Researcher Links delegates at Fountainhill Estate.

Researcher Links Workshop Brings Together Scientists

The School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) at UKZN recently hosted a five-day British Council Researcher Links Workshop on the topic of breeding and modelling underutilised crops for community resilience.

The workshop, held in July, was organised through the British Council Researcher Links programme, and funded through the Newton Fund and South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF). Proceedings were facilitated by principal facilitators Dr Sean Mayes and Professor Festo Massawe from the University of Nottingham, Dr Alice Muchugi and Dr Prasad Hendré of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Kenya, and Professor Albert Modi and Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi of UKZN.

More than 50 early-career researchers (ECRs), facilitators, mentors and students attended the event, including delegations of researchers from universities and research institutions in Kenya, universities in the United Kingdom and Malaysia, and universities and research institutions across South Africa. Attendees included a number of postgraduate students from South African institutions.

The purpose of Researcher Links workshops is to bring together early career researchers (ECRs) and seasoned researchers to provide mentorship opportunities and initiate long-term collaborations. The programme included an opportunity for participants to introduce themselves, with ECRs presenting a poster summarising their current research.

During the course of the workshop, ECRs formed multidisciplinary groups across countries and disciplines to evaluate across crops, worked on developing a plan for increasing uptake of each crop and investigated the requirements to exploit genomics. The groups compared crop-specific examples to develop a “generic” framework approach for any underutilised crop, and developed their understanding of the importance of field-based analysis and the farmer contribution to identifying key trait requirements for improvement.

The workshop activities facilitated career development, networking and mentoring through carefully tailored sessions.

A highlight of the workshop was attendance at the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) Farmers’ Day at the Ukulinga Research Farm, where more than 200 small-scale farmers, extension officers, government officials and researchers gathered to hear about the experiences, challenges and aspirations of small-scale farmers from across the uMgungundlovu District and beyond. This enabled participants to interact directly with farmers in their efforts to breed and model underutilised crops for community resilience.

Another day of the workshop was held at Fountainhill Estate near Wartburg where numerous disciplines at UKZN conduct research.

‘I learnt a lot from the interactions and my interest in crops, particularly the underutilised, has grown many folds,’ said Dr Ojola Odeny of Kenyatta University. ‘I am looking at traditional crops differently after the workshop.’

Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod