College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

UKZN Graduate One of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans

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UKZN alumnus, Dr Sphumelele Ndlovu, has been named one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans for 2019.

Ndlovu was recognised in the category of Science and Technology for his work as one of five directors at the Indabuko Institute, an organisation that focuses on research and development of energy solutions. He currently serves as the acting Managing Director.

Ndlovu graduated with his PhD in Engineering from UKZN in 2018, having undertaken his research while part of the Professional Development Programme for PhD studies under the Space Geodesy Programme at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO). He was a member of the first African team working on measuring the growing distance between the earth and the moon using lasers.

His path to academic success was not an easy one, and is detailed in his memoir: Aiming for the Stars, published in 2018 to inspire fellow South Africans to reach for their dreams. He chronicles his journey to his PhD from a challenging start at school in eMaswazini, KwaZulu-Natal, which lacked resources and teaching staff.

Ndlovu’s career at UKZN began in the Science Foundation Programme (SFP), leading him to a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Physics and on to postgraduate studies which saw him complete his master’s degree in just 11 months.

His research has been awarded by the South African Institute of Physics, and has taken him to an International Laser Ranging Workshop in Washington DC in 2014, the 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, and the BRICS Young Scientists Conclave in India.

Ndlovu also worked for the South African Weather Service as a scientist within the Air Quality Services department before pursuing his work with the Indabuko Institute where his role involves developing research proposals.

The development of the institute resulted from his selection to participate in the 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, which led to an invitation to meet with the former energy and economics advisors to the president, Mr Silas Zimu and Dr Bheki Mfeka.

Ndlovu regards his work with the institute as the highlight of his career, specifically bringing together a team of young, vibrant and talented scientists to form the institute and gaining support from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme, all in under 18 months.

‘Scientific research – which always poses challenges that require solutions – has given me an opportunity to learn new things and in the process, taught me how little we know,’ said Ndlovu.

Now the father of two, Ndlovu was raised by a single mother who sold chickens to pay for the education of her two sons, and who Ndlovu said inspired his determination, the writing of his book, and the success he has achieved as a top young South African.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: UKZN Archives