhD Graduate Advances Research on Underutilised Crop
Dr Takudzwa Mandizvo’s path to the PhD that he was awarded in May at the age of just 29 began when he joined UKZN in 2017 for his master’s studies.
His research has contributed to understanding how a native fruit plant is so drought-tolerant.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Mandizvo completed his Bachelor of Science Honours in Crop Science cum laude at Chinhoyi University of Technology in 2016, proceeding to UKZN for a master’s in seed science that focused on the association between seed coat colour, physiological and biochemical processes in relation to seed quality and the performance of Bambara groundnut landraces.
Drawn to UKZN by its reputation, the quality of its research and its high academic standards, Mandizvo also found the Institution’s provision of scholarships and financial aid helpful in pursuit of his postgraduate degrees.
A strong student, Mandizvo continued to the level of PhD where the challenges posed by climate change to agricultural systems led him to his research topic. He investigated the agro-morphological, physiological, and biochemical characteristics associated with drought tolerance in citron watermelon, a fruit native to southern Africa’s arid landscapes and classified as a C3-xerophyte, a plant using C3 carbon fixation and requiring very little water.
‘Neglected Underutilised Crops (NUCs) such as citron watermelon have evolved in diverse environments and often adapt to different drought conditions,’ said Mandizvo. ‘By studying NUCs, we can identify the genes associated with resilience to climate change, enabling the development of climate-resilient crop varieties that can better withstand extreme temperatures and water scarcity.’
Despite originating in southern Africa and providing many unique qualities and benefits, citron watermelon is unfamiliar to many consumers, lacking market share due to the dominance of other watermelon varieties that boast established reputations, consistent quality, and consumer trust.
Its unique traits and genetic characteristics such as drought tolerance and heat resistance are valuable in developing climate-resilient crop varieties.
‘By incorporating these traits into breeding programmes, citron watermelon can contribute to developing more resilient watermelon cultivars and aid in securing future food production under changing climatic conditions,’ said Mandizvo.
Citron watermelon represents a distinct genetic variation within the watermelon species that should be preserved and utilised for breeding programmes and developing resilient and high-performing crop varieties to enhance overall crop resilience, adaptability to changing environmental conditions, and disease resistance, thus contributing to food security.
Mandizvo assessed the variability in yield performance and nutritional quality of citron watermelon genotypes under drought conditions. His study established wide variability among citron watermelon landraces in terms of root system architecture. This knowledge will prove useful in developing integrated cropping systems for increased crop diversification and productivity, and mitigating the effects of weather variability and climate change.
Supervised by UKZN’s Professor Alfred Odindo and Dr Jacob Mashilo of the Limpopo Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mandizvo said his study was made smoother by their clear, effective, honest communication, constructive feedback and clear explanations of complex concepts.
He thanked Odindo for his patience, generosity, guidance, and support, and Mashilo for his mentorship, guidance, support, helpful suggestions, and motivation, saying both were approachable and responsive to queries and concerns. He also thanked Professors Lembe Magwaza and Julia Sibiya in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) for providing equipment to facilitate his research and data collection and analysis.
Mandizvo reserved particular gratitude for his parents for their sacrifices to provide him with the best education, and thanked the rest of his family, especially his brother, fellow UKZN alumnus Dr Tawanda Mandizvo, for their support.
Looking ahead, Mandizvo who is currently working as an ad hoc lecturer in the SAEES plans to pursue a career in research, hoping to contribute to cutting-edge developments and new technologies and address challenges related to crop production, soil science, plant genetics, or sustainable agriculture.
Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod