Young pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant reels in suc­cess

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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.

Ca­reer high­light

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.

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