Women's Month 2023: Anela Fixi

Women’s Month 2023: Anela Fixi

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Ms Anela Fixi is a Research Assistant at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and a part-time tutor in Geography at the University of South Africa (UNISA). She received funding from the NRF for her Honours studies in 2017.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

I was awarded the NRF Honours and Final Year B-Tech Scholarship in 2017. The scholarship had a significant positive impact on my studies and provided a strong foundation for my future career by offering financial support and various opportunities for personal and professional growth. The scholarship relieved my burden of tuition fees, living expenses, and other educational costs by allowing me to focus more on my studies without worrying about financial constraints

What has been your study/career journey?

I grew up in rural areas of the Eastern Cape and was raised by traditional women who had a good relationship with Nature. Our grandmothers interacted with nature in a very inspiring manner. They used their indigenous knowledge to identify which plants to use for almost everything – medicine, food, fire, etc. Experiencing the gradual extinction of these plants is almost equivalent to the extinction of this indigenous knowledge, meaning the resources that were provided by Nature to sustain our livelihoods will not be there to sustain the needs of future generations.

I joined Walter Sisulu University to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies which aligned with my nature conservation interests. Environmental studies played a crucial role in understanding and addressing the complex environmental challenges facing our planet, including biological invasions. Environmental studies equipped me with the knowledge and skills to conserve and protect natural resources, biodiversity, and ecosystems. This understanding of environmental issues is essential for promoting sustainable practices and ensuring a balanced relationship between human activities and nature.

I advanced my career in the Environmental field by pursuing an Honours and Master’s degree in Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand where I deepened my expertise and knowledge in environmental conservation.

My personal interest in nature conservation led me to a role at SANBI where I contribute to the early detection and rapid response of invasive alien species, and conduct research that can influence policy decisions and advocacy for environmentally friendly practices.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I am currently working at SANBI as a Research Assistant.

I am responsible for contributing to the early detection of the emerging alien invasive species that are a target for eradication at SANBI’s Directorate on Biodiversity Evidence (SANBI-DBE). Additionally, I am responsible for conducting research and risk assessment on alien invasive species, compiling findings, and producing a risk assessment report in order to provide suitable management strategies for listing the particular species in a suitable category.

Finally, I am responsible for contributing to alien invasive species awareness where we educate the community about the impact of alien invasive species on their livelihoods, economy, and the environment at large, and also seek their assistance in spotting our targeted species while still emerging.

Why is your research/work important?

Biological invasions are considered to be one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss in South Africa. The increase and geographic redistribution of invasive alien plant species have diverse societal, economic and environmental negative impacts. These species cause the decline or elimination of native species through competition for water, ecosystem functions, and agricultural systems by reducing crop and animal health.

In South Africa, invasive alien plant species have no natural enemies such as insects, animals and diseases that would have controlled them naturally in their native countries. Without natural enemies, these plants reproduce and spread quickly, taking valuable water and space from our indigenous plants. Many alien plants consume more water than local plants, depleting our valuable water resources. Invasive alien plant species cost South Africa tens of billions of rand annually in lost agricultural productivity and resources spent on removing or managing them. With developing countries being the most susceptible to biological invasions, these countries have high levels of subsistence and smallholder farming and often lack the capacity to prevent and manage biological invasions.

In view of the above, and given the fact that South Africa is a water-scarce country and invasive alien plant species consume a great deal of water, SANBI-DBE leads research relating to biological invasion and policy while promoting the conservation of South African biodiversity. Biological invasion and policy provide effective management strategies the South African government needs to implement in protecting and conserving our biodiversity as South African people depend on biodiversity for water, food, wood, clean air, medicine and much more. SANBI-DBE leads cutting-edge research that investigates cost-efficient and the most effective control and management strategies that can be used to clear emerging invasive alien plant species in South Africa.

Additionally, SANBI-DBE reviews the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 regulations that inform biosecurity measures to be implemented to prevent the introduction of invasive alien plant species to South Africa from other countries, and include rapid response measures to monitor and eradicate invasive alien plant species and publish the findings for easy access to the public.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

Women are underrepresented in the conservation world. Women in indigenous communities are in direct contact with natural resources and are directly dependent on them to nurture their households. For this reason, women are among the first to experience devastating impacts of environmental degradation and they are Nature’s first responders in searching for a cure to remedy the environmental crisis engulfing their communities. Biodiversity loss forces women and girls to spend more time and travel greater distances to collect water, wood for fuel, and animals and plants for food and medicine. This, in turn, sets them further back in receiving an education and generating a liveable income, making it harder for them to have a say in the conservation and management of their communities’ natural resources.

I want to use my conservation career and knowledge to give women power and a voice in contributing to the decision-making that concerns natural resource management. I want to conduct awareness and educate indigenous women about smart food production approaches and natural resource management strategies that they can adopt that promote the sustainable use of natural resources while meeting the needs of the present and conserving other resources for future generations.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

I would advise young girls who are interested in STEM-related careers to embrace it wholeheartedly. Follow your curiosity and pursue subjects that genuinely excite you. Passion is a driving force that will keep you motivated throughout your studies and career. Additionally, look for educational institutions and workplaces that foster inclusivity and support for women in STEM. Surround yourself with mentors, peers, and colleagues who encourage and uplift you. Lastly, don’t hesitate to speak up and advocate for opportunities and recognition. Know your worth and be confident in expressing your ideas and contributions.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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