School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Dr Bonga Ngcobo celebrates with his aunts, Petronella Ngcobo (left) and Tholakele Jili.

Passion for Plant Science Drives PhD Graduate

Dr Bonga Ngcobo is the proud holder of a PhD in Horticultural Science after developing new combinations of pre- and post-harvest treatments, which he says could form part of a green economy in South Africa and help poor rural households and subsistence farmers achieve greater food security.

The innovative and environmentally friendly practices Ngcobo developed as part of his studies involve using Moringa oleifera, a versatile tree native to northern India, as a treatment to enhance the quality and yield of nightshade crops. By applying moringa extracts directly to the soil or leaves of crops, Ngcobo says he found that small-scale farmers could cultivate healthy, saleable produce on a relatively small piece of land.

He also proved that the combination of foliar moringa application with fertiliser reduces the amount of fertiliser necessary to produce high-quality capsicum pepper fruit.

Ngcobo’s method to extract the moringa phytochemicals involved using hot water, making it an accessible and environmentally friendly solvent for subsistence and poor farmers in rural areas who would benefit from chemical-free protocols using only plant compounds.

Ngcobo said his research further revealed a new pattern of lighting technology, using various LED (light-emitting diodes) wavelengths to improve the quality of fruit and vegetable crops grown in a controlled environment.

‘I learned a lot during my PhD and mastered techniques that are relevant to research. I am willing to learn more and work with other researchers to progress and build a brighter future for generations to come,’ he said.

Supervised by Professor Isa Bertling and Professor Alistair Clulow, Ngcobo received several awards for his research including the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS) Young Minds Award for the best poster presentation at the Second International Symposium on Moringa; an award for the best Horticultural Science PhD paper presented at the Combined Congress of three agricultural societies, and the ISHS Professor Jens Wünsche Young Minds Award for the best poster presentation at the VIII International Symposium on Fruit and Vegetable Effects on Human Health.

He also won a Three Minute Thesis Competition in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) and second prize for his oral presentation in the PhD category at UKZN’s 2020 Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium. His research has been published in various peer-reviewed journals and as conference proceedings.

Despite challenges that included delays and the need to repeat experiments due to COVID-19 regulations and ageing laboratory instruments, Ngcobo completed his PhD in three years.

‘If you are passionate about your research, you find a way to overcome any challenges,’ said Ngcobo.

He hopes his research findings will contribute to addressing issues faced by both commercial and small-scale farmers in rural areas, in particular advancing the skills of smallholder farmers and the sustainable production of food.

Originally from Ncwadi in KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo spent part of his childhood in Elandskop and developed a love of agriculture while assisting his late grandmother to take care of a small vegetable garden at home, benefitting from her indigenous knowledge. He selected science and agricultural subjects in high school, and chose to study horticultural science to further his understanding of the complexities of plant growth and development.

Ngcobo completed both his BScAgric and MScAgric at UKZN, receiving a distinction for his BSc project and graduating cum laude with his MSc which he completed in a year. He found doing all of his degrees at UKZN ‘a joy’, believing that studying at a research-driven institution with a reputation for academic excellence provided him with a competitive edge.

Ngcobo is a keen soccer player, and was actively involved with UKZN’s soccer club as an executive member, coach and player in the campus league.

Ngcobo, a tutor and voluntary assistant to other students during his studies, plans to become an academic and wants to get involved in activities to help eradicate hunger through the sustainable production of food.

Currently part of the Kgotsofalang Farms and Projects CC which uses available land in KwaZulu-Natal for farming operations, he was nominated by the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Science for the Global Excellence Stature Fellowship 4.0 to develop his experience, skills, and expertise by working on innovative solutions to problems related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and finding ways to exploit 4IR technologies to address the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ngcobo thanked Bertling for her professional and financial assistance and guidance, and Clulow for his technical assistance. He also paid tribute to his mother and late grandmother for playing a vital role in his life.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan