This scientist helps rural Mzansi see farming differently

The point of science is to improve how we live and work. Environmental scientist Andiswa Finca gets it, and she is using her years of study and research to help rural farmers understand sustainable agriculture

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Hailing from Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape, Andiswa Finca did not have agriculture in mind when she started her tertiary studies. It was only after she completed her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and geographic information systems (GIS) at Fort Hare University that the sector became an option.  

“I was then employed by the Agricultural Research Council in 2006 as a research assistant and was offered an opportunity to do an honours degree in microbiology, which I did part-time at Fort Hare.” 

Finca works with rural farmers in the Eastern Cape to help them find sustainable solutions to their problems. Photo: Joshua Gaunt/Unsplash

Finca was soon embedded in the agriculture sector and going on to complete her master’s degree in environmental geography. The principal researcher of her ARC research group, Dr Anthony Palmer, also acted as her mentor. 

“My master’s was totally different from what I did for my honours. It focused more on water lost by plants through transpiration and a process called evapotranspiration. We wanted to assess the effect of overgrazing on two grasslands with different land uses.” 

Different dynamics between men and women 

While working on a project centred on participatory GIS, Finca met Dr Suzanne Linnane and Prof. Jill Slinger, who would become her supervisors for her doctorate (PhD) studies. She had never experienced mentorship from women before and says that the experience was different from working with a man as a mentor.  

“I think there’s more understanding of the things that we as women go through, and more ability to manage expectations and to manage emotions. Also, they [took the] time to understand [me] as a person. I discovered that I respond more to being reassured and to being listened to, actually, rather than being told what to do; being given an opportunity to say ‘this is how I think this would work’ and then being told [to] go and try it out. And I could come back without fear if it doesn’t work out.” 

Finca says that her male mentors were wonderful, but that she found working with both men and women as supervisors to be more balanced. 

The power of research

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Discussing the impact of her PhD research, Finca says that it has not yet influenced policy but that she was able to facilitate discussions among stakeholders in the rural agricultural community.  

Getting people to appreciate the importance of farming is high on Finca's agenda. Photo: Gabriel Jimenez/Unsplash
Getting people to appreciate the importance of farming is high on Andiswa Finca’s agenda. Photo: Gabriel Jimenez/Unsplash

“I did my study and then, when I had the results, I went back to the communities and did a feedback workshop which brought [in] the community leaders, the communal farmers, the extension officers and even some of the higher-level traditional leaders. [It] gave people an opportunity to voice their issues and their concerns, and also gave the extension officers [an opportunity] to voice their own actual issues and explain to the farmers how some of the processes go or what they needed to do to get help for some of the issues that they had.” 

Giving voice to those who are not normally heard was one of the biggest rewards for Finca, even if much more work still needs to be done. “A lot of mindset changes need to happen, but I would say that that was part of the highlights for me. You know, to do work that would actually bring different stakeholders into one room and get everyone talking.” 

Finca has since successfully defended her PhD, which she obtained from the Dundalk Institute of Technology in Ireland. Her PhD was focused on investigating access to, and management of, communal rangelands in the Eastern Cape and how it affects the rangelands, the livestock and the rural community. 

A passion for rural communities 

For Finca, the joy in working as an environmental scientist in the agricultural space lies in contributing to rural development. Her priority is to make people in rural Mzansi understand sustainable agriculture and to ensure that it is interesting enough for young people to continue working in the sector.  

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“I’m mostly interested in making sure that that people still see agriculture as something that’s valuable and that can contribute significantly to their wellbeing and economic growth, and can sustain them and their families, like in the olden times when people would send their kids to school using profits from livestock or from crops.” 

She does not see herself leaving the agricultural space anytime soon, as there is still so much work to be done. “What I like about this work is that it’s not one thing or the other. It’s really a combination of things. It’s working in a complex system, where you have to untangle different knots,” she says.

“There’s a human element. There’s a climate element. There’s an animal element. And you’re always trying to see how each of these affects the other, and how to make them work together in a more sustainable and profitable way.” 

It’s like solving a puzzle

Finca says that the puzzle of environmental science within the agricultural space is ultimately about human engagement. “When you bring in the human element, then you get more insights in terms of what is happening. You’ll also get people thinking about things that they had not thought of before. And from that, they’re able to see the system holistically and come up with solutions to the issues they face themselves.” 

Finca’s advice for anyone who wants to go into agriculture? “You should always be able to see the bigger picture; how the different pieces all fit together. Respect others in their fields and their contribution to the co-creation of knowledge. Always surround yourself with like-minded individuals, whether they have the same or different expertise.” 

ALSO READ: Meet an environmental scientist

Get Stories of Change: Inspirational stories from the people that feed Mzansi. 

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