Visually impaired SU graduate refuses to pedal in sauerkraut when she encounters adversity

Giving up has never been an option for Mbali Ngcamu, 62, who graduated from Stellenbosch University (SU) this week with an MSc in Food Nutrition and Security.

Despite facing numerous challenges – a visual impairment that cut short her career as a radiographer, ill health and then, last year, the loss of her home in the devasting floods in KwaZulu Natal – Mbali Ngcamu has been steadfast in her determination to make the world better and more inclusive.

Her thesis, titled “The effects of sauerkraut on human health, nutrition and food security: a review of the literature”, looks at ways in which cabbage can be processed locally to improve food security and nutrition.

Her desire to better understand issues affecting local communities has long been the motivation for her studies. When an eye condition prevented her from working as a radiographer, Mbali opened a bakery franchise to support her son and her siblings. Unfortunately, she was forced to close it because of the “oppressive and discriminatory” treatment of African women in business.

“I was not ready to give up,” she says. With a desire to help other women entrepreneurs, she completed a BA in Social Sciences and a BCom in Small Business Development. She then enrolled for a postgraduate Diploma in Disability Studies at the University of Cape Town to explore the challenges disabled women entrepreneurs face. Interested in ways in which businesses could accommodate more people with disabilities, she started an MPhil in Inclusive Innovation (she could not complete this because of ill health).

When diagnosed with a thyroid condition that almost killed her, Mbali decided to register for a Diploma in Nutrition to explore the role of food in optimal health. Realising that fermented foods have a significant role to play in healing the body, she registered a company that advocated for the elimination of foods that negatively affect the gut.

Again, a desire to know more set her on a new academic path. After experimenting on herself by using products brewed and fermented in her kitchen, Mbali decided she wanted to study the impact of fermented food on the body. She enrolled at SU and narrowed her focus of study to look at how cabbage, which is grown widely in South Africa, can help eradicate malnutrition and food insecurity.

“By taking our own health seriously and into our own hands by choosing what we eat, we can one day have a country free of malnourished children with stunted growth,” she says.

Mbali’s impaired vision has been a constant challenge throughout her academic career. “I never expected the amount of reading I would need to do.” While she often struggled to explain to course convenors that she was unable to access information because of her eyesight, she experienced “amazing” support from SU’s Disability Unit. With the Unit’s support and funding, she had access to the appropriate software to convert articles into an accessible format.

Everything was on track for Mbali to complete her MSc, until the devasting floods in KwaZulu-Natal last year destroyed her home.

Not only did it leave her family without a roof over their heads, but her laptop with its assistive technology was also lost. “Only a visually impaired person will understand what it means to try and get by without the software.”

Mbali decided to relocate to the Western Cape to get the help she needed and finish her thesis.

She credits her supervisor, Prof Gunnar Sigge, associate professor and Head of the Department of Food Science, as well as the staff at the Faculty of AgriSciences, including Julia Harper and Anneke Muller, for her success.

This indomitable entrepreneur and academic is far from nearing the end of her pursuit of knowledge. She set up a practice dealing with gut health, and she is working on a food bank project with the Technology Innovation Agency. Her future plans include commencing with a PhD in 2024.

(Photo credit: Stefan Els)

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