Stellenbosch University (SU) is one of the higher education institutions in South Africa that consistently produces the most PhDs in the country. Some of these doctorates are also awarded to students from other African countries. One such student is Dr Bilungi Alain Useni from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who obtained his doctorate in Animal Science on Wednesday (6 December) at SU's fifth graduation ceremony of December 2017. The first Congolese to be awarded a PhD in SU's Faculty of AgriSciences, Useni did research on the importance of energy supplementation for milk production and fertility of dairy cows.
Success at SU
Born in the city of Kolwezi and trained at the University of Lubumbashi in Lubumbashi in the DRC, Useni's association with SU goes back to 2007 when he started as a special student in the Intensive English Programme at the University. The following year, he enrolled for a MSc (Agric)-degree in SU's Department of Animal Sciences under the supervision of Dr Francois van de Vyver. Useni completed his master's degree in March 2011.
In April 2011 he was accepted by the Western Cape Agricultural Research Trust as a PhD-student to conduct research on the fertility of dairy cows at the Elsenburg Research Farm of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture (WCDA). Through the project, he gained experience and mentorship in dairy farming.
Useni says his decision to study at SU was based on the culture of academic excellence and cutting-edge research in agriculture at the institution. He also wanted to improve his English language proficiency.
Looking back on his journey, Useni says it wasn't always smooth sailing.
“At the beginning of my postgraduate training at SU, life was not always easy. Because my mother tongue is French, I struggled with English. Coming from a big family, I missed the social connection with my relatives."
“But, I was fortunate to have had the support of one of my brothers who was already in Cape Town when I arrived in South Africa."
Despite his initial struggles, Useni endured and even ventured outside his studies in agriculture. Always ready to broaden his horizons, he completed short courses in Leadership through community interaction, HIV peer education and gender facilitation, HIV counselling, Afrikaans for beginners and Global citizenship. He worked for SU's HIV co-ordination office on their HIV campaigns and outreaches, and also helped Matie Community Service in supporting local schools with student-led volunteer learning and interaction initiatives. As if this wasn't enough, Useni also found time to represent SU at the New Hope Summits.
Juggling many balls at once seems to come natural to Useni.
While working hard on his PhD, he received a teaching and development grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training (2013-2016) that allowed him to assist academics in tutoring, marking, practical work and teaching certain modules related to his expertise in Animal Sciences.
Useni puts his success and cultural integration at SU down to always having a cheerful disposition, hard work and perseverance.
Today Useni is grateful to his parents for instilling in him the desire to use education as a means of making progress in life and helping to create a better society.
He is also full of praise for his wife Rachel, a medical doctor, to whom he has been married for 5 years. She also an alumnus of the University of Lubumbashi.
“She has been very supportive towards my studies and is the one who used to worry much about all the stresses of my studies. Without her support, life would have been very difficult. She is really an angel and a blessing to me. Rachel has also blessed me with two kids, Joshua who is 3 years and Amelia who is 4 months."
He holds in high regard his mentors, Dr Carel Muller at the WCDA and Prof Christiaan Cruywagen at SU's Department of Animal Sciences, for giving him the opportunity to do his doctorate.
Useni says he doesn't regret for one moment his decision 10 years ago to make SU his home. “It formed me from humble and challenging beginnings to the person that I have become today."
Having achieved the pinnacle of academic success, Useni feels that he has repaid the confidence his family and many others had in him.
“Through this academic achievement, I believe that I've made my family and anyone who invested directly or indirectly in me very proud, many thanks! Enkosi kakhulu! Baie dankie! Merci beaucoup! Asantesana!".
Regarding his future plans, Useni says he would like to work in the Southern African agricultural industry and use his knowledge to help find solutions for some of Africa's problems, especially those related to agriculture.
- Photo: Dr Bilungi Alain Useni with his wife Rachel and their two children Joshua and Amelia at the graduation ceremony.
- Photographer: Stefan Els