Youth Month 2021: Dr Chuene Victor Mashamaite

Youth Month 2021: Dr Chuene Victor Mashamaite

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Dr Chuene Victor Mashamaite is currently a ConsoliDoc Fellow at Stellenbosch University.

He received NRF funding for his MSc (Agronomy) and PhD (Agronomy) studies. His MSc project focused on moderating rapid growth in Moringa oleifera through plant growth regulators (PGRs). Through this research, he demonstrated that when PGRs improved shoot growth, root growth was inhibited and vice versa. His PhD project entitled Unravelling the conflict associated with Moringa oleifera – superfood or agricultural weed? was initiated at the Department of Agronomy, Stellenbosch University. It was a multidisciplinary project involving agronomy, social science, ecology, socio-economy and systems thinking modelling.

This is his story…

I was born in Seshego Zone 6 (Limpopo) on the 17th of May 1992 and grew up in a small rural village in Limpopo called Genoa (AKA Thebere).  I am the sixth child of Miss Angelina Mashamaite and I am the first one in my family lineage to obtain a degree.  My mother told me that I was a sickly child and she even thought I would not survive. I was never raised by my biological father – the last time I saw him I was only three years of age. My mother was the one who brought me up to be the person I am today. She took care of me, my three brothers and two sisters alone. She did everything to make sure we went to school and were clothed from her little salary of R400 as a domestic worker.

For me, going to school was a miracle, considering my mother’s small salary had to pay for our school fees. I grew up in poverty – I knew how to spend nights on empty stomach, I knew how to eat pap and water only – and I really salute my mother for she did anything to see us through. I thank her for all the sacrifices she made (single-handedly) to give me the best education. Today, I hold a BSc (Agriculture) and MSc (Agronomy) degree, both obtained from the University of Limpopo, and a PhD in Agronomy from Stellenbosch University because of the sacrifices she made.

It has been a challenging journey that has made me face the depths of who I am and what I am capable of surviving. I experienced a fair share of ups and downs and eventually I learnt to not get overwhelmed by either success or failure.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

I have learnt that your background does not have to affect your goals, you can achieve anything, regardless of where you come from. I come from a very poor background but that did not stop me from achieving my dreams and goals. I also thank my supervisors, family, friends and colleagues who helped me to get to where I am today.

What is your area of expertise?

My research expertise and interests are in, but not limited to, sustainable crop production, fertiliser application, nutritional productivity, harvesting intervals, species diversity, systems thinking modelling, indigenous knowledge systems and functional food crops. I aim at contributing to research on agronomy through a multi-disciplinary approach by including ecological, climate and social researchers.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

For my PhD study, I looked at the various ecosystem services that Moringa provides and assessed its importance in terms of agronomic, cultural, ecological, and economic systems. I then used a systems thinking approach to develop a conceptual model to address and understand the complexity of the social and legal status of Moringa in South Africa. This approach highlighted the interconnectedness of the socio-ecological, socio-cultural and socio-economic systems and helped in identifying conflict pathways that could emerge due to allocating Moringa a negative impact category.

The findings demonstrated that Moringa, listed as Species Under Surveillance for Possible Eradication or Containment Targets (SUSPECT) under the South African National Environment Management Biodiversity Act of 2004 (NEM:BA), does not necessarily impose negative pressures on the environment, economy, and society. Based on the outcomes of this PhD study, Moringa should be considered and viewed as a superfood rather than an agricultural weed. As such, management interventions of targeted species such as Moringa (that are of significant value to communities) should be guided by an all-inclusive approach.

The systems thinking approach used in the study helped in unravelling the conflict associated with Moringa production systems. This research could benefit farmers, policymakers and those in the scientific community on decisions to substantiate Moringa oleifera as a beneficial crop or agricultural weed.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My proudest achievement is completing my PhD in Agronomy in a record time of three years despite challenges I faced during lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My academic career thus far has flourished considerably, and I became a confident author and speaker.

I have published four articles in peer-reviewed journals and I presented my research work at one international symposium and four national conferences.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

Access to data on the production and socio-economic component chapter of Moringa during my PhD was difficult due to COVID-19. I had to cancel all face to face interviews with farmers and consider other options like telephonic interviews. Conducting telephonic interviews was even tougher, which contributed to a smaller sample size compared to the initial sampling target. I had difficulty in accessing Moringa farmers due to their busy schedules, while some refused to do telephonic interviews and preferred face to face interviews. However, this data was substantiated by available literature on Moringa within South Africa.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

I received a lot of advice during my career but the one that stands out is from my wife, Winky, who once told me: “No matter what you are going through in life, you should never give up because if you do you automatically fail; that’s what your doubters and haters love to see, so keep on pushing.”

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

Young people learn mostly by observation. One practical way to get young people interested in science is by organising school workshops and outreaches aimed at discussing and demonstrating the importance of science in our daily lives.

My advice to current students is: “No matter how great the setback or failure, you should never think of giving up”.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I want to be a highly NRF-rated researcher and a Distinguished Professor. I want to contribute to the body of Science in my field and impact many lives, especially those from marginal communities.

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