College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

From Humble Beginnings to Qualified Aquaponics Expert

‘In my home, school and community no-one has ever graduated with a BSc let alone a doctorate,’ said a very proud Dr Ntobeko Mchunu who was awarded a PhD in Bioresources Systems at UKZN’s virtual Graduation ceremony.

Graduation is an important milestone for everyone but for Mchunu who was raised in a poverty-stricken home and community near Pietermaritzburg, to have climbed to the top of the graduation ladder is indeed historic!

His journey towards a PhD was hard and stressful. He failed first year and was categorised as underperforming and ranked RED on the UKZN robot system. However, he soldiered on, and from then on completed his undergraduate degree in record time with extra credits.

Mchunu says failing first-year was because of his fear of “science” as well having had no previous exposure to laboratories, computers and the internet. It seemed to him that many other students came from affluent backgrounds, equipped with the resources to complete first year successfully.

‘Back then I lacked self-confidence and thought that universities were not for people who came from rural areas,’ he said. ‘Looking at myself and my background, I thought that I would never measure up to the standard and quality of education required at UKZN. However, I was wrong and after receiving support from the University – most notably from Dr Colin Southway who was a lecturer in Chemistry and Dean’s Assistant during those years – things started to change for me and I found that the content and practical aspects of tertiary studies aligned well with my natural curiosity. From then on, I thrived.’

Mchunu’s PhD research was based on developing an aquaponics model and decision-making tool to kickstart aquaponics production in South Africa.  He found that his undergraduate degree in agriculture had introduced him to a variety of fields and triggered a holistic interest in the discipline.

‘I am thankful to academics such as Professor Albert Modi and Professor Michael Savage who shared a wealth of academic knowledge with me and armed me with the most diverse skills and expertise in agriculture, crop and soil sciences, agrometeorology, food security and agricultural engineering,’ said Mchunu.

‘Prof Modi taught me all about sustainable agriculture and in third year Dr Unathi Kolanisi introduced me to food security which led me to pursue a postgraduate diploma in the subject.  Now I am at PhD level!’

Mchunu gave credit to his supervisor Dr Gareth Lagerwall who facilitated his entry into UKZN’s School of Engineering; and thanked his family – particularly his late mother KaMazibuko and aunt Nokuthula – for their sacrifices and support, and for teaching him the word of God.

Mchunu was appointed as a contract lecturer at UKZN’s School of Business and Leadership under a Local Economic Development project funded by the KZN Department of Economic Development where he was responsible for aquaponics operations, research development and implementation.

Currently, he is a manager at the global humanitarian development organisation, InMed, where he oversees the rollout of aquaponic systems across South Africa through their Adaptive Agriculture Programme, in order to improve food security and nutrition, and reduce poverty.

He also owns City of Choice Aquaponics, a private company that designs, installs and services aquaponics systems.

Words: Saneh Mahlase

Photograph: Supplied