In a mere 18 years, a young man from rural Limpopo has not only turned his own life around and changed his future, but he has taken his entire family along with him for the beautiful ride.
Young production assistant reels in success
There's definitely nothing fishy about successful production scientist Dr Molatelo Madibana (33), who is the first researcher in South Africa to test Ulva seaweed, herbal products and Brewer's yeast in the diet of Dusky kob (Argyromus japonicas), a migratory, spawning fish.
He has come a long way since 2003, when he didn't know where to get R7.50 for a taxi to go to a shopping centre in Senwabarwana, Limpopo to enquire about municipal bursaries and his sister Jaenatt suggested that he visit his former primary school teacher Betty Manamela for advice.
Manamela gave him R100 for a taxi to the University of Limpopo, where he was introduced to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). “I applied and presented my grandmother's South African Social Security Agency payslip and was soon given a registration merit award of R2 200 because of my good matric results.
“Back then we only got R6 600 from NSFAS and there was no subsidy for
meals, accommodation or books. My mother could only send me R250 from her housekeeping job in Gauteng. From that, I had to pay R100 a month for an off-campus shack and buy food and study guides,” he said.
Setting the foundation
NSFAS paid Dr Madibana's fees for three years and he passed his courses. “Life was in equilibrium and the scheme set my career's foundation. As long as I passed, the NSFAS converted some of the money into a bursary.” In 2006, when he graduated from the University of Limpopo with a Bachelor of Science degree, he only owed R20 000.“This I paid back in a year and a half, when I started working.”
In 2007, Dr Madibana obtained an Honours degree in aquaculture. Soon thereafter he received a bursary from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Norwegian government for a Master of Science degree in aquatic medicine at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He graduated in 2010 and returned to South Africa, when DAFF snapped him up for a two-year contract to work in its Aquaculture Research Directorate. When the contract ended, DAFF employed him permanently.
“When the bursary did eventually come, I was able to help my mother retire in 2009. I spent 70 percent of my scholarship money building an eight-room house for her and my siblings. I also bought her a car, which enabled her to start a tent and catering business and send my younger sister to banking school,” he said.
Dr Madibana obtained his PhD from the North-West University this year. Under the supervision of world-renowned animal scientist Prof. Victor Mlambo, his PhD thesis was on the effect of dietary additives on growth performance, gut histology, blood parameters and tissue nutrient composition of South African Dusky kob.
“Completing my PhD in one year and nine months, whilst juggling work commitments, is the highlight of my career,” he said.
Dr Madibana commenced his career as a production scientist at DAFF in 2010, focusing on fish nutrition and conducting feeding trials on juvenile Dusky kob. He has formulated a diet that contains seaweed, to test if the fish will still grow optimally with less fishmeal in their diet.
“I am trying to shift away the dependence on fishmeal to feed aquaculture fish. This will sustain our oceans' stock because lots of sardines, anchovies and mackerels are harvested daily to produce fishmeal and this is not sustainable. We need to incorporate more plant proteins, such as soybeans, grapeseed and corn for aquaculture to grow without hampering ocean resources,” said Dr Madibana, who has presented his work at local and international conferences and had his research published in peerreviewed journals.
“When I get to work, I first check if my experimental fish are still swimming in the holding tanks, inspect the tanks for defects that could result in a system failure and lead to fish mortalities, and switch off the aquarium light, because Dusky kob don't like light. I also syphon the bottom of the tanks to remove decomposing feed and faeces that could produce toxic nitrogenous gases, such as ammonia. On other days I weigh the fish to assess their growth and I have to sacrifice some to test fillet and intestine samples to quantify fatty acid composition and histology of the gut,” he said.
Growing the aquaculture industry
While Dr Madibana's biggest challenge is getting more funding to improve his research, he is collaborating with various universities to have fish samples analysed so that the results can be shared with fish farmers and the general public. “I learn new things every day and I have new routines. I have the opportunity to teach and supervise other students, which I love,” he said.
His mandate at DAFF is to help grow the aquaculture industry
through research. Over the past few years he has formed many collaborations and relationships with role-players in the farming sector, including farmers and aspiring farmers, academics and government officials.
“This year I started a career guidance programme in aquaculture for high school kids and the response from schools around Cape Town has been phenomenal. I am supervising Master's and Honours students and I hope that more scientists will be produced to help grow South Africa's ailing aquaculture sector,” he said.
While he hasn't worked much with communities, he does get involved in small farm holdings every so often to train aspiring young farmers about aquaculture. “I hope to do this often in future. I have often been to China for training and conferences and I have learnt that their success in producing over 50 million tons of aquaculture products is mainly through government sponsoring small-scale farmers.
“I would like to engage more with communities because there is more that aquaculture can provide. Chicken and beef are becoming luxury items in South Africa and people need to be taught that the cheapest protein source is fish,” he said.
Dr Madibana believes that children should be taught basic biology from a young age because they will then realise that all the great minds in the world go to their offices on a full stomach and someone needs to produce that food.
“A career in aquaculture or agriculture is what this country needs at a time when the economy is moribund and we rely heavily on imported foods that puts a strain on poor households. In most of the Asian countries, especially China, people produce their own food and use their own produce to generate an income.
“South Africa's youth need to realise that a career in agriculture is not a shame or taboo for kids, but a step towards ensuring food-secure countries. Our high crime rate comes mostly from people being poor and hungry. They commit crime to feed their family. We don't need more lawyers and accountants; we need agriculturists and engineers that cater for life's basic needs.”
As for the future, Dr Madibana aims to educate more students in aquaculture and interact more with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to learn the ways that propelled the region to produce 85 percent of the world's aquaculture products.
Dr Molatelo Madibana has overcome the odds to make a name for himself as a production scientist.