Mchunu first in community to graduate with a PhD

Ntobeko Mchunu, who has recently joined NGO INMED South Africa as Programme Manager: Adaptive Agriculture, has beaten all the odds to achieve his dream of graduating with a PhD in Bioresources Systems from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He was one of 1 781 graduates honoured at the University’s virtual Spring Graduation ceremony last month.

Nelson Mandela once said that Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world, and Mchunu, who hails from the small Tafuleni location in Pietermaritzburg, is proof of what can be accomplished with the right attitude and drive.  Mchunu says he initially found it extremely difficult to transition from his life in a rural community to the university environment and struggled in the beginning failing his first year of study. Despite this, he persevered and went on to complete his undergraduate degree in record time and with extra credits, “In my home, school (Bhekuximba High School) and community there is no-one else who has ever graduated with a BSc (Bachelor of Science degree) let alone a doctorate,” he says.

Mchunu says the first year was daunting for him because he had no previous exposure to laboratories, computers and the internet and he needed the confidence to manage the tough curriculum. He says he will always be grateful for the support he received from the University – most notably from Dr Colin Southway who was a lecturer in Chemistry and Dean’s Assistant during those years.  He says once he found that the content and practical aspects of tertiary studies aligned well with his natural curiosity, he started to thrive.

His research at the University was based on developing an aquaponics model and decision-making tool to kickstart aquaponics production in South Africa. His new position at INMED could not be more perfectly suited to his skills.

With in-depth expertise in bioresources, crop and soil sciences, food security as well as livestock production and project design and research, Mchunu sees adaptive agriculture as a solution for many challenges South Africans face. “Many communities continue to be plagued by poverty and unemployment,” he says. “The current pandemic has exacerbated this problem, placing severe pressure on ordinary South Africans already struggling to meet their basic household needs.”

“Food availability, food accessibility, food utilisation and food stability remains a critical hurdle for most households more especially in the midst of climate change,” says Sihlahla, INMED South Africa’s Programmes Director. “Food accessibility is one of the dimensions that we, as INMED SA, find to be a major challenge for households in low-resource disadvantaged communities. This significantly impacts on the ability of these households to obtain and consume a nutritious diet, with enough variety and an adequate supply of nutrient-dense foods.”

According to STATS SA, 2019, 53.4% of households were involved in planting fruit and vegetables in order to increase their access to food. The report also states that 16% of households had inadequate access to food, with 6% experiencing severe inadequacy, and that, as the number of children increases per household, the level of inadequacy also increases, where 29.6% of households with 3+ children experience inadequate access to food, and 7.6% experience severe food  inadequacy.

“We are so thrilled to have Mchunu as part of our team and know he will be an inspiration and role model to so many young people,” concludes Sihlahla.