Youth Month 2023: Lindiwe Mahlangu

Youth Month 2023: Lindiwe Mahlangu

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.

Ms Lindiwe Mahlangu is a PhD Candidate in Agriculture at the University of South Africa (UNISA). She received funding from the NRF for her final-year BTech and Master’s studies.

How did your journey start?

My parents have three daughters, and I am the firstborn.

I grew Limpopo, Sehlakwane, where there are subsistence and small-scale farming activities in the community. The activities were not sustainable and did not generate any income. The community would experience extensive crop rot, growth failure, and insect infestation. This caused low quality and quantity of the crops produced. Some of these problems were solved using indigenous methods but at times the methods would fail or new problems would be introduced that farmers had never experienced. Consequently, this caused crop loss. The community would call it “a bad year for farming.” This is where I saw there need to study sustainable agriculture.

When I was studying for a Bachelor of Technology in Agriculture: Crop Production as an undergraduate at the Tshwane University of Technology, I got to understand the science behind farming, particularly crop protection. It is where I had an epiphany that the farming problems faced by my community were not just “a bad year of farming” but problems faced by the agriculture sector – problems that require ongoing research and a transfer of knowledge.

When I was doing my internship with the Limpopo Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, I was assigned to a tomato farm where I realised that insect infestation is a great concern for farmers. This further encouraged my interest in crop protection. Hence, I am a PhD candidate in Agriculture at UNISA (where I also completed my Master’s at UNISA), investigating the impact of biotic factors on crops, in a quest to find solutions.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

I studied for my undergraduate qualification using NSFAS, but since NSFAS only pays for one qualification, you must pay from your own pocket if you wish to study further. I was lucky to receive the NRF scholarship after my undergraduate studies. My hard work awarded me two National Research Foundation scholarships. If it was not for NRF, I don’t think I would have studied further. I am not currently funded for my PhD but hope to be funded next year.

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

As a first-year student, I struggled with some of my studies and the transition from being a high school learner to a university student. It is because of that struggle that I joined the university mentorship program as a mentor the following year. I did not wish for other first-year students to face the challenges I endured. I became a ‘Mentor of the Year’ and inspired my mentees to become mentors as well.

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

My research is based on the interaction between biotic factors (pathogens and pests) and plants and how to better develop effective control, especially for Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM lies in the combination of different pest control strategies in monitoring the pest. It recognises resistant cultivars and modifies cultural, mechanical, and biological control. Understanding the life cycle of the pest and their host plants provides a basis for successful design for the implantation of the IPM strategy. I want to understand (1) the changes that occur when plants are under the stress of insect infestation; (2) how the damage inflicted on the plants can be minimised once insect infestation has occurred; and (3) work towards improving the plants to withstand stressful conditions. This can be achieved by researching plant and insect interactions and agricultural genomics of many plant cultivars.

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

Insect pests such as the tomato leaf miner is not only a problem in South Africa but a worldwide concern. Therefore, my research will not only benefit South Africa but will solve a global problem. I want to acquire knowledge in genomic sequencing for sustainable agriculture and food security. The research will help facilitate the IPM approach and, therefore, address food problems and improve productivity and suitability.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I thought my proudest moment was when I graduated in 2014 as the first graduate in my family from both maternal and paternal sides, or when I got my MSc, or when I published my first article. However, I never felt so proud as when a mentee texted me: “Hi Lindiwe, I passed my final year and I got a job. I want to send you a token of appreciation for helping me with university and NSFAS applications when I had no one to help me.”

What are your career aspirations for the future?

My goal is to become an agricultural academic who is not only good on paper but who can attain research that will bring solutions to Africa, particularly, my country South Africa. I am constantly looking for opportunities that will enhance my research skills and alleviate one of my objectives of being an academic researcher. The opportunity will shape me into a graduate that has-depth of knowledge the ongoing crisis faced by the agricultural sector. The knowledge I ought to gain in my PhD I hope will make me a high-quality researcher that will have valued opinions about the top research conducted in the country. Furthermore, it will give me a competitive advantage in international science and technology development

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