Youth Month 2022: Edwin Hlangwani

Youth Month 2022: Edwin Hlangwani

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Edwin Hlangwani is a PhD candidate in Biotechnology at the University of Johannesburg and is currently funded by the NRF for his studies.

This is his story…

I was born and raised in Malamulele, a vibrant township situated in the far north of Limpopo Province, South Africa. Blessed with two sisters (Tinyiko and Nsovo), a brother (Musa), and countless friends, my childhood was a splendid, fun experience. I loved taking old appliances apart and inventing things, building wire cars, playing video games, football, and cricket. Memories of my mother are that of a stern but extremely loving parent, and unquestionably a passionate English teacher. Her love for storytelling, education, and academic excellence has been instrumental in my academic journey.

I grew up watching many different science TV shows, including MythBusters, Discovery Channel, and The History Channel. As a result, I gravitated toward biology, chemistry, and engineering.

In 2015, I enrolled for a National Diploma in Biotechnology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). From within the Department of Biotechnology and Consumer Sciences, I tutored Analytical Chemistry, Chemistry 1, and Process Technology from 2017 to 2018. For my mini thesis, necessary to complete and receive the National Diploma in 2018, I studied the kinetics and optimisation of potential biocontrol compounds production using agro-waste as a fermentation medium. The study was an essential part of a scientific journal article published in 2019.

In 2019, I enrolled for a Bachelor of Technology at the University of Johannesburg and conducted water research for the year’s project. The study was based on metagenomic analysis and possible applications of the microbial consortia present in Johannesburg rainwater. This project was in line with that year’s Global Entrepreneur Summer School (GESS) research interest: Oceans & Waters. I was selected as a participant in the program in Munich.

I recently completed my Master’s degree cum laude under the title: “Response Surface Methodology and Artificial Neural Networks Bioprocessing Approach for Umqombothi (South African traditional beverage) and Investigation of Its Composition.” The study investigated the use of complex computer algorithms to learn by ‘experience’ optimal umqombothi production pathways while studying all the microorganisms that exist in the product. This improved the nutritional profile, quality, and safety of the final beer. This project resulted in three published journal articles in DHET accredited journals, three book chapters (accepted), and one international technical paper presentation (July 10-13, 2022).

During the completion of the degree (2020 – 2022), I served as the Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology Postgraduate Committee Chairperson and became a Leader of Tomorrow at the St. Gallen Symposium (Switzerland). I am currently completing my PhD under the research topic, “Lab to Market: A smart-factory concept for the production and commercialization of plant-fortified, low-alcohol vukanyi (marula beer).” I am a Golden Key member (South Africa), Eni Award nominee (Italy), and the St. Gallen Symposium Leader of Tomorrow (Switzerland).

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

I had to overcome feelings of inadequacy, financial difficulties, and the fear of rejection. What is important is keeping the goal in mind. The perils of the journey matter little. Still, setting a goal and staying the course to realise it requires adequate planning and execution – that is, discipline, prioritisation and time management; challenging your limits; and taking giant leaps of faith. Dealing with the imposter syndrome has been a challenging task. I had to train myself to believe in my own spark, my own form of ‘genius’. These days I try to celebrate every win with what I consider to be a formal celebratory date with myself. It has helped me to remove myself from the busyness and appreciate my work. This allows me to push my limits and chase targets I believe to be beyond me. I no longer fear rejection and have become a big proponent of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

My area of research is the brewing and fermentation of indigenous alcoholic beverages. My area of study is the use of various innovative, advanced bioprocessing techniques and AI tools to modernise and standardise traditional methods of processing and producing indigenous alcoholic beverages such as vukanyi (marula fruit beer), karri (Khoi-San honey mead), umqombothi (sorghum beer), and vucema (palm wine). The use of these techniques and tools is to allow for automated, optimal, large-scale production of these products. By optimising the processing and production conditions, high-quality, safe, nutritionally dense beverages that appeal to consumers can be made commercially available.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

Goal 1: No Poverty. End poverty in all its forms everywhere. Many small-scale and independent brewers depend on the production and sale of indigenous alcoholic beverages as a source of income. The production prototype can serve as a road map for optimal production, improving nutritional value and final product quality; innovative packaging; and storage solutions. This will in turn inspire trendy branding and marketing practices; appropriate sales; and wide-scale distribution of their product.

Goal 2: Zero Hunger. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Indigenous beers remain an alternative staple food in many impoverished areas around South Africa. For example, marula fruit beers are rich sources of vitamin C (twice the amount found in oranges), polyphenols, flavonoids, and sugar compounds (glucose, fructose, sucrose), while karri is known for its medicinal properties and high-calorie density.Similarly, umqombothi, an energy-rich beverage, has been reported to contain significant amounts of B-group vitamins, amino acids, dietary fibre, minerals, protein, and carbohydrates.

Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Build resilient infrastructure; promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation; and foster innovation. With new production insights, advanced technical application, and novel bioprocessing techniques, industry experts can benefit from upscaling as a result of reduced production time (resulting in low cost); optimised brewing and fermentation conditions (increasing output); enhanced understanding of the process parameters, i.e. starter culture, promoters, inhibitors, etc.; and enhanced quality and appeal to consumers. Findings can be adopted in other related food research projects to promote sustainable, long-term food security and economic stimulation.

Goal 12 Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. By using the raw material by-products such as marula fruit seeds, sorghum grains, and grits to develop auxiliary products such as high-fibre and high-protein snacks, a significant contribution toward sustainable development goals can be made while improving economic growth. With 10 million tonnes of food going to waste every year in South Africa, the reuse of residual beverage waste can ensure food security while improving waste management and reducing government landfill expenditure.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Completing my Master’s degree and starting my PhD have been the highlights of my academic life considering the challenges and obstacles I had to overcome to get to this point. I am extremely proud of all the manuscripts that have been published and the ones currently under development. In particular, the publication, reception, and sale of my second book, “Think Start-Up”, is a constant reminder that anything is possible. Above all, I am proud of participating and contributing to national and international projects and initiatives.

A list of my publications can be found on Google Scholar.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

Once my PhD is complete, I hope to be an NRF-rated researcher focusing on the optimal production, functionalisation, and commercialisation of indigenous foods. While I continue to engage in academic activities, I would like to launch and run my biotech firm, OriGenes Labs, which will develop and manufacture research-based organic and biobased food and cosmetic products. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Please view the terms for republishing here.

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