Newsletter May 2015
Friends of UKZN Agriculture | May 2015
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29 May 2015

Hello Friends and Alumni

Lectures ended this week, with exams just around the corner for UKZN staff and students.

We are also pleased to announce that we have begun planning for our annual Networking Function, which usually takes place during the Royal Show but has evolved this year to become a stand-alone event. We hope to see a great many of you there this year.

Save the Date - Networking Function 2015

Networking Function
Our Networking Function this year will be held as a stand-alone evening event in Pietermaritzburg, and UKZN's new Vice-Chancellor Dr Albert van Jaarsveld will be joining us as the keynote speaker for the event.

We look forward to seeing many of you on Thursday the 6th of August 2015, and are confident that it will be a great evening of reconnecting with old friends and building new relationships with the university.

If you plan on attending and want to confirm early, please feel free to do so. More details will follow in due course.

Featured Discipline

We're taking a little break from featuring our regular disciplines in the School to bring you a glimpse into the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), which is attached to the Plant Breeding discipline in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Plant Breeding Capacity Development in Africa: A Journey Through the African Centre for Crop Improvement

Much of the power of Africa lies in its underdeveloped agricultural sector and the unrealised potential of the plant and genetic resources to feed not only the continent, but the world. In recent decades, focus has shifted to the once-neglected area of agriculture in resource-rich and fertile lands of Africa, as governments and investors realised that, to safeguard the future of the only increasingly food-insecure continent and reduce the poverty seemingly running rife in its countries, they needed to mobilise Africa’s valuable resources in order to sustainably and effectively feed her citizens.
Africa has faced mounting challenges in developing the agricultural sector. These include recurrent droughts associated with climate change, lack of improved seeds of crops resilient to disease and pest damages, among other stresses. Africa faces a critical shortage of skilled plant breeders who can develop improved varieties of crops grown across the diverse agro-ecologies of the continent. This will hamper the efforts of Africa’s people to improve their own food security status using improved crop cultivars, which are not just nice to have; improved crops are a necessity as food insecurity threatens lives.
It was into this context that the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) stepped in 2002. The Rockefeller Foundation came to the fore to create an initiative to fill the gap and act as a regional hub for training mid-career professionals in a format which would allow them to achieve their PhD degrees, both through advanced training and through the opportunity to conduct research in their own countries on their own crops. The ACCI was identified as a centre of excellence that could achieve this goal, and so was set up the then-University of Natal, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a leading institution on the continent for agricultural research and training.
The ACCI was funded in Phase I by the Rockefeller Foundation and in Phase II by the Programme for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS) program through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). With this alliance in place, the ACCI set out to train African plant breeders in Eastern and Southern Africa to improve African crops.
In the Rockefeller foundation stage of the Centre’s existence, the ACCI trained 40 students, of whom 35 have already graduated and are working in their fields in their home countries. In the second phase, when wider alliances were formed, 61 students were recruited, of which 29 have already graduated.
The Centre provides these breeders with the chance to achieve their PhD degrees through training and research; these qualifications allowing them to deepen their knowledge and give them the experience they need to work towards food security in Africa.
Professor John Derera, who works at the University as a Professor of Plant Breeding, reflected on the importance of the ACCI’s programme. He was the Centre’s first graduate.
“At the time that the ACCI was started, the problems Africa was facing were both the lack of breeders working to resolve the problems farmers were facing with crops that suffered as a result of disease, pest and drought, as well as the insufficient qualifications and knowledge held by those working in Africa.”
At the time, anyone requiring further training in plant breeding in Africa was leaving its shores to pursue training overseas, resulting in not only a massive brain drain as experts left their countries and remained overseas, but also a disconnect between the training on foreign crops received by students and the work required on African crops, for which they were not prepared. Those who did not have the resources to study simply did not get their degrees.
Many might ask why a PhD in plant breeding is so necessary; what does it add to being able to do the work on the ground?
“It’s a matter of confidence,” said Derera, “confidence in the face of the Afro-pessimism which said that this could not be achieved in Africa. Confidence that comes with the legitimacy of having a PhD. Confidence that is directed towards graduates from funders who are willing to invest in them once they see those letters behind their name and the research that has got them there.”
