College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

El Niño Inspired MSc Graduate to Breed Maize for Drought Tolerance

El Niño Inspired MSc Graduate to Breed Maize for Drought Tolerance

Ms Lucia Ndlala has graduated with her Master’s through the Improved Master’s in Cultivar Development in Africa (IMCDA) at UKZN which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

This programme is unique in its combination of research and internships, enabling students to spend between six and 12 months as interns at a seed company, national breeding programmes or Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres where they carry out their research projects. This experience proves valuable in aiding graduates to find employment or PhD funding.

Ndlala conducted her research on maize, a staple crop throughout the world produced as a source of carbohydrates and nutrients. In a changing environment and climate, breeders are tackling a number of biotic, abiotic and socio-economic stresses that limit maize productivity and working to make it more adaptive.

‘Young breeders need to focus on new techniques and technology to improve seed quality and crop productivity to produce optimum yields for farmers and contribute to food security,’ said Ndlala.

Ndlala conducted her research at the Agricultural Research Council’s Grain Crops division (ARC-GC) where she is about to start her PhD research. Her research focused on combatting the effects of drought, low nitrogen levels and optimum yield. She evaluated 50 maize genotypes from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Zimbabwe to see which proved to be tolerant and stable under multiple stresses. She was inspired to pursue this research after South Africa suffered devastating effects of the El Niño drought in the 2015-2017 planting season which affected farmers’ ability to export produce. She was interested in discovering which traits were responsible for grain yield and how to improve them without compromising grain quality and productivity.

Meeting the objectives of her study, Ndlala identified genotypes recommended for further evaluation for coming planting seasons under multi-environment trials to assess their adaptability to climate change and other stress conditions. She hopes this research will positively influence crop production and adaptation through new technologies to lessen the blows of climate change-induced events.

She said the process of completing her Master’s taught her patience and forward planning. She also learned to prioritise working with integrity, teamwork and diligence to produce high quality, reputable work.

She said she valued the opportunity to meet and learn from other breeders. Her hard work has paid off in the form of funding towards her PhD studies at the same institute where she conducted her internship and research. She looks forward to being able to apply the same standards to her PhD work and use her experience to forge a career as an up-and-coming plant breeder.

Ndlala thanked AGRA, especially Dr Rufaro Madakadze, for making her studies possible, and thanked her supervisor, Dr Julia Sibiya for her close supervision, guidance, constructive criticism and support. She also thanked her mentor at ARC-GC, Dr Kingston Mashingaidze, for investing his time in teaching her about the maize breeding programme.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal