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“Nine years into my research and academic career, one of the most common questions I hear from family and friends is, “uzoqedanini ukufunda?” (“Will she ever finish studying?”),” explains Ndoni Mcunu, co-founder of the non-profit organization Black Women in Science.
Ndoni Mcunu was born in KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, a south-east province of South Africa. “I have always been strongly supported by my family,” explains Ndoni, who is now pursuing a PhD in environmental science with a focus on agriculture, food security and climate change.
We asked Ndoni about the challenges of feeding the growing earth population within the climate change context. We also talked about the importance of raising awareness and providing knowledge about science and research for university students as well as rural women all over the world.
Hello Ndoni and thanks for your time and insights. Before we start to dig into all the topics we want to talk about today, can you tell us a little bit about you. Where does your commitment to the environment come from?
My interest in environmental science came from the appreciation and wanting to understand our planet. I have always been interested in agriculture as it provides food which is of vital importance to our health. On the other hand, I am also passionate about women’s development, poverty, and education.
What would you say are the main challenges of agriculture today and of feeding the growing population with limited land resources?
The main challenge comes from the issue of climate change. Developing countries are said to be the most impacted from these changes due to the lack of resources, capital, technology. and infrastructure. This will have a major impact on food production. If farmers are not trained or aware of ways to adapt to these changes, food production may be limited.
“It is very important to ensure equal representation in specialized fields as this could bring new and innovative solutions to solving problems and influencing policy.”
In addition, there is the challenge of attracting young people to agriculture. The lack of young people in this field reduces the adoption of new and innovative methods.
Another issue is the lack of technological and financial support for farmers in developing countries. Farming can be labor intensive, and without technology, we are very limited when it comes to intensifying food production and increasing yield.
What would you say are the most important changes that have happened to our food system in the last decade?
I would say the introduction of technology, because it has allowed food production to become more efficient. The introduction of urban agriculture is also a very important factor as most spaces are now turning into cities. The adoption methods such as sustainable intensification, eco-agriculture and diversification are aiding farmers to adapt to changing climates, all of which help in producing food on limited land.
You are focusing your research on the effects of climate change on agricultural production for sub-Saharan farmers. Can you tell us a little bit about the particularity of this region for agriculture.
As this region is mostly developing, there is a high demand for food production and there is a major need to find new and innovative methods of farming to ensure food security in the region. A majority of the farmers are small-scale and are unable to upscale their farming at a larger scale, due to limitations in technologies, capital and labor.
In addition, the impacts of changes in climate will be higher for farmers in developing countries. These challenges have raised my interest in finding methods which farmers in this region can use to improve food production. This will contribute to improved food security and provide insight to methods which can be used to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
What are the main impacts of climate change on agriculture?
One major impact is extreme droughts. This has often caused a major decline in food production, and most farmers do not have efficient adaptation systems such as irrigation technologies.
The link between consumerism and climate change is obvious. But can you give us some precise examples on how the choices we make can help mitigate the effects of climate change?
We could make conscious decisions on consuming sustainably produced products. We could purchase food which is produced organically or in a way that is friendly to the environment. We can also reduce food waste by reducing the amount of excess food we consume. We can also create compost — which will be used for farming — by collecting leftover food.
You created the non-profit organization Black Women in Science, with the aim to promote careers for young black women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). How do you explain the lack of black women pursuing specialized sciences?
There is a lack of communication between the women who have a studied specialized sciences, the ones who are working in the industry and the ones who wish to enter the specialized fields. That means there is a lack of mentors and role models for young women who want to enter these specialized fields. That’s really important, because having more black role models in these fields will help those wishing to enter the field to have a sense of identification and see that it is possible.
“This is a tough industry and believing you are worthy can be a battle.”
The lack of black females limits diverse thinking and doesn’t allow for different views and opinions in addressing complex problems. It is very important to ensure equal representation in specialized fields as this could bring new and innovative solutions to solving problems and influencing policy.
How can we help young women from all backgrounds to jump into these fields?
I would say firstly we need to be available and willing to interact with young women. Everyone has a unique story to share about their journey in the sciences. The more scientists are willing to engage with young people, the more they will be exposed and encouraged to get into the sciences.
What would you say were the main challenges you’ve had to face in your career? And did you ever face discrimination?
No, I have not experienced discrimination, but I have had challenges. The major challenges I have had is finding confidence in myself and in my work. This is a tough industry and believing you are worthy can be a battle. However, the more exposed I became, the more I saw that this not a unique problem to me, but rather to most women. It is a matter of understanding who you are and that you got to your position through working hard and dedication.
What would be your top three pieces of advice to aspiring scientists?
- Work hard to understand your industry in a holistic manner. That means you should understand your industries applicability in the corporate and academic sector.
- Do not take science communication lightly. The more people understand your work, the more they want to know.
- Work hard in knowing who you are, what you enjoy, and what you are passionate about.
Interview by The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou.
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