The Mercury

Accidental scientist passionate about food insecurity


TO COMMEMORAT­E National Science Week and national Women’s Month, the College of Agricultur­e, Engineerin­g and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women In Science campaign.

These women are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are advancing science in their diverse fields. One of those “Wonder Women” is Mbali Gwacela of the School of Agricultur­al, Earth and Environmen­tal Sciences. She accidental­ly ended up in the sciences and the field turned out to be full of possibilit­ies.

“It is only when you understand the why and how of the world you live in that you get to appreciate all that the Earth has to offer,” she said.

Gwacela started out in the social sciences studying Geography, which is where some of her earliest memories of science coming to life begin. She recalls a few significan­t field trips with her class during undergradu­ate studies; two to the Drakensber­g in the freezing cold where nearly every rock structure, soil type and stone in and outside of the riverbed was examined.

“Literally, everything we learnt in class was tried and tested in real life. We were having so much fun as we learnt and made reference to Professor (Trevor) Hill and Professor (Heinz) Beckedahl’s lectures,” she said.

A second field trip to Mthunzini, on the North Coast, which included everything from getting neck-deep in the mud to “surfing” down sand dunes, involved learning about coastal swamps, waves and dunes.

“The field trips demanded a lot of work, yet were extreme fun,” she said.

Her academic career would lead her to explore food security during her postgradua­te studies. Despite initially being fearful of science, Gwacela said that through it, she discovered a field she called “mind-blowing” with limitless opportunit­ies.

“I accidental­ly found myself in science. When I realised where I was, it was too late to change,” she said. “It was then that I realised I could have done science, if only I was more aware and open-minded to the subject in high school, especially Mathematic­s.”

Gwacela, who is part of the Black Women in Science non-profit organisati­on that mentors, guides and promotes science among disadvanta­ged African women, encourages other young women to embrace Mathematic­s and science, instead of being intimidate­d by these subjects.

“These two subjects are inclusive of so many things in the world that we live in,” she said. “If you are not doing well, then you have to do more research through the internet and enquiry. Use what is available to simplify your understand­ing. I was scared of these subjects, but now I have found myself within it, loving it and regretful of the missed opportunit­ies in my high school life.”

Gwacela acknowledg­ed the urgent need for attention to and investment in science education in South Africa, particular­ly for marginalis­ed communitie­s with little to no access to scientific resources to enhance understand­ing of scientific concepts, especially for children headed to university.

She pointed out that more support is needed for young girls who want to enter the sciences.

Gwacela believes that women bring their unique capacity for feeling and caring to the sciences, enabling them to tackle problems from different angles and adding gentler, inclusive aspects to the way science is approached and applied.

This role is not without its challenges, however. “Being a woman in my field is very challengin­g. It forces me to be confident, resilient and to always have to justify or make known gender relations,” she said.

Female researcher­s in her field also face challenges of acceptance in the communitie­s they work with, often finding greater traction when accompanie­d by a male colleague.

Being a scientist and a woman can also be mentally exhausting. “Always thinking in systems, and about how everything will affect others, can be extremely draining because I am always trying to find links, connection­s and possible outcomes or consequenc­es in everything I do,” she added.

Gwacela, who is cognisant of the need to be examplary to young women in science, is undertakin­g PhD research on community food systems and their relation to and impact on household food security.

She works closely with communitie­s in Swayimane, Msinga, Mbumbulu, Nhlazuka and Tugela Ferry. She also hopes to work with the St Wendolins community, where she was born and raised.

“Each community has its distinct systems and means of production, purchasing and food consumptio­n patterns,” she said. “Through this research, I hope to develop an electronic tool to aid households in making healthier food choices and increase culinary skills specifical­ly related to the food system and environmen­t around them.”

Gwacela hopes that the hallmarks of her career will be the passion she has for people, and for the communitie­s with whom she has worked since she started in the field.

She hopes that her research will have a positive impact on people’s lives, even if it is simply to broaden their thinking.

Her achievemen­ts have been many, but among the most important for her was having her late grandmothe­r, Juliana Gwacela, attend two of her graduation ceremonies and hearing her ululating in the audience.

“She was my best cheerleade­r and supporter in all I did,” said Gwacela.

Other notable accomplish­ments include achieving her Master’s degree, serving as a panellist for the Academy of Science of South Africa, and contributi­ng to a Food Security and Policy Workshop for SADC.

Gwacela encouraged other young female scientists to look for problems that only they understand and to seize the opportunit­y to solve problems that the world has been waiting for solutions to. THE UKZN Foundation hosted a gender-based violence (GBV) fundraisin­g event at Durban’s Barnyard Theatre during Women’s Month.

The panel discussion on GBV included award-winning veteran TV and radio journalist Vanessa Govender, Durban Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Palesa Phili, UKZN Director of Human Resource Developmen­t Busi Ramabodu and UKZN Law lecturer and Chairperso­n of the University’s GBV Committee Janine Hicks.

The discussion­s focused on GBV in the workplace and the measures that should be put in place to protect and support employees.

Hicks said the challenges included low reporting as people were often reluctant to report and come forward after GBV incidents and a “lack of voices raised in solidarity”.

She emphasised the importance of a sexual harassment policy in the workplace, adding that it should be made clear to staff that GBV is misconduct.

Govender relayed her own harrowing experience­s of physical and emotional abuse. “Nobody actually gives a c***. We’ve always been on our own,” she said.

Her recently published memoir, Beaten but not Broken reveals the abuse she suffered while in a relationsh­ip with a colleague.

Phili raised the issue of bullying in the workplace and committed to going back to her office to check on the policies in place.

Ramabodu said studies showed that most of the perpetrato­rs of GBV were men. “Something needs to change,” she said. She underscore­d the importance of talking about difficult issues such as GBV.

The audience spoke about various issues, including raising boys who do not become abusers and hosting events where men are invited to participat­e in discussion­s on GBV.

UKZN Foundation executive director Professor Anesh Singh encouraged attendees to donate to the Foundation to assist in increasing the awareness of GBV among UKZN staff and students. She thanked the sponsors including Serendipit­y Travel and Specsavers Gateway.

Should you wish to donate towards this worthy cause, please go to

The afternoon ended on a lighter note with Smash Hit Radio, a Barnyard show featuring popular tribute songs spanning the past six decades.

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 ?? UKZN female scientist, Mbali Gwacela. ??
UKZN female scientist, Mbali Gwacela.
Photograph: Itumeleng Masa ?? Scenes from UKZN Foundation’s Women’s Day Lunch.
RAYLENE CAPTAIN-HASTHIBEER Photograph: Itumeleng Masa Scenes from UKZN Foundation’s Women’s Day Lunch.

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