Meet the crop scientist called to ‘work for the nation’

Without the likes of crop scientist Boitumelo Mhlanga, farmers would never be able to increase their yields through newly developed plant strains. This is a career path she considers a "calling" which she first heard while working the fields with her grandparents

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At the age of nine, Boitumelo Mhlanga from Roodeplaat in Pretoria already knew how to process maize into maize meal and flour. It was a skill passed on to her by her grandparents – avid farmers.

Boitumelo Mahlanga says more young people should start exploring opportunities in crop science. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Boitumelo Mahlanga says more young people should start exploring opportunities in crop science. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

By the time she turned 15, Mhlanga knew how to run the farm. Her grandparents, Salaminah Maria Jiyane and Jacob Boy Jiyane, were deliberate about exposing their granddaughter to the inner workings of a farming operation.

So, when the time came for Mhlanga’s to decide what she would be studying after high school, no one was surprised when she filled out an application form to study crop science at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).

Today, she works as a crop scientist at the Agricultural Research Council’s vegetable and ornamental plant division. There, Mhlanga can be found conducting innovative, need-driven research, aimed at both the commercial and developing agricultural sector.

Securing food for the nation

Out of all the fields in agriculture she could have explored, crop science piqued her interest the most, she says.

“I have a love of crops. It’s something that I was exposed to at a very young age. I honestly haven’t thought of doing anything else than agriculture. It’s a calling, kind of.”

What’s cool about being a crop scientist, Mhlanga says, is being involved in plant health protection and getting to do this in various parts of the country.

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“With my job I can save agricultural crops, which means that I’m contributing to securing food.”

“If I can secure food for myself and my family, then I can definitely do the same for the nation.”

Being a crop scientist means that Mhlanga spends most of her time in the lab. This, she explains, is a controlled environment where plants are kept.

Once there, Mhlanga performs laboratory checks to ensure that the environment is not too harsh for the insects and plants that call her lab home. Mhlanga also focuses on germinating seeds, testing plants and insects and performing pest control research.

ALSO READ: This scientist helps rural Mzansi see farming differently

Farm holidays

Mhlanga believes that, thanks to her background, it was only a matter of time before she joined the agricultural sector. Although she could have made any another career choice thanks to her great academic performance, she chose agriculture.  

Crop scientist in the making: Boitumelo Mhlanga pictured as a toddler with her grandfather, Jacob Boy Jiyane. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Boitumelo Mhlanga pictured as a toddler with her grandfather, Jacob Boy Jiyane. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“It’s one of those careers where you do introspection. I realised doing this is therapeutic for me and I really enjoy it,” she says.

“I didn’t live on the farm with my grandparents, but I was there every winter and summer holiday.” Basically, instead of going to the big cities for holidays, Mhlanga and her parents’ vacations included soil preparation and planting new crops.

“I would get into the garden with my grandmother. During winter holidays I would spend time with my grandfather and get maize. I’ve also been exposed to the processing of agricultural products, for instance maize to mealie meal etcetera at a very young age.”

The importance of studying

To this day, Mhlanga’s grandparents work the land. “They are very old now, but still farming passionately,” she laughs.

Despite her educational background, being exposed to how things are really done on the farm is worlds apart from textbook agriculture, Mhlanga admits.

“Going to school broadened my knowledge. When you just have the experience of what’s happening on the farm, it’s different from when you get to tertiary [educational level].

“But some of the modules that I was studying in my first year – I was able corelate them to the things that I have been doing on the farm. I was able to better understand why we did certain things on the farm.”

Facing challenges head-on

Thanks to her education she is now able to work through challenges much more effectively. She is able to establish what the problem is and fix it. Mhlanga reckons this would not have been possible if she did not further her studies in agriculture.

She is not done studying and is currently completing her post-grad at TUT.

Mhlanga encourages others not to be scared of exploring opportunities in crop science.

“Nothing is really difficult. Of course, there are challenges, but you just need to have a positive attitude. I’ve also had challenges when studying for my qualification. Students should not get disappointed and want to quit. You just need to keep going. Agriculture is beautiful,” she says.

ALSO READ: AgriSETA Learner Connect: Meet a molecular scientist

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