Youth Month 2023: Siphumze Bani

Youth Month 2023: Siphumze Bani

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.

Mr Siphumze Bani is a PhD student in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Rhodes University (RU). He received NRF funding for his Honours and Master’s studies.

How did your journey start?

I am from the rural areas of Willowvale (Mhlahlane), Eastern Cape.

I obtained a BSc in Biochemistry and Microbiology coupled with PGCE in Life Sciences and Natural Science from Rhodes University (RU). From BSc and PGCE I learned the fundamental application of science and the importance and skills of teaching science in schools. The knowledge development, socio-economic issues, and interest in the fundamentals and application of science led me to conduct research in wastewater remediation concurrent with bioenergy recovery, hence my BSc Honours research at RU was based on single-chambered microbial fuel cells as a potential technology for wastewater remediation while harnessing bioenergy. The results from this research were presented as posters at the 70th Annual Meeting of the International Society of Electrochemistry which was held in Durban in 2019.

I hold an MSc (with distinction) which was based on the remediation and desalination of greywater for reuse in toilet flushing and irrigation. I am aiming to become a Doctor who will make a change in society. I have always wanted to become a researcher because I love to discover, read, formulate, and communicate knowledge that will help society to resolve challenges, especially the issues that are related to water, sanitation, food insecurity, and health.

Last year (2022) I was at home and I observed the difficulties experienced by my community. Living there is hard – the electricity service is unstable due to the weather conditions, and the community relies on rainwater harvesting, subsistence agriculture, and Government grants to balance living security. Rainwater harvesting and subsistence agriculture strategies are badly affected by emerging climate change issues, while Government grants are not sustainable because the town is far, hence it costs a lot of money to go into town for groceries or to the visit the clinic or hospital. There is only one high school and learners travel long distances, which lowers their performance. These situations result in a high rate of urban migration to find jobs, education, and health services.

Thus, after graduating with my MSc, part of me felt the need to find a job, while the other part of me thought it was important to conduct my PhD study as my research could enable change, not for only me but also for society at large. I sent job applications to various companies and never got a response. I then enrolled for a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at RU.

During the course of my PhD research, I aim to develop my academic career effectively by publishing research papers, providing academic support to the university, and also plough back to the local communities of Makhanda by engaging and assisting the schools and helping with water issues. I aim to become a Doctor who will make a change in society. I have always wanted to become a researcher because I love to discover, read, formulate, and communicate knowledge that will help society to resolve challenges, especially the issues that are related to water, sanitation, food insecurity, and health.

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

The NRF started funding my studies from the year 2017 for an Honours in Biotechnology at RU. In 2018, I registered for Masters of Science in Biotechnology and was offered NRF funding for my first year by Professor J Limson who holds the DSI-NRF SARChI Chair in Biotechnology Innovation & Engagement. In my second year (2019), I was awarded an NRF Master’s scholarship and a travel grant to the 70th Annual Meeting of International Society Electrochemistry in Durban. Due to the challenges and delays in the research, I completed and submitted my MSc in June 2020. In October 2021, I was awarded my MSc degree with distinction.  

I cannot stop giving big thanks to the NRF and Prof J Limson for funding offers, support, and exposure to a prestigious conference, it was my first time to take a flight and I have not taken one since then. I would also like to give a big thanks to my supervisor, Prof R Tandlich, for the guidance, support, and patience during my journey.

Unfortunately, due to the circumstances described above, I could not submit my NRF funding application for Doctoral studies for this year, however, I am in the process of submitting my application for 2024. The NRF has grown me as a researcher through financial support and motivated me to pursue my Doctorate.

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

Financial challenges in my family are the major obstacles that I have faced. My father passed away in July 2020 and at that time I was in the middle of polishing my MSc thesis, I could not provide him with medication or take him to special doctors as his only graduate son. I am currently left with my mother and she doesn’t earn an income other than the social grant, thus I am her only hope.

The MSc research was a challenge because sometimes things did not work out as planned or at a specific time. Getting recognition as a researcher via publishing is also a challenge due to how long one has to wait for the acceptance of manuscripts. For example, I am currently waiting for the acceptance of three manuscripts from my MSc thesis.

However, from all the challenges I have learned that patience, discipline, planning, and execution are important, especially in the field of research.

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

My research is based on the remediation and reuse of domestic wastewater (greywater). The remediation of greywater is conducted using a filtration system with biological (action of bacterial/biofilm metabolism of organic and inorganic pollutants) and physicochemical (retainment of solid and chemical transformation of inorganic pollutants) actions take place. The filtration system is composed of treatment materials that include biochar, clays, gravel, and plastic bio-balls. These treatment materials assist in the trapping of solid pollutants and the attachment of bacterial biofilm for the removal of organic and inorganic pollutants. The remediated greywater is suggested to be reused for vegetable irrigation and toilet flushing to alleviate food insecurity and improper sanitation.

