School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Early warning specialist, Dr Hillary Mugiyo.

PhD Research Adds to Knowledge on Underutilised Crops

Dr Hillary Mugiyo, an early warning specialist at Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Agriculture, has used knowledge gained from research for his PhD in Crop Science from UKZN to improve expertise he needs in providing agricultural guidance to farmers and agricultural practitioners for early action.

With his undergraduate and honours degrees in crop science and his master’s degree in agricultural meteorology from the University of Zimbabwe, as well as 11 years of experience as a crop specialist and early warning officer in Zimbabwe at a national level, Mugiyo decided to look outside his home country to expand his research skills.

He was aware of UKZN’s reputation as one of South Africa’s best research universities, particularly in agricultural meteorology, crop modelling and digital agriculture techniques to enhance food security in vulnerable communities, and in 2018 attended a regional workshop supported by UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and the University of Adelaide in Australia on the VALUE-AGRICULTURE modelling tools.

‘The short training was eye-opening and I was impressed by the facilitators, Professor Albert Modi and Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi,’ said Mugiyo.

Mugiyo was presented with an opportunity for PhD studies in a Water Research Commission (WRC) project led by Mabhaudhi on developing a guideline for rainfed production of underutilised indigenous crops and estimating water use of indigenous crops based on available models within selected bio-climatic regions of South Africa. Given his background in agricultural meteorology, his interest was piqued and following the workshop, he applied for a PhD position with SAEES on the WRC project.

Mugiyo’s PhD research involved investigating the crop suitability of underutilised crops in South Africa, supervised by Mabhaudhi who introduced Mugiyo to neglected and underutilised crop species (NUCS). This formed part of an initiative by UKZN’s Centre of Transformative Agriculture and Food Systems to promote the use of NUCS to enhance food and nutrition security in marginal communities.

‘Underutilised crops are essential to future food and nutrition security and diversifying food systems under climate change,’ said Mugiyo. ‘However, there is limited information on where and why these crops are grown and their future in South Africa.’

Through his research, Mugiyo was able to identify suitable areas for underutilised crop production in South Africa. He was mentored by Mabhaudhi, Dr Vimbayi Chimonyo of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mr Richard Kunz, the WRC’s Dr Luxon Nhamo, and Modi, all of whom contributed rigorous scientific and professional training.

‘My experience was a mix of achievement and exposure,’ said Mugiyo, who completed a variety of activities including data analysis and research presentations.

Awards he received during his studies included first place for his oral presentation at the 20th WaterNet/Water Research Fund for Southern Africa (WARFSA)/Global Water Partnership Southern Africa (GWP-SA) Symposium. He also presented a poster at UKZN’s 2019 Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium, earning first place in the PhD category in SAEES.

The following year, the COVID-19 pandemic impeded his progress as he spent much of the pandemic in Zimbabwe, but the support of his supervisors, particularly Chimonyo, meant he was able to submit his thesis. He enjoyed the PhD evaluation process at UKZN, finding reviewers’ comments helpful and detailed.

‘UKZN is one of the greatest universities in the world,’ said Mugiyo, who identified good mentorship, a supportive environment and friends at the University as helping him to succeed.

He published four papers in high-impact journals and his publications were recognised at various international research forums, including the worldwide Conference on Agricultural Statistics (ICAS), which focuses on developing and exploiting best practices and research in response to evolving agricultural statistics demands and possibilities. He will travel to the United States of America this year to present his research at the ICAS IX conference in Washington, DC.

Mugiyo – who continues to work as a food system specialist focusing on crop modelling and water resources management through livelihood strategies, markets, crop production and early warning systems – thanked his family, supervisors, previous colleagues in Zimbabwe and UKZN friends for their encouragement. He also thanked the WRC, the uMngeni Resilience Project and the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems Programme at UKZN for funding and supporting his research.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan