Research Niche Areas boost Fort Hare’s academic profile

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The long-awaited establishment of Fort Hare’s Research Niche Areas is set to bolster the university’s research and innovation profile worldwide. The five RNAs, which were unveiled during a ceremony at the East London International Convention Centre on Thursday, September 14th, form part of Fort Hare’s 2022 to 2026 Strategic Plan for institutional renewal.

After an extensive application and approval process that began last year, the RNAs have been identified as:

•       Renewable Energy;
•       Sustainable Agriculture, Water Usage and Impact of Climate Change;
•       Infectious Diseases and Medicinal Plants;
•       Research in Inclusion and Township Economies; and
•       African Liberation Heritage in Citizenship and Society.

Among university leadership, dignitaries in attendance included acting Deputy CEO of the National Research Foundation Dr Gugu Moshe as well as representatives from healthcare NGO Beyond Zero, Desmond Tutu Foundation and Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform. In his opening remarks, Vice-Chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu said Fort Hare attracted students because its teaching and learning and research portfolios remained resilient. While the annual intake is limited to 3 700, more than 45 000 students applied in 2021 and a staggering 219 000 in 2022. Some 140 000 applications have already been received for 2024.

However, Buhlungu added, the university had experienced fluctuations in productivity and one of the functions of the RNAs was to address this.

Academics from the various niche areas were then given an opportunity to present their work. Dr Patrick Makumba from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science and Agriculture emphasised why renewable energy was the solution to South Africa’s power crisis.

His team’s research focuses primarily on wind energy and biogas technology, and how these can be used to produce electricity for both generators and the grid.  “We can provide a centre of excellence in terms of renewables,” he said, as they worked on projects like optimising biogas for vehicle fuel.”

His team have, for instance, discovered that as few as two cows can provide electricity for a family of two. Makumba and other researchers also aim to develop a wind renewable energy system for nodes in the Eastern Cape. This will create employment opportunities as installation, operation and maintenance require skilled workers.

Prof Philani Moyo, Director of the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Change, presented on climate change’s impact on pre-existing livelihoods, especially those of poorer people. He said while there had been much work on climate change policy, there was a dearth of intellectual thought on the subject. 

“Our aim is to explore the extent climate change is compounding multidimensional rural poverty, deepening precarious livelihoods and reconfiguring rural food systems,” he explained. “We will also look at the adaptation responses of resilient households and communities.”

The nexus between the climate’s impact on rural livelihoods and multidimensional poverty would also be studied, while examining the extent to which it affected rural vulnerabilities and inequality, according to Moyo.

In terms of the Infectious Diseases and Medicinal Plants RNA, three sub-units will operate in concert, namely: Medicinal Plant Research, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Environmental Infections Pathogens Research. With Covid-19 still fresh in everybody’s minds, Professor Uchechukwu Nwodo from the Faculty of Science and Agriculture said it was imperative to study and analyse pathogens as a public health priority. The seven members of his sub-unit will also busy themselves with the subject of pathogenic determinants and virulence.

Nwodo’s work is especially vital in that Fort Hare is one of eight South African tertiary institutions that comprise the Institute of Pandemic Prevention and Preparedness, which in turn is connected to networks across the world. The institute has been granted funding of R5-billion for 15 years.Research to be conducted by the Inclusion and Township Economies RNA is especially relevant to the Eastern Cape, where 62 per cent of households are poor.

According to its representative, Prof Munacinga Simatele of the Faculty of Management and Commerce, townships were hubs of exclusion.“A lot of people are excluded socially and economically and our work addresses this,” she said.

“As a university, we need to find a way to tackle these issues to influence policymakers. As such, our RNA addresses poverty, empowerment of women and reduction of inequality.”She cited the example of stokvels, which controlled R5-billion in SA, and said the question should be how these could be leveraged to create employment.

The final presentation was made by Dr Motsamai Molefe of the Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities.He said the purpose of his RNA was to establish what assumptions, insights, lessons, narratives and theory could be drawn from the history of liberation movements so that African society could be reimagined.

The RNA intends contributing to “growing stories” of liberation histories while expanding on the ideas of consciousness and lived experience to make sense of the world. Another pillar is to draw on the theories and praxis of African liberation movements to “think about politics as we think about society”.