My MSc research focused on the operation and analysis of the laboratory-scale and pilot-scale (Fort Cox Agricultural College) greywater treatment systems.  The pilot-scale system operated at Fort Cox Agricultural College and the effluent was reused for irrigation of vegetables and toilet flushing. The second part of the MSc research focused on the potential of clay adsorbents for the desalination of saline waters (greywater, brackish water).

My PhD research is an expansion of the MSc research because it is based on the further analysis of the laboratory-scale and pilot-scale (installed at the largest male residence at Rhodes University) greywater treatment systems. The analysis of the systems is based on profiling the biofilm microbiome (metagenomics) to observe possible pathogenic and remediating strains. The effluents from the systems are aimed to be reused for the irrigation of vegetables that will be grown in a greenhouse (lab-scale system) and university gardens (pilot-scale system). The soil and matured vegetables that are irrigated with treated greywater will be analysed for microbial, chemical, and nutrient contents.

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

This study aims to alleviate problems that are caused by the scarcity of water, such as improper sanitation (not flushing toilets) and malnutrition (low vegetable consumption), especially in poor communities. The analysis of health nutrient contents such as provitamin A and antioxidant compounds (beta carotene, betanin, lutein, quercetin, and chlorogenic acid) in vegetables is a method of translating the knowledge on the health benefits of consuming vegetables.

The overall outcome of the study is on the maintenance of proper sanitation while encouraging gardening (an inexpensive way of generating food) and consumption of vegetables for health benefits. This project will be expanded in poor and water stressed communities and also schools. This research is set to achieve sustainable development goals.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Obtaining my MSc degree with distinction is the achievement I am most proud of as this means I can conduct research successfully and come up with solutions or applicable suggestions to the problem. I am grateful to have exposure to the challenges of research. I also had great times meeting international scientists at the conference I attended during the course of my MSc because I got to share knowledge with the experts in the field.

It is an achievement and a challenge for me to be accepted to conduct a PhD study in Pharmacy because this means I am required to develop more skills and knowledge. I will be a Doctor who will make an impact on the nation and the world at large. I value this position because I aim to achieve more, such as the publication of research papers that will have an influence on communities and attendance of science meetings for knowledge development.

Currently, I am not just a PhD student but also a mentor to primary school pupils for EXPO Science projects.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

It is my wish to be a recognised and NRF-rated researcher in the future. I know that is not an easy achievement, however, with my highest level of discipline, hard-working, consistent planning, and patience I will be amongst those. My motivation has been refuelled by my current professors/doctors at Rhodes University (RUBIC, Prof J Limson, Prof R Tandlich, and Dr. Fogel). The panel speakers of the NRF Science for Society Webinar Cultivating an Entrepreneurial and Innovation Culture in SA’s Doctoral Graduates that was held on 15 March 2023 also provided great and insightful talks towards this future business idea.

I aim to open businesses so that I can change the situation at home and in my community. The businesses I aim to run include a supermarket for groceries, basic tools for agriculture, and a pharmacy for human and animal medicines.

I also want to open a hostel (housing/residence) near Mente Senior Secondary School. I want the hostel to provide catering, social care, security and enhanced learning. During the study of my PGCE, I conducted a teaching practice at Nathaniel Nyaluza High School (township school) and DSG-St Andrews College (model C schools) and I saw the importance of providing housing, catering and the actual basic care (other than just teaching) for learners in high schools. A school library and basic school laboratories will be added to the premises. Learners will be prepared for university studies. 

Where does the proposed PhD research come into this business? To successfully operate the hostel, I will need water, lots of water! Rainwater harvesting tanks will be installed in the hostel buildings. The water from the tanks will need to be tested at specific time intervals to make sure there are no health issues in the hostel. Water from other sources such as dams and boreholes will also have to be tested before use. In the case of climate change (long periods of drought), greywater treatment and reuse will be conducted. The effluents will be used for irrigation and the cleaning of floors, and dry toilets will be used because it is a rural area (non-sewer system). Food production (vegetables) will need to be conducted within the hostel premises to minimize costs and to provide an opportunity for the training of agriculture-pursuing learners.

This initiative will also lead to job creation within the community, as the services of security, kitchen and cleaning staff will be required. The success of this initiative at the targeted site will lead to the expansion of the business to other rural parts across the Eastern Cape where building residences in rural high schools will be a subject (maintaining the university/Model C residence system). The South African Basic Education will be improved by this initiative.

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