‘I believe my research on indigenous and underutilised crops has a role to play in moving towards a more sustainable, diverse, and inclusive agricultural system that benefits local communities and wider society. In my research, I like to combine scientific knowledge with traditional wisdom, by fostering collaboration and promoting the well-being of people and the environment. This is important because we cannot be conducting research for the people without including the voice of the people,’ says Dr Ethel Phiri, lecturer and researcher at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of AgriSciences.

Dr Phiri tells how her own academic story developed: ‘I knew that I wanted to be some type of scientist by the time I was 12 years old. I’ve always been curious about nature, and mainly plants. Therefore, I studied for a BSc in Natural and Environmental Sciences, majoring in Botany and Biochemistry at the former Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg).’

Her BSc was ‘followed by an Honours in Botany, and my postgraduate studies took me on a long, winding road. Eventually, I ended up with a PhD in Zoology. Yet, my passion always lay in plants. I spent five years post PhD building my research profile and getting back to researching plants. At the end of the five years, I had made up my mind that I would research indigenous food crops.’

Indigenous crops are vital
Today, she says, ‘my research focus lies in the sustainable production of indigenous and underutilised crops: those crops that are usually ignored in our diets and also in research.’

Her primary crop of research is ‘Bambara groundnut, also known as tindlubu, ditloo, jugo bean, or earth pea, amongst others. However, to a lesser extent I also research imbuya (leafy and grain), imfe and amabele grains, and tinhlumayo beans.’

Dr Phiri explains that the South African Government ‘has an agenda to transform the country’s food systems by incorporating indigenous crops. Indigenous crops are often well adapted to local environmental conditions, including drought, heat, and pests. They can thrive with minimal inputs and are often more resilient to climate change impacts. By integrating indigenous crops, South Africa’s food systems can become more resilient to climate variability, reducing the reliance on water-intensive and input-dependent crops.’

Agricultural science plays a vital role in addressing global challenges such as food security, sustainable agriculture, climate change, and environmental conservation. ‘As a scientist in this field, I have the opportunity to contribute to finding solutions to these pressing issues and make a positive impact,’ she says.

She also stresses that there is still some work to do in terms of equity: ‘It is important to note that while agricultural science offers exciting opportunities for women, gender inequalities and barriers still exist in certain contexts. Efforts to promote gender equality, empower women, and ensure inclusive opportunities in agricultural science are essential for creating a more diverse and equitable sector.’

Collaboration and dedication
Dr Phiri comments on the importance of collaboration in the sciences: ‘I’m of the thought that one should not be working in silos and that we need to follow a transdisciplinary approach to problem solving. An organisation like NITheCS provides the perfect platform for addressing complex challenges, fostering innovation, engaging stakeholders, developing sustainable solutions, and promoting lifelong learning. It enables the integration of diverse knowledge and perspectives, leading to more effective, practical, and inclusive approaches to problem solving.’

Her recipe for a successful career in science? ‘Being a research scientist in any field requires dedication, perseverance, and a passion for inquiry and discovery. It involves rigorous academic training, continuous learning, and the ability to adapt to new technologies and advancements. As such, I have a strong commitment to sustainability, environmental stewardship, and addressing social and economic disparities in the field.’