Fruits can be considered one of the best sources of vitamins, and fruit production for and by communities has been encouraged by governments in several countries in the SADC region. However, inefficient practices in both harvesting and post-harvest processing lead to much of the produce being lost. Post-harvest losses of fruit have been estimated to account for up to 50% of total fruit produced in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reduction of these losses can be seen as a vital component of increasing food security.
Luckily, there is no shortage of bright minds in Southern Africa, and these issues are being tackled. Ms Selma Ndemutila Elago, who holds a BSc in Forestry from Mzuzu University, Malawi and a National Diploma in Forestry from Ogongo Agricultural College, is working on addressing the problem in Namibia. She is a permanent employee of the Research division of the Directorate of Forestry under the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry. She is also currently pursuing an MSc degree in Forestry and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Her field of study and work is Forestry Research, specializing on the domestication of indigenous fruit trees. At the moment she is working on harvesting and post-harvesting handling practices of Strychnos cocculoides as part of her MSc project. She also was given an opportunity to present her work on the study of Socio-economic importance of Strychnos cocculoides and Schinziophyton rautanenii in Namibia’s Kavango region at the 24th International Union of Forestry Research Organisation (IUFRO) World Congress in Salt Lake City, USA. “It was such a great experience,” she remarks.
Strychnos cocculoides, commonly known as Monkey orange, is very important to local people in the Kavango region of Namibia. The communities obtain cash income from the sale of the fruits, helping to alleviate poverty in rural areas.
Ms Elago’s current project on harvesting and post-harvesting handling practices has the potential of greatly benefiting local communities. The findings of the project will assist the communities in improving their harvesting methods and reducing post-harvest losses: “Through the work we are doing, communities are gaining knowledge on how to domesticate their indigenous fruit trees. They are also given an opportunity to engage in Participatory Rural Appraisal surveys, whereby they select superior trees within their crop fields and together we perform domestication, including grafting, extracting added-value valuable products from the fruits et cetera. I would like to point out, that all these great projects I have worked on and still working on are done under the funding and mandate of Directorate of Forestry, Namibia.”
Her advice to aspiring young female scientists is to work hard and do their best in what they believe in: “Women can work really hard, especially when they put their mind on something. Due to the challenges of climate change that the world at large is facing, it is important to engage more women in science in order to find innovative solutions. There are great women scientists out there; all we need is the support of fellow men in science.” She also notes that she was personally inspired to become a scientist by her three mentors during her BSc studies at Mzuzu University: Professor Lusayo Mwabumba, Dr. Victor Kasulo and Dr. Chimuleke Muthali.
When asked what she does for leisure, she laughs: “For me, there is nothing called free time; I am always busy with something.” She emphasizes the importance of proper planning, prioritizing and balancing of activities. “However, what I enjoy most is to work and interact with, and learn something new from the people I engage with. The communities, for example, have so much indigenous knowledge and experience. I’ve come to realise that they too are scientists in their own unique way, and I have learnt so much from them.”