Ms Minenhle Mkhize is fast-tracking her skills as a biotechnologist in the State of New York, United States, with the view to help eradicate hunger and poverty in Africa, and she says it is her training at UKZN that helped her find success in her career.
Originally from KwaMashu in Durban, Mkhize always felt at home in the natural world, finding it therapeutic and relishing its beauty. Disturbed by the anthropogenic activities that disrupted its health and having grown up on her grandfather’s timber farm in Empangeni where she witnessed the toll of a drought on farmers, she was drawn to studying earth and environmental sciences. She moved to James Nxumalo Agricultural High School for her final two years at school to take practical agricultural subjects and pursue her passion for plant sciences.
She chose to study at UKZN after her brother found studying there positive, and she was impressed by UKZN’s international reputation and research output. Mkhize enrolled at UKZN’s Westville campus before moving to Pietermaritzburg from her second-year onwards when she focused her degree on hydrology and soil science.
The process of studying involved self-discovery for her as she encountered different people and worldviews, leading her to develop her heightened self-awareness. Financial challenges also left Mkhize facing poverty: she would attend tutorials and lectures on an empty stomach and used residence curtains as a blanket, even at times sleeping on campus. These challenging experiences were, however, lasting memories for her and served as an impetus behind her drive to succeed.
She completed her Bachelor of Science, followed by a Postgraduate Diploma in Food Security, and in 2019, thanks to funding from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development and Environmental Affairs, attained her Master’s in Agrometeorology on the evaluation of an aquaponic system in the face of climate change conditions for the next decade. She explored how to prepare farmers, policymakers and scientists for more sustainable farming methods.
‘I’m glad I went to UKZN because the quality of education I received opened international doors for me,’ said Mkhize.
After she completed her master’s, Mkhize worked in horticultural companies in South Africa before taking up an internship at Intergrow Greenhouses in the USA where she surpassed the requirements of an intern and was quickly promoted to biologist. She worked on sustainable approaches to pest control within greenhouses through biological and habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant plant varieties. Her environmental science background equipped her to understand and solve many challenges.
Mkhize is now based at BioWorks where she works on safely executing company-wide research development programmes and generating new innovative biopesticides to reduce chemical usage on farms as a Research and Development Biotechnologist.
‘This opportunity is both an enormous achievement and a challenge – I am gaining formidable knowledge and skills, but I feel indebted to South Africa because the agricultural systems are far behind and there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and I feel I need to close that gap,’ she said.
Having acquired skills through her studies and in her travels to countries including India, Mkhize is driven to apply her knowledge to making South African farming techniques more reliable, safe and sustainable. She now works with some of the world’s most sophisticated greenhouse technology where parameters like air and water temperature, irrigation scheduling, solar radiation and nutrient availability can be controlled.
Mkhize is motivated to improve conditions for communities affected by climatic conditions and to prepare them for the future through the introduction of innovative systems that will enable adaptation, saying that climate change poses a serious threat to agricultural production and affects marginalised groups more severely as they struggle to recover from extreme events.
‘Due to climate change, environmental conditions are changing at an unprecedented rate and in most cases, this is bad for optimal crop growth,’ she said.
‘In the face of climate change, farmers need to maximise the parameters they can control to sustain productivity, and I would like to see more technology like this in South Africa that will operate inclusively in the unfavourable climate conditions we will face,’ she said.
Mkhize says her success can be attributed to the strength she draws from her faith in God, and she credited her parents, Mrs Busisiwe and Mr Mandlenkosi Mkhize, for their unconditional support. She said her master’s supervisors, Professor Alistair Clulow and Dr Simon Taylor ensured her academic success and made the journey easier, and acknowledged the role UKZN played in providing opportunities for growth and academic progress.
To current students, Mkhize advised the use of discomfort and failure to enhance one’s mental strength, and said students should use the critical thinking skills afforded by a degree and their unique talents to improve the world and achieve their dreams.
Words: Christine Cuénod