November 24, 2021, by Lexi Earl
Unlocking the science behind traditional farmer practices: An interview with Muneta Grace Kangara
Muneta Grace Kangara is a Research Fellow on the Translating GeoNutrition: Supporting policies to reduce mineral micronutrient deficiencies in Zimbabwe project. She was recently awarded a Rank Prize Visionary Award for Early Career Researchers in Nutrition (2021). We spoke to Muneta about her work, how she became a researcher, and why she is passionate about science.
Tell me about your work. What is your research about?
For over a decade, I have been assessing soil and crop micronutrient concentration of staple grains grown in Zimbabwean smallholder farming systems and promoting agricultural crop production technologies which improve soil fertility and crop nutritional quality. Crops grown in these farming systems are low in zinc and iron due to their production in soils with intrinsically low levels of plant-available micronutrients and low availability of some nutrients such as iron for plant uptake. My research promotes the use of locally available organic nutrient resources such as cattle manure and woodland leaf litter, complemented with micronutrient fertilizers, to improve zinc and iron nutritional quality in maize, sorghum, finger millet and cowpea grown under on-farm field conditions. These organic nutrient resources have traditionally been used by farmers to improve grain yield but not grain nutrition. My research, which aims to unlock the science behind traditional farmer practices, has shown that application of organic nutrient resources increases grain zinc concentration by 13% and has the potential to contribute to dietary zinc requirements of children and adults.
What does that mean for an ordinary person?
My research uses locally available organic nutrient resources to supply much needed micronutrients to the soil and the plants growing within it, with an overall aim to provide nutritious food to the farming family. Organic nutrient resources such as cattle manure and woodland leaf litter from tropical miombo woodlands contain micronutrients which can be taken up by crops. These resources offer sustainable agricultural technologies which meet the micronutrient nutrition requirements of the entire household while nourishing and conserving the soil resource base.
Is your research easily applicable in ordinary settings?
My research employs the use of organic nutrient resources which are within smallholder farmers’ reach in staple crop production. Organic nutrient resources have traditionally been used by rural farmers to improve soil fertility and crop yields. My research unlocks the science behind what farmers already use and makes known the additional benefits of resources within their reach, while considering the economic constraints faced by these communities. Co-learning with farmers and agricultural extension workers during the on-farm establishment of field-based experiments is core to my research and ensuring technologies are easily adopted by farmers.
How did you become interested in this field? How did you become interested in science?
I grew up with my parents and late brother Gibson Makwenzi Manzeke at a plot in Mutare, east Zimbabwe, where we raised small livestock and grew crops for subsistence and sale. This gave me a strong understanding of farming from an early age. I did my science-based subjects at A-level, which I always wanted, at Hartzell High School. Despite my background in farming, I didn’t understand the science behind it such that when I was offered a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Soil Science at the University of Zimbabwe, I wondered what the degree covered. I also wondered what I would do on completion of the degree. Funding from Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility (TSBF – CIAT) to conduct my undergraduate research project on the effects of soil fertility gradients on soil and crop nutrition ignited my passion in Soil Science research. From that point onwards, I didn’t look back.
Tell me a little about your research career?
I attained my Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Soil Science in 2008 from the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Soil Science and Agricultural Engineering. I furthered my education within the same department by doing a Master of Philosophy degree in Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition from 2008 to 2013, with funding from the Harvest Plus Zinc Project entitled: Use of zinc containing fertilizers for enriching cereal grains with zinc and improving yield in different countries. This was a collaborative grant with Sabanci University of Turkey and the University of Zimbabwe’s Faculty of Agriculture. I became a Research Fellow within the Department from 2013 to 2015 working on a European Union funded project entitled: Agro-ecology-based Aggradation Conservation Agriculture-ABACO. The project was conducted in Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with an aim to implement soil and water conservation and water harvesting technologies in smallholder arid- and semi-arid regions. I began my DPhil in 2015 with the University of Zimbabwe. My DPhil in Soil Geochemistry and Plant Nutrition received funding from a Royal Society and Department for International Development (DfID-UK) grant on Strengthening African capacity in soil geochemistry to inform agricultural and health policies. It was awarded in 2020 by the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Soil Science and Environment. I am currently a Research Fellow with the Future Food Beacon and the School of Biosciences, in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, coordinating a GCRF funded award: Translating GeoNutrition: Supporting policies to reduce mineral micronutrient deficiencies in Zimbabwe. My research work has received recognition and awards from several institutions including: i) The Brian Chambers Award for a young scientist working in plant nutrition at its inauguration (2015), ii) The International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) Scholar Award (2016), iii) The Marschner Young Scientist Award: “Nurturing the future” (2017) and recently; iv) The Rank Prize Visionary Award for Early Career Researchers in Nutrition (2021).
What current projects are you working on?
I coordinate a GCRF-funded project titled: Translating GeoNutrition: Supporting policies to reduce mineral micronutrient deficiencies in Zimbabwe, (November 2019 to December 2021). This is multi-disciplinary collaborative research project with plant scientists, soil scientists, statisticians, nutritionists and education academics from the University of Nottingham’s Schools of Biosciences and Education, and the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Soil Science and Environment, and Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Sciences. The project aims to map baseline micronutrient deficiencies in Zimbabwe and strengthen institutional and individual research capacities to test intervention policies to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies and promote private sector engagement. The project also focuses on benchmarking Doctoral Training Programs in Zimbabwe led by the University of Nottingham’s School of Education (UK) and the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education (Zimbabwe). I also coordinated the Curriculum Review component for the GCRF funded Reimagining Agricultural Extension through a Learning Lens (RAELL) project between the University of Zimbabwe and the University of Nottingham. The project, which ran from January to July 2021, was led by the University of Nottingham’s School of Education and implemented in South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
I am also a lead scientist on a Unilever-funded literature review which looks at regenerative agricultural practices that are environmentally friendly and produce nutritious foods. The project runs from September 2021 to January 2022.
Why Future Food? What would you like to accomplish while you are part of Future Food?
My work is in line with the Future Food Beacon’s focus on delivering sustainable food and nutritional security. The Beacon is an important platform for me to learn and collaborate with scientists who aim to understand socio-economic factors shaping global food systems. I endeavour to share my background knowledge on smallholder farming systems with the wider Future Food Beacon scientific community who have a common goal of providing food and nutritional security for a global population constrained by a changing environment.
What is your greatest career moment?
Receiving my first poster award in 2011 at the 3rd International Zinc Symposium in Hyderabad was the greatest moment in my career. Getting this recognition for my work as a 3rd year MPhil researcher and at such an early stage in my career gave me the confidence I needed to believe in myself.
Do you have any advice for young scientists?
Search for, know, and pursue your passion no matter how difficult it seems. Continue to learn from others and always make time for a good laugh.
Does your research impact on ordinary people’s lives? How?
Working for, and bringing nutritious food to the table, is the hope of every parent and guardian. I make this more possible by employing low-cost and locally adaptable agricultural technologies and nutrient resources. The collaborative nature of my research with farmers and key agricultural players in government, industry and international organizations makes it more feasible to offer science-based agricultural technologies and solutions for improved food and nutritional security of different farmer social groups.
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