School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Ms Olivia Chipeta received an MSc degree in Plant Breeding.

MSc Assesses Groundnut Potential

Ms Olivia Chipeta’s research for her Masters in Plant Breeding assessed the level of morphological and genetic diversity of groundnuts in order to select the best genotypes for consequent breeding of desired traits that include yield and reduction of the carcinogen aflatoxin.

Chipeta set out to contribute to the groundnut sector in her home country, Malawi after learning how big a problem the presence of aflatoxin in groundnuts poses. The poisonous carcinogens are produced by certain moulds found in soil, decaying vegetation, hay, and grains, and are regularly found in staple commodities like groundnut that are not correctly stored.

‘Plant breeding is based on widening the pool of parents to ensure maximum diversification and genetic gains,’ explained Chipeta, who described the discipline as an art as well as a science.

The study aimed to identify the best genotypes to be used in the groundnut breeding programme of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The research was conducted in Malawi and South Africa; work in the latter involved the use of simple sequence repeats, or SSR markers, to select diverse potential parents for the Agricultural Research Council Grain Crops Division’s groundnut breeding programme.

Chipeta completed her Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture at the former Bunda College of Agriculture that formed part of the University of Malawi, now known as Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR). She joined UKZN to pursue her masters thanks to a scholarship through the Improved Masters in Cultivar Development for Africa (IMCDA) programme, funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

‘It was a very exciting but challenging experience because I was shifting from Horticulture to Plant Breeding. However, the learning environment at UKZN was wonderful; we were well taken care of by the Project Manager, Dr Julia Sibiya, and staff,’ said Chipeta.

‘I am indebted to God, my husband Griffin, my parents and siblings, my supervisor and mentor Dr Julia Sibiya, Drs Sam Njoroge, Alina Mofokeng, and Cousin Musvovi, classmates in the 2016 and 2017 IMCDA cohorts and many more people too numerous to mention, for their roles during my studies,’ said Chipeta.

Chipeta thanked funders AGRA for their investment in education.

With her masters in hand, Chipeta plans to gain experience through working in agriculture and research, where she said she knows she will be challenged to make significant achievements within a short period of time.

Chipeta currently works as an agronomist at the African Institute of Corporate Citizenship (AICC) in Malawi. She said that, through this work, she is seeing meaningful change in the lives of farmers. She plans to use her experience and knowledge in pursuit of a PhD one day, as she is passionate about research and capacity building.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan