Agricultural researcher Qinisani Qwabe is hopeful that his PhD thesis will add value to Mzansi’s agricultural value chain. The 27-year-old has recently obtained his doctorate from the University of the Free State.
Qwabe, who is also a farmer, focused his PhD research on indigenous vegetables and its socio-economic contribution to people’s livelihoods. Besides being a researcher, he is also a founder of Ubuntu AgriRenaissance in KwaDlangezwa.
He tells Food For Mzansi that completing his PhD at such a young age is no small feat. He failed matric in 2011 and had to bounce back despite facing many difficulties.
Born and raised in the villages of northern KwaZulu-Natal, he was also set on using his failure to not only change his own life, but also motivate others.
Zolani Sinxo: Congrats on the PhD, Dr Qwabe! Often great academic work just ends up in a library somewhere. What is your vision for the practical application of your research?
Since my research focuses on indigenous vegetables and its socio-economic contribution to people’s livelihoods, nothing would make me happier than to see an increasing number of institutions and farmers making investments in the production, processing and commercialisation of these crops.
The goal is to have them play a major part of the agricultural value chain rather than being perceived as food substitutes in times of food scarcity and as food for the poor. So, my personal goal is not just to popularise these crops but to also have them form a great part of the South African food system. Not just as “a lost child” but as one of the prominent players in the food value chain.
To do this, I developed a three-phase model that focuses on the commercialisation of these indigenous crops.
The first phase focuses on raising awareness about indigenous vegetables. I have been doing this for the past couple of years already and Food for Mzansi has played a major part in doing this.
The second phase is programme initiation, which is where there is an enabling of farmer-expert interactions and the identification of value-adding initiatives.
The last phase, which is the implementation phase, is more of a practical intervention that focuses on structured farming programmes that embrace measures of sustainability, and further addresses the issue of market linkages. All these phases have detailed stages that one would follow and as part of my next project is to put this model into action.
Since I have done this in KwaZulu-Natal, the plan is to replicate it to other areas, starting with where I currently am in the Free State. I already see this happening as the department of sustainable food systems and development [at the University of the Free State] is all about innovative methods that seek to drive sustainable food systems.
Obtaining a PhD at such a young age is quite noteworthy. Do you have academic ambition? Will you eventually end up in the classroom?
I have always seen myself as an academic and in the same light, I’ve always seen myself working in spaces where I inform policy around the food systems. My interest, in particular, is the inclusion of the needs of marginalised groups in such discourses.
A part of me still feels that they are not well represented, and their voices are very much silenced. As one who comes from such communities, I want to be the voice of change for these groups.
And to answer your question – yes and no. I will always be in the academic environment. That is my happy space, and I would never trade it for anything. I am also very much into community engagement activities that are driven towards sustainable development.
That cannot be achieved by staying in the classroom alone, but requires one to be visible and active outside the boundaries of academia.
You’re passionate about creating a greater understanding and respect for indigenous food crops. How do we create a bigger demand that could lead to a revival in such crops?
The first step is to do what I have already mentioned, raising awareness. I am happy that there is an increasing number of people that are now beginning to recognise the value of indigenous foods.
If we do this as a collective, it will be easy to get them popularised even in spaces where they are unknown. It is also important that we become systematic in our approach. I think once we get past the awareness stage, the rest will easily fall into place.
Black academics are slowing but surely making their mark at academic institutions. What should be done on ground level to encourage a hunger for academic and other learning?
I already think people out there are hungry to learn but there is still a huge challenge when it comes to access to formal learning. Through a collective effort, not just from the public and private sectors, but civil society at large. I believe that we can all make little contributions that can ease access to education for many people who have the passion to learn but do not have the means to.
So, you can now tick off the PhD. What’s your next move?
At present, the plan is to immerse myself in research focusing on sustainable agricultural practices and integrating these with the production of indigenous food crops. I want to start working with communities around the Free State and see how far we can work towards advancing indigenous foods. If things go well, I am hoping that we will work for hand in hand with other institutions that share a similar goal.
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