Newsletter December 2015
Friends of UKZN Agriculture | December 2015
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21st December 2015

Hello again everyone, and for the last time this year.

2015 has certainly been an exciting one, and Friends of UKZN Agriculture has gone from strength to strength. We are seriously kicking things up a gear in 2016, so prepare yourselves for a bumper year and don't miss out the chance to get involved with making it happen. You are all proud alumni and friends of the best agricultural campus in the country, and are an integral part of the success of UKZN Agriculture. Thank you for your ongoing support of and interaction with your alma mater

No featured discipline for this month as we wind up the year, but as the International Year of Pulses kicks off in January, we look forward to starting our year off with an overview of some of our crop-focused disciplines.

Erratum: Please also note a correction to the previous newsletter sent out with November's news, which designated Dr Chitja as Director in the body of the Food Security feature and as Acting Director in the staff section; the office she currently holds is that of Acting Academic Leader in the African Centre for Food Security. Apologies for the content error, which will be corrected on our site.

2015 in Review

Have a look at this year's highlights from the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES). This covers mainly SAEES achievements, included in which are the indispensable contributions of Friends of UKZN Agriculture. Enjoy having a look through what this year has brought us, and feel free to send us feedback about what you enjoyed seeing or what you'd like to see more of each year.


Move Over Farmville: Agriculture & Computer Science Postgrads Team Up on African Farmer Game

African Farmer Workshop
On the 30th of November, Dr John Thompson and Mr James Jackson of the Institute of Development Studies and School of Engineering and Informatics, respectively, at the University of Sussex in the UK visited the University of KwaZulu-Natal ahead of the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture African Edition Conference.

They spent the day in a workshop with postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff from the discipline of Computer Science and various agricultural disciplines to introduce the interactive computer simulation entitled the ‘African Farmer Game’. Thompson and Jackson have been developing the game over the past few years in partnership with British and African colleagues.

The software simulation is designed to assist in the complex agricultural decision-making process by placing the user in the position of an African farmer and his or her household, within certain parameters determined by location, crop types and more. The game requires the user to make decisions that the farmer would have to make, decisions that have consequences in the game, taking into account numerous risks, opportunities and vulnerabilities that a rural farming household in Africa would face, including climate, disease, food insecurity, market access and more. This presents the user with a number of practical, social and ethical dilemmas.

The aim of the workshop was to combine knowledge and expertise from Computer Science and agricultural disciplines to stimulate productive exchanges about the use of computer games for simulating agricultural decision-making and addressing complex trade-offs. The interactions between the Computer Science and agricultural staff and students provided valuable feedback to the developers through the analysis and comprehension of farmer decision-making in risk-prone environments, as well as through the exploration of how best to construct an interactive game of this nature.

Professor Albert Modi, Dean and Head of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) explained that the game worked on a sustainable agriculture model that includes a number of parameters within which the user must enable his/her household to farm a certain crop under the conditions of similar to those faced by a typical smallholder farmer.

Students were enthusiastic about the exercise, which demonstrated that there is scope for the use of this simulation in lectures and training. Computer Science students were learning about agricultural practices from the agricultural students, asking them about details such as when they should fertilise and how much to fertilise hybrid crops, or when to irrigate, while agricultural students picked up on the gaps in the game that Computer Science students were able to identify thanks to their background.

A number of comments were made about how the game could be improved upon from a Computer Science perspective. Professor Aderemi Adewumi of Computer Science recommended the taking of the game to a more advanced level.

‘The focus is on agriculture, and how a household is faring with respect to various decisions they are making in the presence of uncertainty,’ said one Computer Science postgraduate student in the feedback session after playing the game, while pointing out that there were more non-agricultural elements that could be considered.

‘The point of the game is to come up with a situation where subsistence or smallholder farmers can produce enough food, first of all to feed their families, and if their families are not fed, famine will follow, something which has happened in sub-Saharan Africa as people have moved to other countries because of hunger,’ said Professor Modi of the relevance of the game.

‘I think the game is an interesting visual aid that consolidates the different pieces of the research that we do,’ said Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, a postdoctoral research fellow in Crop Science at SAEES.

‘We work a lot on concepts of sustainable agriculture and smallholder farming, and one of the perceptions that we’ve always held within our group is that the global interpretation of a smallholder farmer not being an entrepreneur is not precisely correct; this game showcases the complexity in terms of decisions that a smallholder famer has to make on a regular basis and ties in well with the research that we’re doing, so it’s useful to have around, even for the purpose of teaching.’

Prof Modi also recommended the introduction of the concept of agripreneurship and marketing techniques, as well as of indigenous knowledge that affects decision-making of smallholder farmers. He stressed the relevance of the game as a tool for both teaching and community engagement, including policy making in agriculture.

The game has been created using open-source software that can be collaborated on and used freely, and developed further by individuals or groups that see elements they would like added, which they can then make freely available as well. The plan is for the UKZN team and the Institute to write a funding proposal to take the model to advanced levels through postgraduate research.

