Agricultural Economics PhD Candidate Wins Big at SASTA Congress

Agricultural Economics PhD Candidate Wins Big at SASTA Congress

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Ms Wadzanai Mafunga, a PhD candidate in Agricultural Economics at UKZN, received two awards after presenting at the annual South African Sugar Technologists’ Association (SASTA) Congress.

The awards were presented at SASTA’s Annual General Meeting in Mount Edgecombe in October.

In the Agricultural Engineering and Economics session of the Congress held in August, Mafunga presented on the topic of adoption and performance of cane cultivars in three regions of the Eston cane supply area, and on the sensitivity of growers’ production decisions to changes in the bagasse price for the Eston Central Region.

For the first presentation, Mafunga received the Kynoch Award for the best paper in the Agriculture sessions of the congress, as well as the SASTA Student Award for Agriculture. She is also a candidate for the next Jubilee Award (Agriculture), which will be awarded for the best paper at the 2019, 2020 and 2021 SASTA Congresses. The winner will receive sponsorship to attend the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists Congress, to be held in Hyderabad, India in December 2022.

The judges’ comments on the first presentation noted the good mix of desktop study and grower interaction and described it as thought provoking, topical, relevant, and well presented. They added that the paper served as an excellent guide on how to structure similar studies in the future.

The second presentation formed the basis for an article published in the August edition of the Shukela magazine, distributed to the more than 500 congress delegates, detailing how demand for biomass in the form of bagasse to supply commercial-scale biorefineries could reduce sugarcane farmers’ and millers’ vulnerability to the sugar price.

These presentations were based on research Mafunga is conducting for her PhD, which examines the farm-level impacts of further development of sugar mills into bio-refineries. She is working under the supervision of Dr Stuart Ferrer in Agricultural Economics and Professor Annegret Stark, the Sugar Milling Research Institute/National Research Foundation SARChI Research Chair in Sugarcane Biorefining.

Now in the final-year of her PhD, Mafunga explained that many mills in the hard-pressed sugar industry produce mainly sugar and molasses, and only reward growers for these products. She is investigating diversification strategies that mills could adopt to improve their declining profits, focusing on feedstock and bagasse production, and the implications at both mill and farm level.

Mafunga completed a Master’s in Bioresources Systems in the School of Engineering before progressing to PhD studies in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences. She obtained a Master’s in Business Administration from the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe after completing her undergraduate and Honours degrees in Agricultural Economics at the University of Zimbabwe. Mafunga has had to balance the demands of family life and academia; the mother of three welcomed her 10-year-old daughter and four-year-old twins into the world while studying, and works alongside her husband Mr Collin Yobe, who is also pursuing his PhD in Agricultural Economics at UKZN.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied