Estimates suggest that more than 2 billion people could be suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. Among those searching for solutions to this global problem is Muneta Grace Manzeke – a PhD student from the University of Zimbabwe whose work in Zimbabwe is being supported through a new Royal Society-Department for International Development (DFID) Africa Capacity Strengthening Initiative led by The University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey.
Grace, a PhD student under the Soil Fertility Consortium for Southern Africa (SOFECSA) Research Group in the Department of Soil Science and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Zimbabwe, is looking at on-farm micronutrient malnutrition through understanding factors affecting bioavailability of selenium, zinc and iron in tropical soils. She is also investigating the influence of diverse farmer soil fertility management techniques on crop productivity and human nutrition.
Her work could prove so beneficial to on-farm crop nutrition she has been recognised by the International Fertiliser Society, becoming the first recipient of the Brian Chambers Award for early career researchers in crop nutrition. The award is an industry accolade for researchers working at the MSc or PhD level, who can demonstrate how their work will provide practical benefits to farm crop nutrition. It also provides a cash prize of £1,000 for the winner.
Micronutrient deficiencies lead to impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of morbidity in children and reduced work productivity in adults. Selenium and zinc have vital roles in keeping the immune system healthy and iron deficiency and anaemia result in poor pregnancy outcomes.
Grace said: “Smallholder rain-fed agriculture supports livelihoods of more than 60% of the Zimbabwean population. Like any system, it faces various challenges that include poor soils, poor crop yields and climate variability among others. Working in these communities for over 10 years now, SOFECSA partners at the University of Zimbabwe have been promoting impact-oriented research for development through a multi-institutional and inter-disciplinary approach. This has opened an avenue of research that could be explored in these farming communities, some of which require external regional and international support including relevant skills and knowledge to address the inherent and emerging challenges.”
The wider programme – Strengthening African capacity in soil geo-chemistry to inform agricultural and health policies – supported by The University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey Centre for Environmental Geochemistry –involves core PhD projects based at partner institutions: Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Department of Agricultural Research in Malawi; the University of Zambia, the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute, and the Copperbelt University in Zambia, and the Chemistry & Soils Research Institute in Zimbabwe.
If you want to learn more about the work Grace is doing here’s a link to her blog.
For her Masters, also supported by SOFECSA, Grace specifically focused on exploring the effectiveness of different fertilizer formulations to alleviate zinc deficiency in smallholder maize production systems in Zimbabwe. Grace’s Professional Fellowship to the UK in 2015 was funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Council UK. She has four publications on zinc nutrition and integrated soil fertility management including papers published in Plant and Soil and Field Crops Research.
Martin Broadley, Professor of Plant Nutrition, in the School of Biosciences at Nottingham, said: “The aim of the current programme is to strengthen the rresearch capacity of universities and research institutions in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) through focusing on the training of students and technical staff in Africa. Our project is in the priority area of soil science, with a specific focus on how soils underpin healthy nutrition, especially for those involved in producing their own food. The initial project runs until 2020, however, we are delighted to have attracted additional studentships into the network already, as we seek to ensure the long-term sustainability of this programme.”Other joint network PhD projects focus on wider agriculture and public health questions developed in collaboration with our African partners.”