Plant Breeding Professor Attends Tropical Agriculture Conference

Professor Hussein Shimelis, newly-appointed SASRI Professor and Chair of Crop Science in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), recently travelled to Brisbane, Australia, where he presented a paper on Striga grain under the theme of science-driven solutions at the TropAg 2015 Conference.
According to Shimelis, the bi-annual event was aimed at facilitating collaboration and networking between international scientists working in agriculture in tropical regions in order for there to be increased project development and technology transfer between scientists in this field.

The three-day session featured eight exhibitors, with various research papers presented on advances within the agriculture industries in the subtropics and tropics, including grain and pulse crops, sugarcane and horticultural crops and livestock (beef, dairy, pork, poultry). Oral and poster papers were presented covering a diverse range of aspects of tropical agriculture under the themes of defining challenges facing tropical agriculture, solutions through integrated farming systems, market-driven solutions, and finally science-driven solutions.
Some of the important topics covered included climate risks and the productivity challenge in field crops, tropical livestock production and health constraints, the impacts of plant diseases on tropical agriculture, nutrition security, the changing consumer dynamic affecting demand for tropical agriculture, demand-driven approaches to breeding to increase smallholders’ adoption of new plant and animal genetics, the micronutrient biofortification of acid and neutral soils for enhanced crop production and improved Anthocyanin contents of sweet potato, and the use of genomic tools to improve crop and livestock research.
Parallel sessions were also held allowing participants to discuss a number of topics, including the future of sugarcane, the control of tropical livestock parasites into the future, food safety issues and challenges in global supply chains, genomics technologies for tropical agriculture, and redesigning photosynthesis to meet the global productivity challenge.

In addition to presenting a paper at the conference, Shimelis had the opportunity to attend a sideline meeting on demand-led plant variety design in Africa held at the University of Queensland's Saint Lucia campus. This meeting was held after the conference and key participants of the conference from research and education units attended. According to Shimelis, the demand‐led variety design project focuses on plant breeding education and implementation of breeding research, and cultivar development and adoption in Africa. It is based on partnerships among plant breeding education and research institutions in Africa, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the Crawford Fund, the Australian International Food Security Research Centre and the University of Queensland.

'The project was developed to strengthen postgraduate education and professional development training for plant breeders on demand-led variety design, using best practices from public and private sectors in Africa and internationally,' explained Shimelis.
After this meeting, Shimelis also visited the field trials of the Centre for Plant Sciences, an initiative of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI)/the University of Queensland that is situated at the Gatton Research Station. 

'This visit allowed me to share sorghum and maize research experiences of the centre thanks to a field visit guided by senior researcher, Dr Daniel Rodriguez,' said Shimelis.
Shimelis also visited the teaching and research facilities of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in the Brisbane CBD, which he described as extremely interesting, especially to be able to observe the world-class 150-seater teaching laboratory (SuperLab) of the QUT.

'In the teaching laboratory, each student has a lab space fitted with the required lab supplies and technologies including a laptop computer. Professor Sagadevan Mundree (an ex-UKZN staff member who visited UKZN in October this year) of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities of the QUT guided this visit and introduced the various research activities of the centre, including crop biotechnology and biomass processing, drought and salinity stress tolerance breeding, enhanced levels of micronutrients of bananas, banana biotechnology for fungal and viral disease resistance, to name a few.
'Overall, I gained substantial experience from the presentations, field and laboratory visits,' said Shimelis. 'I also established some contacts that will contribute to future teaching and research collaborations.'

The congress was sponsored/supported by the University of Queensland (UQ), the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) of the UQ, the Rural Industries Research and Development CorporationSugar Research Australia, the ARC - Translational Photosynthesis Centre of ExcellenceAffymetrixShimadzu Scientific Instruments, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, and the Crawford Fund, among others.

UKZN Lecturers Graduate With PhDs

Two new staff members at SAEES received their PhDs at Stellenbosch University's recent graduation ceremonies.

Dr Nokwazi Mbili (left), who joined SAEES as a New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) lecturer in October, graduated with her PhD on the topic of “Synergistic effects of essential oil mixtures as natural fumigants against Botrytis cinereaPenicillium expansum and Neofabraea spp. on apples”. She was part of the Fruit and Postharvest Pathology research group at Stellenbosch University while completing her PhD.

Dr Asanda Mditshwa (right) is a lecturer in Horticultural Science and joined the discipline as lecturer in July 2015. He completed his PhD on the topic of “The Potential of Dynamic Controlled Atmospheres and Possible Mechanisms in Mitigating Superficial Scald in Apples (cv. Granny Smith)”. Asanda was also a Citrus Academy Bursary student and has previously lectured at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute.

Professor Modi Named a UKZN Distinguished Teacher for 2015

Prof Modi

UKZN recently announced the recipients of its Distinguished Teacher Awards for 2015. Professor Albert Thembinkosi Modi, Dean and Head of the School of the Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, was announced as one of the 4 recipients (he was nominated by his students). This is a remarkable achievement, especially since Prof Modi is only the second Dean to achieve this honour; it's a huge challenge when the responsibilities of his role compete for the time he can dedicate to teaching.

According to the University's Teaching and Learning Office, the Distinguished Teachers' Award requires candidates not only to be outstanding teachers demonstrating successful and effective learning outcomes, but to have made a sustained contribution to teaching and learning through: demonstrated contribution to the innovation and improvement of teaching and learning practices within the candidate’s discipline or School and in community engagement; demonstrated contribution to curriculum and/or materials development in the discipline; and/or demonstrated reflection on practice translated into the scholarship of teaching.

The Distinguished Teachers' Awards will be formally presented at the Graduation ceremonies in 2016.

Prof Modi is a Crop Scientist and champion of sustainable agriculture, and of the value of indigenous knowledge in informing scientific research. He has successfully led a number of research projects and was pivotal in the establishment of the Ezemvelo Farmers Organisation, which focused on the small scale production of amadumbe (taro) for supply in commercial retail chains such as Pick 'n Pay and Woolworths. This project, the first of its kind in South Africa, has facilitated a sustainable model for community farming.

In addition, Prof Modi established and held the position of Chief Executive Officer of the province's Moses Kotane Institute for Science and Technology.

Prof Modi is a Senior Fellow of the GreenMatter initiative. He was this year named an Honorary Fellow of the Mangosutho University of Technology. He is Chairman of the South African Agricultural and Life Sciences Deans Association (SAALSDA) and has published more than 70 peer reviewed journal publications, conference proceedings and chapters in books, as well as popular science articles. He is a dedicated supervisor and consistently puts his students first, pushing towards really remarkable achievements. He has supervised 10 PhDs and more than 30 Masters’ graduates.

Prof Modi received his Masters from the then-University of Natal in the early 1990s and was a Fulbright Scholar at Ohio State University in the USA for his PhD from 1996-1999. Before joining the University of Natal in 1996, he was provincial agronomist for PHI-Hibred International, a position that exposed him to important agronomy and rural development issues.

He holds a Membership Award from the New York Academy of Sciences, was a Young Affiliate of the Third World Academy of Sciences for the Sub-Saharan Region from 2008-2012, and received an Agricultural Writer Award from the Agricultural Writers South Africa in 2009. He is also a Fellow of the South African Society of Crop Production, of which he was President in 2007 and 2008.

In addition to this already long list of awards, Prof Modi was a finalist for the 2014 NSTF-BHP Billiton Award in the Category of outstanding contribution to Science, Engineering, Technology and Innovation by an Individual, known as the TW Kambule award for research and outputs (over the last five to ten years).

A C-rated researcher by the National Research Foundation, Prof Modi also received a National Science and Technology Forum Finalist Certificate in recognition of outstanding contribution to Science, Engineering and Technology in the category of Junior Black Researcher over the last 2-5yrs in 2005. He received the Daan F. Retief Floating Trophy for the best paper presented by a scientist younger than 40 years in 2007. He has also been a member of SANSOR (the National Seed Organisation) since 2012, demonstrating his commitment to engaging with society. He was also a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa’s Agricultural Education and Training Consensus Study panel in 2014.

The list of Prof Modi's notable accomplishments could go on, but one thing is for sure, this recognition for his exceptional dedication to teaching is an extremely well-deserved one.

Looking Ahead to 2016

College Awards group

April 2016

The annual College Awards ceremony is held just before graduation and provides a unique opportunity for industry and academia to reward the top students in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.
Ukulinga sign

24th - 25th May 2016

The Ukulinga Howard Davis Farm Trust Memorial Symposium. We are delighted to announce that Professor Richard Eckard of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre in Melbourne will be joining us as our keynote speaker at the event, with US Consul General Ms Frances Chisholm also joining us.
Networking Function

25th May 2016

The Friends of UKZN Agriculture annual Networking Function will be held as part of the Ukulinga Howard Davis Farm Trust Symposium and will round off the event nicely. You can expect an address from a keynote speaker at the Symposium, as well as a few other highlights.
PMA Career Fair

Second Semester 2016

The annual PMA Agri-Food Career & Bursary Fair, hosted at 3 South African universities, will be held once again on campus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Watch this space for confirmation of dates and opportunities to get involved.
Christmas Greeting

We wish you a restful and blessed time over the Christmas holiday this Friday if you are celebrating, and a very happy and prosperous New Year.

Kind regards,

Christine Cuénod
Networking Facilitator
(w) +27 33 260 6557
(c) +27 83 314 3317

on behalf of

Duncan Stewart
Committee Chairman
(c) +27 82 491 1912

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