Staff and students in the Discipline of Geography and the broader University community were shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of alumnus and high achiever Ms Ndoni Mcunu.
Mcunu completed a Bachelor of Social Science with Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Management at UKZN in 2013, going on to be awarded an MSc in Applied Environmental Science in 2016.
In her master’s thesis she focused on precision agriculture and the use of GIS and remote sensing technology for the early detection of vegetation deterioration, with the view to harnessing satellite imagery to assist in the management of extreme weather events to reduce the impact on farmers and food security.
At the time of her death, Mcunu was busy with a PhD at the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, investigating the production of food on limited land. Her work was aimed at increasing farmer resilience to climate change by evaluating the effects of scale and diversity of different farming enterprises.
She was also a researcher and bilateral engagement lead in climate change on the international Adaptation Research Alliance at SouthSouthNorth.
During her short career, Mcunu received several awards for her impact, including being one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2016 and a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2017 as well as receiving an honorary award from the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government in the division of Science Research and Entrepreneurship presented by the KZN Young Achievers Awards and the eThekwini Municipality, and the Gagasi FM – SHERO Award in the Science and Technology category.
Mcunu was made a GreenMatter Fellow for her academic research in climate change and agriculture, and was listed among the Top 50 Most Inspiring Women in Tech in South Africa in 2017, an award presented by the Kingdom of The Netherlands and South Africa. She recently received a Humanitarian Awards Global Award for the Most Distinguished Women Change Makers in Africa in 2020-2021.
She was also one of UKZN’s Wonder Women in Science in 2016, and in 2018 and 2020 presented TEDx Talks on what it means for society when women walk away from science and on female representation in African leadership. She presented a talk at the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2021 Conference on how to empower African climate action.
She quickly recognised the need for mentorship, skills training, and a support network for emerging Black female scientists and established the Non-Profit Organisation Black Women in Science (BWIS). Her generous spirit, and genuine dedication to supporting the next generation of young scientists were evident in her willingness to come back to her alma mater and engage with our Geography students at her own expense.
Mcunu became a prominent figure in climate science and advocate for climate research, often appearing on national television discussion forums.
She had hoped to play an important role in policy development and strategic sustainable planning in the agricultural, food security and climate change sectors.
Mcunu will be remembered as a truly inspirational and visionary ambassador and role model for Black women in Science.
May her legacy and enormous impact continue to help inspire and motivate young scientists to reach their full potential.
Words: Christine Cuenod