The enhanced science that comes with the PhD qualification afforded by the ACCI is not the only benefit of the training the Centre has set up. The ACCI is in the business of producing leaders, with many of its students using the confidence they have gained to go on to take up high-ranking positions in not only the public sector and government, but also the private sector.
Derera is a prime example of the results of the Centre’s training in terms of leadership potential. Having been a Rockefeller-funded Masters student at the University of Zimbabwe, as a young plant breeder he had heard of the University of Natal’s strength in plant breeding, and so entered the programme with enthusiasm. His reach across the continent now is almost immeasurable, as he has supervised students from a huge range of countries, enabling their work to be a success. He is a sought-after researcher, and will have an increasingly global impact when he takes up the position of Head of Research and Development at Seedco in Zimbabwe in June 2015.
Despite the now-evident successes that prove the preliminary investment in the Centre to be less risky than initially supposed, the ACCI has faced some of its biggest challenges in the scepticism directed towards the programme, since it promotes the idea that conventional plant breeding methods could be more effective and less costly than popular biotechnological methods and genetic engineering of plants.
Defeating this scepticism and proving the programme’s worth has been a process helped along by the enormous success of the Centre’s students. Derera, during his studies, developed maize inbreds for Southern Africa with grey leaf spot (GLS) resistance, distributed breeding lines of orange maize with hyper-production of pro-Vitamin A and white grain maize inbred lines with stress tolerance to 9 African countries.  He has contributed immensely to further capacity building by successfully graduating 56 postgraduate students in plant breeding.
The Centre’s successes are not limited to academia; the ACCI is producing real results, as evidenced by the development of new, resilient varieties of various crops across Africa, many of which have been adopted by farmers. Over 70 new varieties have been released by breeders trained in the Centre, with many more on the way as theses breeders continue their essential work.
The ACCI also put into place a strict process of external review for the research being produced, which was added on top of the University's normal requirements for review of an academic study, in order to prove that the work being produced could stand up under exacting scrutiny.
The ACCI has excelled at producing breeders who understand their country’s crops and are interested first and foremost in farmers’ needs, rather than dictating what they believe will suit them best. Dr Andrew Efisue of Nigeria worked to breed drought tolerant upland rice, and after speaking to the women harvesting the rice found that, despite the dwarf varieties they were given which were thought to be the best variety, they preferred to have their plants at chest height, making it easier for them to harvest. So, Andrew developed a cultivar that suited the farmers it would need to serve.
The Centre has also enabled breeders to improve the economic viability of the crops they are breeding. Dr Joseph Kamau of Kenya, who has 5 registered cassava cultivars with an additional 23 submitted for registration for the semi-arid regions of Kenya, bred for earliness into Kenyan landraces selected for complete tolerance to cassava mosaic virus (CMV), and reduced the time from planting to harvest from 18 months to 7 months. This meant that those growing the cassava would make twice as much by more than halving the time it took them to produce a crop to feed their families and to sell. In addition, Kamau’s cassava varieties had enhanced yield, cooking quality and taste.
Training at the Centre is led by Director Professor Mark Laing involving staff members of varied plant breeding expertise and skills such as Professor Pangirayi Tongoona, Professor Hussein Shimelis, Dr Julia Sibiya (also a graduate of the programme), Professor Rob Melis, Prof John Derera and Dr Paul Shanahan. To maintain its high standard of teaching, the ACCI has outsourced a number of top national and international experts to contribute to its training programme and give graduates a world-class education. The Centre frequently collaborates with the National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) of 12 countries in Africa, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system and with the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana, Makerere University, Cornell University and Wageningen University.
The challenges for the next phase of the Centre’s work will be to continue meeting the need for the output of even more plant breeders for Africa. While the Centre’s achievements are laudable and have defied expectations, spreading its 64 graduates between the countries it has served pales in comparison to the large number of skilled personnel still required to make a meaningful difference on a continent where small-scale farmers produce food at only 5-10% of the yield potential of the crops they grow.
In the next phase of the ACCI’s work, the aim is to recruit and train 100 additional PhD students, in 12 cohorts between 2015 and 2027, scheduled to graduate between April 2019 and April 2028, with the specific aim of graduating approximately 8 PhDs per country in 12 countries in East and Southern Africa to fill the current gaps in capacity, and to replace current Plant Breeders who have vacated their posts.
The ACCI’s dream is to continue and expand, to be a leader in producing leaders who will reinvigorate their fields with confidence, hope and security for the future.

Forestry Stakeholders Give Input Into Curriculum Development

Forestry stakeholders from a wide range of Forestry companies and UKZN staff met at the ICFR on the 14th of May for a full day's workshop to look at industry's expectations of the outcomes of the proposed BSc Honours Forestry programme that the University would like to implement in the next couple of years. The meeting was arranged by Friends of UKZN Agriculture and was intended to strengthen relationships between the industry and the University and ensure that there is input from industry into the programme being planned by the University. The workshop was very successful in identifying key learning outcomes that industry would expect to see in students emerging from the programme and in allowing the University to incorporate those outcomes into its planning procedure.

CWRR Students Take Part in WWF Journey of Water

Journey of Water
From the 12th to the 15th of May, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) South Africa and its partners hosted its second ‘Journey of Water’, this time in KwaZulu-Natal. The event is an initiative to raise awareness about the journey water takes from its source to our taps and the importance of conserving this resource, since 8% of South Africa's land provides 50% of its water.

Alongside a number of South African celebrities that took part in the journey, four Hydrology students in the Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR) at UKZN were able to participate by showcasing some of the work being done by UKZN in areas forming a critical part of the water journey in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Journey of Water, which began in the Highmoor Reserve in the Drakensberg and finished at the Natal Canoe Club in Pietermaritzburg, saw participants following much of the path the water takes on foot. The group, which included radio personality Catherine Grenfell, rapper and recording artist ProVerb, Miss Earth South Africa Ilze Saunders and Sanlam's head of corporate affairs, Francois Adriaan, among others, was treated to visits to a number of important points along the water journey.

Stops on the way included the newly-built Springrove Dam, which supplies 4 million people in the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas, a Mondi Forestry estate, Midmar Dam and Henley Dam. The journey also included informative sessions on the challenges facing the water supply in the region, from pollution to climate change to land degradation.

Mr Bruce Scott-Shaw, a PhD candidate, was involved in showing the walkers the implications of invasive alien plants on water resources at the Highmoor catchment, linked to his research on tree water-use and modelling.

‘Invasive alien species grow quickly in disturbed areas, particularly in riparian areas,’ explained Scott-Shaw. ‘In these areas, they have direct access to water, which is a scarce resource in South Africa. In addition, invasive alien plants can alter the river banks, cause sedimentation and reduce the quality of water before it reaches our storage areas.’

UKZN Master’s student in Hydrology, Ms Hlengiwe Ndlovu, was involved as a technical speaker on day two of the walk in her capacity as both a UKZN postgraduate and as a Sappi employee. She took the participants to her research site, the Lions River Wetland, and explained the importance of healthy wetlands as integral parts of water source areas which provide important ecosystem services. The visit also highlighted the importance of rehabilitating this wetland and investing in 'ecological infrastructure'.

Hydrology Master’s student Mr Sanele Ngubane spoke to the walkers on day three about the problem of increasing pollution levels in Midmar Dam.

‘If nothing is done to stop the rate of pollution coming into Midmar, it will degrade to the same status as the toxic Hartbeespoort Dam in the Northwest,’ said Ngubane, who has been studying what comes into the dam and the effect this has on its ecosystem.

‘Midmar is fed by five streams and one river - the Umgeni. This dam is so important, as it supplies water to more than half the province.’

Master’s student in the CWRR, Ms Sesethu Matta, also participated in day 3 of the walk to show the group her case study research site in Mpophomeni along the Mthinzima stream and give them a better understanding of the adverse results of the pollution of streams and the ‘death’ of catchment areas. Matta’s research is concerned with the value of citizen science community-based water quality monitoring initiatives that she hopes will contribute to improving water quality in South Africa.

Responses to the students’ work from the group were positive, with Ndlovu describing this Journey resulting in a ‘mind-shift’ for the participants as they realised the negative effects human actions have on water.

For each of the students, having the opportunity to share their work with a diverse group of influential people who would not normally be engaged with this kind of science was a highlight of their involvement. Their hope is that initiatives like this will bring the conversation about water resources out of boardrooms and deliver it to ordinary South Africans who need it most. The initiative achieved some of this reach already; according to the WWF 2 200 Twitter users had engaged with the hashtag#JourneyofWater, which reached 3.4 million users and appeared on 23 million timelines.

A number of conservation trusts, municipalities and governmental departments were also involved in the initiative. During the official opening ceremony, deputy minister of the Department of Water and Sanitation, Pamela Tshwete, remarked on how every one of us has the ability to become water ambassadors - to use our influence, no matter how big or small, to remind others never to take fresh water for granted.

UKZN Named Among Top 200 Agricultural Universities Worldwide

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has been ranked in the ‪top 200 ‪agricultural universities in the world, as calculated by the QS World University Rankings.

These non-biased rankings are worked out according to factors like ‪academic reputation, employer reputation and ‪#research impact. Over 3,000 institutions are considered in the process of these rankings.

The School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UKZN maintains close working relationships with many of the institutions in the top 200, including Cornell University, Wageningen University and Lincoln University, to name a few.

Fountain Hill Estate Provides Sustainable Agriculture Experience to UKZN Students

Fountain Hill Estate
Mr Ed Gevers, an alumnus of UKZN with a Master’s in Horticulture, is the manager of the Fountain Hill Estate in Wartburg. Gevers generously hosted the Field Crop Management class from UKZN during their recent field trip.

According to Professor Albert Modi, who teaches the module, the farm is an ideal representation of a complex agroecosystem that includes conservation farming. The module aims to provide students with knowledge of management practices involved in the production of field crops.

Visiting the Estate gave the students the opportunity to learn about sustainable agriculture, an important aspect of the module, from someone who has not only had similar academic experience to the students, but has practical experience as a farmer and farm manager.

The major components of the Fountain Hill agroecosytem are sugarcane, avocadoes and pastures for beef and game. The farm has a well-managed irrigation system using eight dams, but relies largely on dryland production. The students had the opportunity to observe a management system that includes crop rotation, green manuring and sustainable crop protection practices. In their reports, the students indicated that they were very impressed to learn about the challenges associated with farm management. They learned that farming involves continual learning about new strategies and innovations. It also requires accurate record keeping.

"The Fountain Hill Estate farm has a long term goal of achieving a sustainable integrated agroecosystem, and would like to work with researchers and students," said Mr Gevers. 

UKZN Hosts Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow

Carnegie Fellow
The School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was selected by the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP) to host an African Diaspora scholar from the United States to work with on a collaborative project on curriculum co-development of a research mentoring program in Plant Pathology, and develop an international agriculture experiential program. Professor Mark Laing will lead the project, together with Dr Charmaine Naidoo, a Fellow from Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma.

The CADFP will support 17 projects in Africa by pairing African Diaspora scholars with higher education institutions and collaborators in Africa to work together on curriculum co-development, research, graduate teaching, training and mentoring activities in the coming months.  Naidoo is one of a total of 110 African Diaspora scholars who have been awarded Fellowships to travel to Africa over the first two years of the program. Naidoo’s visit will last for 7 weeks, during which time she will be based at SAEES.

Laing and Naidoo’s project aims to review and develop Plant Pathology curriculum and practical aspects of the program. They will also review the postgraduate research program in Plant Pathology and initiate a teaching grant proposal to review the management of postgraduate throughput. Additionally, their activities will include the writing of a draft research proposal in Plant Pathology/Crop Science that can be initiated in parallel at both institutions.

The objective of this collaboration is ultimately to produce graduates who will succeed globally by developing well-aligned curricula.

‘Dr Naidoo is keen to enhance international content of curricula at her institution and an exchange of students and faculty will be proposed in a teaching grant proposal,’ said Laing.

Naidoo and Laing envision that the project will have impact at both institutions through the development of a curriculum alignment matrix that can be used at UKZN and Langston University. This kind of strengthening of relationships between the institutions will have immediate impact, leading to longer-term exchange agreements.

Naidoo hopes to contribute her expertise and research acumen in crop/plant biology, as well as her experience in accreditation and knowledge regarding curriculum and assessment reviews.

Several institutions in Africa are hosting Carnegie Diaspora Scholars on various projects, with 3 host institutions in Ghana, 2 in Kenya, 7 in Nigeria and 4 in South Africa. The projects span an impressive range of fields across the arts and humanities, social sciences, education, sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. This innovative fellowship program facilitates engagement between scholars born in Africa who are now based in the United States or Canada and scholars in Africa on mutually beneficial academic activities. The program is managed by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in collaboration with Quinnipiac University, through Dr Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, and is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York. 
Zeleza highlighted the importance of diaspora knowledge networks like this that bring together academics across disciplines and help to facilitate scholarly collaboration, exchanges, and networking opportunities. The unique program aims to contribute to capacity building in home and host countries.

The CADFP has been recognised by scholars as a catalyst for ongoing collaboration, with many scholars continuing their collaborative work after returning to their home institutions. 

Royal Society of South Africa Public Lecture

Prof Roland Schulze

Professor Emeritus Roland Schulze of the discipline of ‪Hydrology will be giving a Royal Society of South Africa lecture on the topic of "What have we done to our ‪Climate? And what is the Climate likely to do to us, globally and in South Africa?".

This lecture will take place on Wednesday the 3rd of June at 5:45pm in the John Bews Botany Lecture Theatre on the ‪UKZN Life Sciences campus in ‪Pietermaritzburg.

All are welcome; please come along and support.

RSVP to Prof Mike Perrin on 033 – 260 5118 / 5435.

CCARDESA Youth in Agriculture Summit

The Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA) is hosting a Youth in Agriculture Summit in Durban from the 3 - 6 August 2015. Staff member in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, is the local organiser for the summit. The summit aims to work towards unlocking agribusiness opportunities for youth in southern Africa and will be accompanied by a hackathon from the 1 - 5 August in Durban. The hackathon aims to generate ICT solutions to challenges in modern agriculture, and features prizes for the teams which come up with the best ideas. With representatives from around the SADC countries coming to the summit, as well as visitors from south-east Asian countries, it will be great to have KZN represented as the host province. If you are interested in attending or participating in the summit somehow, or if you would like more information, please contact Dr Mabhaudhi.

Youth Speakers for World Forestry Congress

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations is looking for passionate and inspiring youth speakers to make a TEDx-style presentation at the youth special event during the XIV World Forestry Congress. If you are involved in a youth-led initiative or project established and run by young people to engage communities, they want to hear from you.

There are three/four slots to fill. They will cover travel, accommodation and registration costs for the full week of the Congress, 7-11 September, in Durban, South Africa.

Criteria and instructions for submission can be found here.

Deadline for submission for inclusion is the 15th of June 2015.

We look forward to seeing you at our Networking Function in August.

Kind regards,

Christine Cuénod
Networking Facilitator
033 260 6557
083 314 3317

on behalf of

Duncan Stewart
Committee Chairman
082 491 1912
Copyright © 2015 Friends of UKZN Agriculture, All rights reserved. 

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