College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Young Scientist Excels in Water, Energy and Food Research

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Research Associate Professor at UKZN and Co-Director of the Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi was featured in the online magazine: The Water Wheel in recognition of his outstanding achievements and research work.

The feature, included in the Water Research Commission’s 50-year anniversary celebrations, identified him as one of the high achiever water researchers supported by the commission.

A further accolade for 37-year-old Mabhaudhi was receiving the 2020 UKZN Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award while other significant achievements include:

•   Having his research work cited more than 1 000 times by fellow scientists;

•   Writing more than 150 journal articles, book chapters, technical reports and policy briefing articles;

•   Being the recipient of several awards for prolific academic output and helping to translate science into policy;

•   Being one of UKZN’s Top Ten most published postdoctoral fellows (2016);

•   Being among the Top 10 most-published researchers under the age of 40 at UKZN in 2020; and

•   Being recognised as a Y-rated researcher by the National Research Foundation.

Mabhaudhi, who grew up in Zimbabwe, graduated with a BSc Honours degree in crop science from the University of Zimbabwe. He spent almost two years farming a 20ha plot on the outskirts of Harare in partnership with three friends, then in 2008 moved to UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus where he completed his master’s degree, PhD and post-doctoral studies, with funding from the Water Research Commission (WRC). He continued to run the farm remotely until 2009, when he decided to unplug himself completely to focus on his studies.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Professor Albert Modi, who had been Mabhaudi’s PhD supervisor, was keen to build a team of researchers who would work towards transforming subsistence agriculture. Modi had been impressed by Mabhaudhi’s work ethic, his attitude towards team work and willingness to help other researchers and co-opted him. The ‘Team of Two’ began to expand with 13 postgraduate students joining them while the WRC gave them a follow-up project to conduct and they were dubbed the Green Team.

In 2019, the fledgling Green Team was formally rebranded as The Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems – a title chosen to reflect its work in supporting smallholder farmers, boosting undervalued traditional food crops and finding solutions to the challenges of climate change.

Mabhaudi gradually directed his focus into the emerging research arena known as the Water-Food-Energy (WEF) nexus, along with research into crop-water usage and undervalued traditional African food crops. He has also immersed himself in initiatives to translate science into policy and has also begun to participate in advisory forums with government and regional structures. He said: ‘It is not enough just to do science, if it’s not informing how decisions are made. You need to be sitting in the same room as the practitioners, policy-makers and decision-makers, so that you can co-design, co-learn and co-implement.’

WRC Executive Manager: Water Utilisation in Agriculture, Professor Sylvester Mpandeli, says Mabhaudhi’s research on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus has been widely recognised globally. ‘Tafadzwa is a very bright young man,’ said Mpandeli. ‘His work is important for several reasons, because while he is an agricultural scientist, he combines his understanding with socio-economic issues and translates it into the science-policy interface. He stands out … he drives research and innovation and also engages communities, asking them whether they agree or disagree with proposals.’

Mabhaudhi attributes his success to the passion he has for his career: ‘If you don’t focus on what you really care about you will likely only be average. But you excel when you find your passion. Your work becomes more rewarding and ideas start to come to you in your sleep.’

To read the article on Mabhaudhi in The Water Wheel, click : WW_March2021_web.pdf, pages 22 – 25.

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

Photograph: Supplied