South African researcher helps smallholder farmers cope with climate change


Dry rivers, empty dams and dying livestock are signs of the prolonged drought in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Farmers are struggling to grow crops and save their animals.

While Unathi Gulwa can’t make it rain, the Production Scientist at the Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform has published research to help smallholder farmers cope with poor soil, reduced natural grasses for livestock and major economic losses.

‘Climate change, erratic rainfall and prolonged drought make it almost impossible to grow plants without irrigation since most communal farmers use dryland crop production,’ Unathi says. ‘It’s just one of the many challenges the country faces.’

In her work, Unathi, an Australia Awards alumna, draws on the skills and knowledge gained through her Australia Awards Short Course: The Development Impact of Agricultural Research, at the University of Sydney (2017).

‘We’re working hard to prevent the farming sector from collapsing in the grip of drought,’ says Unathi, who has also presented research papers at two congresses held by the Grassland Society of Southern Africa. ‘Without agriculture, there is no food.’

One of her papers highlights the importance of forage legumes.

‘Many smallholder farmers are grappling with soils that are becoming less productive every day,’ she says. ‘These legumes improve forage quantity and quality. They also improve the quality of nutrient-depleted soil.’

Unathi has published research on bush encroachment, also being exacerbated by climate change. ‘Natural grasslands are being invaded by trees which means cud-chewing animals don’t have enough food,’ she says.

‘I’m supporting South Africa’s National Development Plan, which aims to eliminate poverty by 2030,’ she affirms. ‘Agriculture is central to rural development and the plan points to the need for research to help adapt to and reduce climate change impact.’

So far, Unathi has published four research papers in scientific journals, including the Universal Journal of Agricultural Research. Each paper involves a literature review, field research, and collection and analysis of extensive data. Before being published, other experts peer review Unathi’s research for academic rigour.

In conducting research, she collaborates with farmers, government officials, industry experts, fellow pasture scientists and scientific technicians.

‘Using the soft skills gained while studying in Australia, I’ve been able to collaborate and influence a range of national stakeholders, including farmers, government officials, industry experts and fellow scientists to help South Africa move forward.’

Photo Credit: Unathi Gulwa

Feature from Alumni News Volume 28.

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