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.