Dr Gugu Tsomele’s research on the properties of the seeds of wild African indigenous edible plant species earned her a PhD in Human Nutrition which she hopes will contribute to improved livelihoods for rural communities.
Originally from Kamhlushwa in Mpumalanga’s Nkomazi district, Tsomele pursued her undergraduate studies in microbiology at the University of Zululand, and her honours and master’s degrees in food sciences at the University of Pretoria.
In order to expand her academic experience and her adaptability to new environments, Tsomele enrolled at UKZN for her PhD under the supervision of Professor Muthulisi Siwela and the Agricultural Research Council’s Dr Obiro Wokadala and found UKZN’s Student Support Services, both financial and non-financial, to be favourable for her studies.
Her research concerned the structural, nutritional and protein functional properties of the seeds of the Natal mahogany (Trichilia emetica) and forest Natal-mahogany (Trichilia dregeana) to promote their utilisation as food.
The study found that the properties of the seeds investigated are similar to current commercial oilseeds, suggesting that Trichilia seeds could be key to food and nutrition security in developing regions and rural areas.
Interested in this topic because of these seeds’ potential to improve the livelihoods of individuals from rural areas who could harvest and sell them to the food industry, Tsomele was able to publish two articles from her research.
Pursuing a PhD was not without its challenges for the wife and mother of two, who at times had to leave her young children at home while she completed her research, but Tsomele benefited from the support of her husband and mother, as well as a dedicated childminder. Prayer was an important practice to maintain sound mental and physical health, and the mentorship and encouraging words of her late grandfather saw her through.
Tsomele also faced the loss of her two closest family members who passed away on the same day at the same time, a tragedy that affected her focus. Thanks to her grandfather’s encouragement that she should complete her studies to make those she lost proud, as well as the understanding of her supervisors, Tsomele found the motivation to continue, even after the death of her grandfather two years later. She credited God and her husband for being the pillars that helped her emerge from these losses.
Tsomele was also faced with funding challenges, causing her research to be placed on hold until her supervisors could source alternative funds.
Hoping to continue in research through a postdoctoral appointment, Tsomele is on the lookout for opportunities in her field and is also interested in pursuing an academic career as a lecturer.
On the occasion of her graduation, Tsomele thanked her late grandfather for his ceaseless belief in her capabilities and for his encouragement, and her husband and children for always having her back. She expressed her gratitude to Bishop M C Khoza and Pastor J R Mhlongo, her friends, and her mother for their prayers of support. She also thanked Siwela and Wokadala for pushing her to do well and achieve all that she was capable of, as well as everyone who played a role in providing valuable support and constructive criticism of her work.
Words: Christine Cuenod
Photograph: Cikizwa Gwambe