Dr Wendy Geza’s journey to her PhD in Food Security began in UKZN’s Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management (AERRM) programme and her academic pursuits sparked her passion to include the voices of the youth in transformative food systems in the face of numerous threats.
The daughter of a nurse and a traffic officer who hails from Bizana in the Eastern Cape, Geza attended school in Port Shepstone where the subject of agriculture was compulsory alongside the business studies and accounting that she hoped would take her into a career in Law or Accounting.
Applying to UKZN owing to its proximity to home, AERRM was Geza’s third choice, but fate intervened in the form of lost letters of acceptance for her first two choices, leading to her being based at Cedara College of Agriculture for her undergraduate studies.
Despite an initial adjustment period to this unexpected academic path, Geza’s studies stimulated her passion to see young people actively participate in the full spectrum of the agricultural value chain and thrive.
A high achiever, Geza earned the Kwanalu Floating Trophy for the top AERRM undergraduate student, and a Talent Equity and Excellence Scholarship (TEES) awarded during her honour’s year enabled her to achieve her dream of continuing her studies to PhD level in the hopes of pursuing a career in academia.
Graduating with her honours summa cum laude, Geza’s master’s research concerned the impact of the Agribusiness Development Agency (ADA) on farmer livelihoods conducted while she was an intern at the agency.
For her PhD supervised by Dr Mjabuliseni Ngidi and Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, Geza investigated the development of a framework for youth participation in food systems in South Africa that face significant threats, including climate change. She is the first member of her family to graduate with a PhD, causing great excitement at home.
Geza’s research contributed to South Africa’s Youth Empowerment Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development and is expected to have a real-life impact in transforming the lives of unemployed youth in South Africa and the region.
Geza found that young people faced challenges on both the demand and supply side of the labour market when seeking employment, and lacked adequate knowledge and guidance on where to access support and funding. She noted a lack of investment in skills development and opportunities throughout the agricultural value chain.
She hopes the framework she developed will broaden opportunities and encourage the government to increase investment in funding and awareness of opportunities. She also hopes it will contribute to transdisciplinary research and development that supports capacity building, inclusion and equity in the food system for people in rural areas.
Geza had to adapt her research as the COVID-19 lockdown struck a week before her planned data collection. She reframed her research objectives to collect data virtually from rural and peri-urban youth groups in Umbumbulu, Nhlazuka and Swayimane.
Geza’s research formed part of the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP). Her proposal was developed during a URP internship, and she also gained experience during internships with UKZN’s Farmer Support Group (FSG) and the ADA. The Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) project exposed her to the realities faced by rural and peri-urban communities and challenged her to be a part of solutions built through linkages between agriculture, the environment and health.
Inspired by seeing the contributions young females could make to household food security despite a lack of education, Geza hopes her work will empower young people like them.
As well as producing two publications from her PhD, with another paper accepted for publication, Geza was thrilled to be approached by German private aid organisation Welthungerhilfe to contribute a chapter to the annual Global Hunger Index, which she co-authored with colleague Ms Mendy Ndlovu. It will be published in October this year. They will be the first African authors under the age of 30 to contribute to this report.
During her studies, Geza was part of a three-month student exchange programme with the University of Réunion Island, an eye-opening experience that helped her to develop a global perspective on her work. To get time away from her books, Geza is also developing her skill in the art of crochet, which she finds calming.
Looking ahead, she hopes to follow the example of her mentors and gain experience in academia, and more broadly; she is aiming for a postdoctoral research position in the food policy arena and plans to engage with the wider civil society, professional, and research community.
‘It’s exciting to see how science is able to help someone,’ said Geza, adding that the URP exemplifies this attitude.
Geza expressed gratitude to Ngidi and Mabhaudhi for their guidance and for arranging financial support for the final year of her PhD, as well as to Professor Rob Slotow for his mentorship. She thanked her master’s supervisor Dr Karen Caister for her encouragement and introduction to the teams she would work with for her PhD, as well as the communities and the FSG. She also expressed gratitude to UKZN for its support through the TEES and her family and close friends for their support.
Words: Christine Cuenod
Photograph: Sethu Dlamini