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Limpopo family sells tractor to help daughter pursue PhD in agriculture at SU
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Anél Lewis]
Published: 27/03/2024

​It took the sale of one of her father's two tractors and plenty of hard work for Dr Mosima Mabitsela to graduate this week from Stellenbosch University (SU) with a PhD in Agronomy. But for her beaming father, Mamothatha Mabitsela, who supports his family as a subsistence farmer in Limpopo, the decision to part with one of his valuable farm vehicles to help his daughter pursue her dream was well worth it. “I am proud, proud, proud. I would have sold everything I have."

Mabitsela, who is the first in her family to qualify with a doctorate, comes from a long line of farmers, and one of her earliest memories is of going to work in the fields with her grandmother. She knows all too well the impact of climate change and extreme conditions on agricultural production. It's therefore no surprise that this aspirant agronomist from an agricultural region in South Africa's northern most province would devote much of her life to finding cost-effective, green farming solutions. “Food insecurity is a great challenge on the African continent, so coming up with sustainable ways to farm can be a way that I can make a difference." 

Having grown up in a family immersed in farming, attending the Harry Oppenheimer Agricultural School in Mokopane, Limpopo, was the natural next step for the budding agriculturalist. Mabitsela went on to complete her undergraduate studies and MSc at the University of Zululand. She decided to move again to a new province for her doctorate – from KwaZulu Natal to the Western Cape - because SU has “the best agricultural faculty". Coming from a smaller university where most of the students spoke Zulu was quite a culture shock, she admits.

But Mabitsela, who describes herself as highly motivated and disciplined, says she had to adapt to her new environment. Spending so much time away from her family in Limpopo was challenging, but she says her supervisor supported her throughout. With the money from the sale of her father's tractor as the springboard, Mabitsela was able to secure additional funding - including a bursary from SU – so that she could focus on her studies. Intent on succeeding academically, she says she often put her studies ahead of making friends. But the sacrifices paid off, and she can now return with pride to her rural community as Dr Mabitsela, competent to share her knowledge on climate-smart farming.

For her PhD, Mabitsela went back to her roots to study how the indigenous Bambara groundnut would fare if grown in a low-cost climate smart aeroponics (growing plants without soil) system and in sawdust media. Working with her supervisors, Dr Ethel Phiri, Prof Thinus Booysen (SU, Industrial Engineering), and Prof Sydney Mavengahama (Nort-West University), she grew the legume, which she says was one of her “comfort foods" as a child, within an experimental greenhouse-based aeroponics system using a generic Internet of Things (IoT) platform.  The Bambara groundnut, she says, can play a pivotal role in reducing communities' dependence on environmentally risky monocrops such as wheat, rice and maize.

The results showed that Bambara cultivated in aeroponics performed better than those cultivated in a traditional hydroponics (sawdust/drip irrigation) technique in terms of plant height and chlorophyll content, where the landraces cultivated in sawdust had a higher number of leaves than those cultivated in aeroponics. “The aeroponics and IoT systems are proposed as a solution to provide subsistence farmers in rural communities with an alternative and sustainable method of cultivating underutilised crops to support themselves and their communities," Mabitsela noted in her proof-of-concept published in the journal Heliyon last year.

Now working as an agricultural intern at AbInBev, her advice to students interested in agronomy or the science of crop production is: “Be ready for a challenge. Be ready to learn as agronomy is diverse. Be enthusiastic and take every opportunity that comes your way and will help you develop yourself." ​

Photo: Stefan Els