Growing minds

2014-04-25 00:00

PROFESSOR Albert Modi, dean and head of the School for Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was elected the first chairperson of the South African Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean’s Association at its inaugural meeting last month. It’s an appointment that places him on the international stage, as this body interacts with other entities involved in agricultural development throughout Africa and the rest of the world.

It also gives Modi a platform from which to promote his passion — combining the best of agricultural science with indigenous knowledge to provide the key to unlock agricultural development in rural areas, and thus allow people there to do what they do best: grow crops.

Modi knows whereof he teaches. He was born in a deep rural area of the Eastern Cape in 1968, at Centane, near Mazeppa Bay. “We would see white people coming because it was a tourism centre. We would say: ‘Look, umhlungu’,” said Modi, laughing at the memory. “But we never spoke to them. I first started speaking English at university.”

Fortunately, Modi had learnt English at school. “Our teachers were concerned about the quality of education we got, particularly languages such as English and Afrikaans. They wanted to make sure that by the time we got to university we did not struggle.”

Modi was brought up mainly by his mother, Nokutu. “My father left for Johannesburg when I was six years old and never came back,” said Modi. “I didn’t see him again until after he had died in 1999. I had just got my PhD. We had lost contact with him, but when he died the authorities traced and found his relatives. I was the eldest son and I had to go to Johannesburg; I had to go to the mortuary and identify him.”

The eldest of three brothers, Modi attended the local primary school a kilometre’s walk away but walking was out of the question when he went to Macibe Senior Secondary School 40 kilometres away. Modi stayed with other pupils whose parents were renting accommodation for them nearby. “I was lucky that they were willing to share with me.

“My mother struggled to support me at the time, but my uncles helped,” recalled Modi. “I did not have much food. She would give me sweet potatoes and maize to take with me and I would go back home every three months or so to get food.”

When Modi matriculated in 1986 he had “a big fight” with his mother. “She was totally opposed to my doing further study.”

So Modi went to Johannesburg to find work, at the same time applying for a bursary. He found employment with a civil engineering company, Hetkamp, as a general labourer. “I went there as I had some science background.” But Modi said he knew “my future was in study”, and when he obtained a bursary, he went to the University of Fort Hare to do a BSc in agriculture.

As Modi told The Witness in an earlier interview: “I was raised by my mother growing crops in the rural Transkei … that’s how I went to high school and that was why I wanted to study agriculture.”

Modi had enjoyed a good school record. “One knew one had to pass.” University was a different story. “It was hard at university; people began failing tests for the first time.”

At Fort Hare all the lecturers were white and male. Modi recalls Professor Jan Marais who taught agricultural meteorology. “This involves maths and physical sciences and it’s difficult … some people put a paper under his door saying he was racist for making his tests so difficult.”

But Modi remembers Marais as his first mentor. “He advised me to do post-graduate studies at the then University of Natal.”

Again his mother objected. “She wanted me to work and contribute to the family.” In 1993, Modi came to Pietermaritzburg and worked for PHI Hi-bred International as an agronomist working in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, but he also got a bursary to complete an MScAgric on wheat physiology at the University of Natal — “the bursary kept Mother happy” — which he joined full-time in 1996.

“The early nineties were an amazing period for me,” said Modi. “I was exposed to commercial farmers and small-scale farmers, and I realised there was the potential for subsistence farmers to become small-scale farmers.”

Modi cites Professor Andy Cairns, former head of crop science at the University of Natal, now retired, as another key influence — “He told me to do a PhD” — which Modi duly did when he won a Fulbright scholarship to study for a doctorate in crop science at Ohio State University in the United States.

Modi also recalls biometry lecturer Harvey Dicks as a mentor, although his first encounter sounds somewhat daunting. “‘You are not fit to be a scientist; you should go back to the Transkei and be a tractor driver’,” he told me.

“He’s a racist, I thought. But he helped me to pass. And he was the first person to congratulate me when I got my masters. The first time I spent Christmas with a white family was with him at Hayfields where I was staying.

“When I was in the U.S., he came to stay with me for a week. We were so close when he died five years ago.”

In the U.S., Modi, who was an assistant lecturer while working on a PhD focusing on soya beans, was exposed to large-scale commercial agriculture as well as speaking at conferences in South America and Europe.

He returned to the University of Natal in 1999 and married the following year. He and his wife Minse have five children, three boys and two girls.

And things have settled down between him and his mother. “We have talked about the friction between us about pursuing my studies,” he said.

“It was a lesson for both of us. We didn’t really fight; it was something we talked about. We understood each other. She reminded me of the struggle of the family. She survived on agriculture — and that led to me being here.”

Modi was promoted to senior lecturer in 2001 and associate professor in 2006. He also did a spell as a dean’s assistant, which provided an insight into the administrative workings of the university. In 2008, “when I saw an opportunity in the province to establish an educational institution”, Modi established the Moses Kotane Institute under the aegis of the provincial Department of Economic Development, designed to boost science, technology, engineering and maths education. He kept one foot in the university as an adjunct professor, returning full-time in 2011 as dean and head of School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“It’s a complex school with 14 disciplines, including crop science, plant pathology, horticulture and soil science, as well as geography, geology, dietetics and food security,” said Modi.

“My primary goal as an academic has been to establish a research group focusing on the areas of seed science and technology, crop physiology, agronomy and sustainable agriculture.”

That goal finds its most visible expression in the Ezemvelo Farmers’ Organisation (EFO) located near Umbumbulu, which uses an integrated management system it has pioneered, along with the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s agricultural school, in a community vegetable garden. Around Umbumbulu, the environment has provided fertile soils ideal for growing vegetables and members of the EFO, mainly women, have already made their mark growing organic madumbis certified and sold through Woolworths. The gardening project at EFO has combined science from the university with the indigenous knowledge of the local farmers to create a mutual learning experience, one that could ultimately benefit all farmers in rural areas.

Part of that benefit would be in alleviating poverty and making people not only self-sufficient but also see them become small-scale farmers. “The poor spend 50% to 70% of their income on food,” said Modi.

“If they plant maize and other vegetables they can feed themselves. Good food is easy to obtain if you can produce it. The majority of people could produce that food themselves.”

But there is a step further. Food production is not just about food security, said Modi, “but job creation”. Agriculture has to the potential to create jobs. “Look in your nearest supermarket. Most of the products can be traced back to a farm, to agriculture — coffee, tea, even paper. Whether the farm is in South Africa or elsewhere.”

An added stress factor is climate change. “In the next 50 years to 80 years it’s said production will come down 50%. Higher temperatures will see us forced to import food. What are we doing to research drought-resistant crops?

“There is a lot of focus on food security but agriculture is also about job creation, tourism, health and conservation. Agriculture is a force for stability — there is a lot agriculture can contribute.”

• Stephen.Coan@witness.co.za

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