African Centre for Crop Improvement

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African Centre for Crop Improvement

“Training African Breeders on African Crops, in Africa”


Boosting okra for drought tolerance in South Africa

Okra is one of the most underutilised crops, yet it is rich in essential nutrients, making it important for reducing malnutrition among low-income populations. For these reasons, Dr Silindile Mkhabela chose to focus on okra for her PhD thesis.

Mkhabela is one of the few researchers to work on this crop in South Africa, which she says made her research “very interesting, yet challenging, because of the limited information on this crop in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

Dr Silindile Mkhabela

Raised in a village in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, Mkhabela joined the ACCI in 2015, where she obtained a master’s degree in Crop Science before her PhD. Her doctoral research focuses on the pre-breeding of okra as an underutilized crop under drought-stress conditions.

The crop was evaluated, based on morphological and physiological traits and molecular markers, at Ukulinga research farm and UKZN’s glasshouse on the Pietermaritzburg campus. Superior genotypes were then selected based on their drought tolerance, and crosses were made at ARC-VIMP in Pretoria. The parents and progenies were then further evaluated for drought stress tolerance at Brits, North-West province and Loskop, Limpopo province. Drought-tolerance families were then recommended for further improvement in a water-scarce environment.

Mkhabela had an additional challenge while tackling her PhD. “I had a child just after completing my master’s degree and at the start of my PhD journey. Juggling being a new mom and my studies was really a challenge for me and that affected me physically and mentally. Luckily, I had a supportive family who assisted me through it all,” she says.

She also had to move from Pietermaritzburg (UKZN) to Pretoria (ARC-VIMP) in the middle of her PhD study, which took some adjusting. “I took it as a learning curve and managed to meet other colleagues with interesting research expertise, and learned a lot from the Institution,” she says.

Mkhabela is currently a lecturer at the University of Limpopo. “I am learning and growing a lot at the same time. In future, I would like to continue grow as a young academic and researcher. I would like to continue contributing to the science world through postgraduate students’ supervision, publications, conference presentations and serving on numerous science societies. I

She thanks Prof Hussein Shimelis and Dr Abe Gerrano from ARC-VIMP for their guidance and support.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

Photo: Supplied

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