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11 February 2024 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo SUPPLIED
Remmie Hilukwa and Johanna Valombola
Pictured from the left are Remmie Hilukwa from the Ministry of Agriculture in Namibia who is registered for a PhD in Agronomy/Plant Breeding, and Johanna Valombola, who works for the University of Namibia. She is registered for a PhD in Plant Breeding.

Just more than a year ago, Prof Maryke Labuschagne, Professor of Plant Breeding in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) and leader of the National Research Foundation’s SARChI Chair in Disease Resistance and Quality in Field Crops, initiated a drive to train more female PhD students from countries across Africa, in addition to South Africa. 

The first group of women who were recruited in 2022 registered in 2023.

Currently, in addition to the three PhD students from the South African Sugarcane Research Institute in Durban and the one student from the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, there are also enrolled students from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Kenya. These students are employed by national programmes, universities, or international agricultural research centres.

Apply for opportunities and know that there is always a way to reach your goals. It may not always be easy, and balancing a family life with studies can be challenging, but many women have shown that it can be done.

“All the work of these students aligns with the objectives of the SARChI Chair in Disease Resistance and Quality in Field Crops. The improvement of crop nutritional value is very important in African crops, and a number of our female PhD students are working on this theme. They are aiming to genetically improve nutritional value in maize, Bambara groundnut, and regular groundnut through different breeding techniques,” explains Prof Labuschagne. 

There are also two of their students in Namibia who are using mutation breeding for crop improvement, where seeds are irradiated to create new genetic variation. According to her, another student is aiming to improve provitamin A in maize for Mozambique, and two other students are working on a different theme of disease resistance breeding in wheat and fall armyworm resistance in sorghum.

Women, a large driver of crop production

“We have been training PhD students in Plant Breeding from African countries other than South Africa for more than 30 years, but the largest number of these students have always been men, as women often have family obligations and find it difficult to finance their studies. In the rest of Africa, women are a large driver of crop production, especially in small-scale farming, yet there are very few female plant breeders and other scientists,” says Prof Labuschagne.

They are now actively trying to recruit more women into the PhD programme and support them on the journey to obtaining their PhD degrees.

One of the initiatives in place to make further studies more feasible for these students is what Prof Labuschagne refers to as the ‘sandwich programme’. She elaborates, “The students come to the university from time to time for course- and laboratory work. They, however, conduct their fieldwork in their own countries, and we, as supervisors, try to visit them regularly and then also work with in-country supervisors at the research institutes that employ these students.

“We are proud of this initiative and hope we have set a new trend,” she says, stating that it is important to go the extra mile to encourage and support female students to apply for and complete their PhD studies.

Prof Labuschagne is of the opinion that this should be done by all universities to increase female representation in the agricultural sector, and specifically in breeding and seed companies. She believes that as female representation in companies increases, more opportunities will be created for women scientists, which will create a positive cycle.

Making an impact in the industry

Prior to the launch of this initiative, the department trained 10 female PhD students from other countries in Africa, and they are making a significant impact in the industry.

According to Prof Labuschagne, their female doctorates working in the seed industry in Africa have been highly successful, with some playing leading roles in maize breeding (at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Zimbabwe), cassava and banana breeding (at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria and Zambia), as well as in national programmes in Sudan (sorghum breeding), Mozambique (cassava breeding), and Zimbabwe (maize breeding).

“As the number of female breeders and scientists increases, this impact will also grow,” she believes. 

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