Aspiring academic Ms Anita Masenyama has graduated with a master’s degree cum laude after investigating with remote sensing the water-related ecosystem services provided by grasslands in communal rangelands in South Africa.
Supervised by the South African Research Chair in Land-Use Planning Professor Onisimo Mutanga and supported by funding from the Water Research Commission (WRC), Masenyama used remote sensing – a cost-effective technique – to map the ecosystem services provided by this vegetation type and estimate the benefits provided to communities in terms of water.
‘I realised that there have been a lot of studies on the application of remote sensing in mapping ecosystem services provided by wetlands or vegetation structures such as forests but when it comes to grasslands, ecosystem services are undervalued,’ she said.
‘I wanted to do something to show people that grasslands provide a lot of ecosystem services, not simply forage, which is why I focused on water-related ecosystem services,’ said Masenyama.
She chose communal rangelands because research shows that these constitute about 13% of South Africa’s agricultural land and sustain the livelihoods of about 13 million people in the country but suffer from a lack of collective sustainable utilisation and are often degraded as a result.
In her literature review, Masenyama identified a gap in remote sensing water-related ecosystem services in grasslands and set out to contribute what she could.
‘When you talk about water-related ecosystem services, grasslands can provide water regulation, water supply, water retention, water infiltration and more,’ said Masenyama.
She worked with communities in Vulindlela in KwaZulu-Natal, with assistance in areas of communication, translation, and the facilitation of visits, and visited research participants to provide feedback on her research, with more reporting sessions planned with indunas in the area.
An international student originally from Zimbabwe, Masenyama arrived at UKZN in 2017 and completed her undergraduate studies in Social Sciences, graduating cum laude. Finding her experience at UKZN to be a positive one she went on to enrol for a Bachelor of Social Science Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Management, completing a project that involved mapping invasive species in Pietermaritzburg’s Ferncliffe Nature Reserve. Achieving her honours with distinction – saying the project and her supervisor’s support moulded her – she was motivated to continue to a Master’s degree in Environmental Science, having always been drawn to the discipline of geography.
Masenyama says she chose UKZN because of its strength in Geography and Environmental Science and the graduates it produces who go on to work in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing careers.
Her studies at UKZN introduced her to the joys of doing research and the challenge of striking a balance as she worked hard to achieve publications, publishing two manuscripts from her research. She has discovered her strengths in academia, research and teaching, and plans to pursue a career in academia.
Her university activities were not limited just to her studies as she served as a supplemental instruction leader and demonstrator, enjoying the interactions with students as these reminded her where her academic journey began.
Masenyama is also the vice-chair of the International Association for Impact Assessment South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal Student Branch, having served as its events coordinator in 2022.
Masenyama acknowledged her supervisor, Mutanga, and co-supervisors Dr Mbulisi Sibanda and Professor Timothy Dube of the University of the Western Cape for their support that enabled her success.
She also thanked the WRC for funding her studies and her family for their encouragement.
The academic journey is in some ways just beginning for Masenyama, who has registered for her PhD in which she plans to continue her research on grasslands to contribute to filling the gaps she identified in this arena.
Words: Christine Cuénod
Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan