Limpopo farmer sacrifices tractors to help daughter pursue PhD in agronomy

5 April 2024

Lebogang Mashala

Mamothatha Mabitsela, a smallholder farmer, had no qualms about selling two of his tractors to aid his daughter Mosima in her pursuit of a doctorate. 

The proud father declared that he would have sold everything he had to help his daughter, Mosima, achieve her dream. Mosima recently graduated from Stellenbosch University with a PhD in agronomy. 

Her family has deep farming roots and one of her earliest recollections is of toiling in the fields alongside her grandmother. She has a deep understanding of the effects of climate change and extreme conditions on agricultural productivity. 

Mosima, who hails from an agricultural area in Limpopo, is focused on seeking out cost-efficient and eco-friendly farming solutions. “Food insecurity is a great challenge on the African continent, so coming up with sustainable ways to farm can be a way that I can make a difference,” she says.

For her doctoral studies, Mosima explored the growth potential of the native Bambara groundnut in a low-cost, sustainable aeroponics system. 

Collaborating with her mentors, Dr Ethel Phiri, Prof Thinus Booysen (Stellenbosch University, industrial engineering) and Prof Sydney Mavengahama (North-West University), she cultivated the legume, which she recalls as one of her childhood “comfort foods”, using an experimental greenhouse aeroponics setup powered by a universal Internet of Things (IoT) system. 

According to her, the Bambara groundnut can have a significant impact on reducing communities’ need for environmentally unsafe monocrops like wheat, rice and maize.

The findings indicated that Bambara grown using aeroponics displayed superior performance compared to those grown using the traditional hydroponics method (using sawdust and drip irrigation). Furthermore, the landraces grown in sawdust showed a higher leaf count than those grown using aeroponics. 

In her proof of concept published in the journal Heliyon last year, Mosima highlighted the potential of aeroponics and IoT systems to support subsistence farmers in rural communities by offering a sustainable alternative for cultivating underutilised crops.

Growing up in a farming family, it was no surprise that Mosima chose to attend the Harry Oppenheimer Agricultural High School in Mokopane, Limpopo. She obtained her undergraduate qualifications and MSc from the University of Zululand. She pursued her doctorate at Stellenbosch because she believed it had the best agricultural faculty. 

Mosima, who considers herself a driven and disciplined individual, says the challenge of being away from her family was made easier by her supervisor’s support. Using the funds from her father’s tractor sale as a starting point, she was able to obtain extra financial support – including a scholarship from Stellenbosch – allowing her to prioritise her studies.

Mosima says she often had to put her studies ahead of making friends because of her intent on succeeding academically. But the sacrifices paid off as she returned to her rural community ready to share her knowledge on climate-smart farming.

Her advice to students interested in agronomy or the science of crop production is to expect a challenging but gratifying endeavour. “Be ready to learn, as agronomy is diverse. Be enthusiastic and take every opportunity that comes your way, because it will help you develop yourself,” she says.

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