August 16, 2021, by Lexi Earl

The clever roots of bambara groundnut: an interview with Kumbirai Ivyne Mateva

We interviewed Kumbirai Ivyne Mateva, a final year PhD student in the School of Biosciences and the Future Food Beacon based at the University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNMC), about his research. Kumbirai’s current research focuses on improving productivity, quality and value of food crops, especially underutilised  species. His PhD is titled: ‘Root trait variation and its contribution to drought tolerance in Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea (L.) Verdc.)’. Kumbirai received a joint Crops for the Future, University of Nottingham Malaysia Doctoral Training Partnership scholarship in 2017. He is supervised by Prof Festo Massawe (UNMC), Dr Sean Mayes (UoN), and Dr Hui Hui Chai (UNMC).      

Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?

OK, starting from the very beginning… I developed a love of agriculture in high school, so I enrolled at the Midlands State University (Zimbabwe) to study Natural Resources Management and Agriculture (Agronomy). At the time I never thought that I would want to pursue doctoral studies. To be honest, until I started my internship at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) Zimbabwe in 2010, I had never given much attention to the idea of possibly becoming a globally recognised scientist. Working in a fast-paced, multi-cultural workplace where all the top positions were filled by internationally recognised scientists – all contributing to a food secure world – encouraged me to one day be like them.

After I completed my MSc in Crop Science (Plant Breeding and Genetics), I worked at the Farmers Association of Community Self-help Investment Groups (FACHIG) Trust as a Field Officer for the Livelihood Food Security Programme (LFSP). I later joined the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Zimbabwe as the Gene Bank Manager, responsible for the Eastern and Southern Africa regions (Figure 1). My role was to conserve, characterise, evaluate, and disseminate plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. I worked on ICRISAT’s six mandate crops; sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, groundnut, pigeon pea and chickpea. My time as a steward of this vital resource further piqued my interest in pursuing a PhD.

A researcher standing in a field of green grass pea

Figure 1: Kumbirai working in a pigeon pea research field at ICRISAT Zimbabwe.

Why did you choose this particular PhD project?

You should know that my tenure at ICRISAT fuelled my ambition to enhance the production, quality, and value of food crops, particularly minor and underutilised plant species. When I saw the opportunity to work on bambara groundnut – an underutilised African grain legume that I grew up eating and still do – I saw it as not only a chance to work with the world’s leading scientist in the field, but also to highlight the crop’s great potential and to push myself to the next level in my career. The University of Nottingham is one of the best global universities, and I am honoured to be a part of it.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

Bambara groundnut represents an untapped potential for developing robust food systems. This promising but underutilised African grain legume has high nutritional qualities comparable to popular and widely consumed legumes, as well as exceptional resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses. In addition, the crop can grow on a range of soils, fix atmospheric nitrogen, and enhance soil fertility, making its production truly climate-resilient. Third to peanut (Arachis hypogaea L) and cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata L. Walp.) in terms of production and consumption in sub-Saharan Africa, bambara groundnut is set to increase in importance as productivity and current food production systems become more diverse.

To that end, I have been investigating the plants productivity focusing on drought tolerance – resulting from naturally occurring genotypic variation in root system architecture (RSA) and rooting distribution of bambara groundnut. I hypothesized that bambara groundnut genotypes from dry agroecologies with periodic drought stress have over the years developed root system traits that improve water foraging in deeper soil depths, and this can be visualised and quantified using a low-cost polyvinyl chloride column (PVC) phenotyping system (Figure 2) and image analysis.

My studies have resulted in the identification of root characteristics that contribute to drought resistance in bambara groundnut. Furthermore, I was able to select elite lines that could be registered as improved varieties and made available to the general public for cultivation in drought-prone locations.

A researcher wearing a grey t-shirt and black cap examines the seeds of Bambara groundnut lines

Figure 2: Kumbirai screening bambara groundnut lines [i.e. a cross between S19-3 (from Namibia) x Dodr (from Tanzania)] at Crops for the Future – Field Research Center (CFF-FRC) in Semenyih, Malaysia.

How is your final year going?

Despite the uncertainty caused by Covid-19, my final year has gone quite smoothly. I’d want to express my gratitude to my whole PhD advisory team; without them, my studies would not have been possible. My supervisors’ Prof. Festo Massawe, Dr. Sean Mayes, and Dr. Hui Hui Chai’s assistance and contagious drive, have been essential throughout the PhD process.

How have you coped with the pressure of doing a PhD?    

Everyone knows how hard it is to get a PhD. Long hours of work, outcomes and statistics that fall short of your expectations, deadlines and more deadlines, and the pressure to publish with impact.

When I feel the strain building, I generally take a break and spend time with my family, whom I am fortunate to have in Malaysia. We are, after all, on this PhD adventure together! My wife (Rufaro), a trained accountant and cooperate governance professional, is a passionate and excellent pastry chef whom I support with her baking and documentation escapades (@prep_cook_serve) – essentially, I handle the specialised task of tasting and cleaning up. My son (Nathaniel), on the other hand, likes being in front of the camera, so we snap a lot of photographs and film a lot of interesting footage to share with friends and family back in Zimbabwe (Figure 3).

On the left are a group of people in high-vis jackets holding a cake box. On the right is the cake.

Figure 3: Nathaniel surprising the University of Nottingham Malaysia security staff with a decadent homemade black forest cake.

Posted in Meet the Beacon