Youth Month 2022: Maria Makwela

Youth Month 2022: Maria Makwela

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.

Maria MakwelaisaPhD student in Entomology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). She is a former DSI-NRF Intern and received funding from the NRF for her Master’s studies, as well as an NRF-DAAD In-Country Scholarship for her PhD studies.

This is her story…

I was born in a small town called Modimolle in Limpopo where I was raised by my single parents, my mother and my late grandmother, who played a big role in my life. After the death of my grandmother, life was not easy – my mother had to work hard to provide for me and my sister as we were dependent on one income. Despite these challenges, my mother always pushed and encouraged us to finish school. I am now the first graduate in my family and I am very grateful for my mother’s strength and unconditional love.

Growing up, I always wanted to study everything related to agriculture because my late grandmother introduced me to subsistence farming and thus sparked my interest in agriculture. So, when the opportunity arose to study at the Tshwane University of Technology, agriculture was an easy decision for me. This allowed me to explore different areas of agriculture, and that’s how I came to be passionate about crop protection.

During my B-Tech degree in Agriculture, I had the opportunity to choose Entomology as the major subject for my project, which focused on beneficial insects that play an important role in agricultural landscapes. Hence, it inspired my current career path.

I have been involved with the NRF since I received my B-Tech degree. Following completion, I was given the opportunity to intern with the DSI-NRF Internship Programme where I was able to work with agricultural, entomology, and ecology researchers and participate in scientific workshops. My experience with the DSI-NRF internship program was a blessing because it taught me scientific research skills and assisted me in writing my Master’s degree proposal, which was funded by the NRF. I am currently a scholarship recipient of the NRF-DAAD In-Country Scholarship for my PhD in Entomology, with very supportive supervisors.

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

Due to financial constraints, I was unable to further my studies after matriculation in 2008 at Phagameng High. I was forced to stay at home for three years while attempting to advance my career. I began applying to the Tshwane University of Technology for agricultural courses in 2012, and I was accepted for a diploma in Crop Production with NSFAS funding. I learned that you cannot let circumstances derail your dreams. You simply must keep trying until you reach your goals.

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

My research focuses on expanding knowledge of the ecological stability of diversely-managed agroecosystems in conventional agriculture, integrated livestock production, and conservation agriculture by documenting and assessing the status and biodiversity of ground beetles and then utilising their functionality. The aim is to develop a sustainable pest and weed management tool that farmers can use to monitor the ecological impact of different management practices such as reducing pesticide use and promoting sustainable agriculture, and adequate economic and food security.

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?

Ground beetles are a promising, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective monitoring tool for reducing the use of agrochemicals, particularly insecticides and pesticides, in agriculture and promoting sustainable pests management. As a result, my research project contributes significantly to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 1: No Poverty; 2: Zero Hunger; 12: Responsible Consumption and Production; 13 Climate Action, and 15: Life on Land.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

One of my greatest achievements was completing my Master’s degree in Agriculture at the University of South Africa. It was a long road full of obstacles that I had to overcome, during which I learned to be an independent and resilient researcher to achieve my dreams.

I have contributed to the following:

  • Biodiversity of Predatory Beetle Groups, Carabidae and Coccinellidae and Their Role as Bioindicators in Wheat Agroecosystems. Click here.
  • Achieving Sustainability and Biodiversity Conservation in Agriculture: Importance, Challenges and Prospects. Click here.
  • Integrated Use of Livestock Manure and Inorganic Fertilizer for Sustainable Agricultural Intensification on Marginal Soils in Sub-Saharan Africa. Click here.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I want to start my own agricultural biodiversity assessment business, focusing on habitat degradation, agroecosystem restoration, and climate change on farms, and assist farmers in understanding and promoting sustainable pests management. I would also like to be an NRF-rated researcher one day.

Due to the complexity of the project, I am currently working on, there are still knowledge gaps that need to be addressed in the context of assessing South Africa’s biodiversity and ecosystem services in response to agricultural landscape management and climate change, as well as promoting sustainable agricultural practices. As a result, I am confident that as a researcher, I will be able to guide and mentor future students in filling these gaps.

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