When the climate makes you act

Read time: 4 mins

How Dr. Kuhle Gwala’s research to understand livestock farmers’ perspectives on climate change in the Eastern Cape will help everyone –  communities, governments and policy-makers – ready for a changing climate.


When Kuhle started her doctoral research in 2016, she never expected to be put through a personal trial by fire while also thinking about how global warming and other changing weather patterns would impact individuals and communities.

But that’s what comes with the seven-year process of researching, writing, and then taking a PhD to touch.

The process, she says, is more powerful when you really believe in what you are doing. This was the case for Dr. Gwala whose interest in climate change and communal farming led her to explore why small-scale farmers provide the backbone of South African, and especially rural, food systems, providing nourishment for local communities and beyond.

“In the face of a changing climate, these farmers face unprecedented challenges that threaten their livelihoods and the food security of millions,” she said.

Her new doctoral study, for which she was just awarded a PhD from the University of Fort Hare, comes at a critical time to address the many challenges faced by the Eastern Cape livestock farmers who are on the front lines of the climate emergency.

Through her work, she has identified key strategies for helping these farmers – and the stakeholders and systems they rely on – adapt to the changing climate by improving their access to climate change information.

This, she says, will help them continue to produce the food that sustains the local economy and communities that depend on livestock and their associated products for their survival.

Dr. Gwala's study identified the critical role that information plays in helping farmers formulate climate adaptation strategies.

The research shows that access to, and sharing of, accurate and timely information about weather patterns, soil health, and other factors, can help farmers make informed decisions about how to manage their land and livestock.

It can also help them anticipate and respond to climate-related challenges, such as droughts and floods, which can have devastating impacts on their crops and animals.

Inspired to act

Dr. Gwala lectures at the University of Fort Hare’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension.

She’s been interested in climate change adaptation and response rates, farmer’s perceptions of it, food security, and communal livestock production and extension advisory services over her academic career, she says, because of the pressing nature of the climate crisis.

The plight of Eastern Cape farmers is also especially close to her heart because she comes from a rural area of the province, in the Amatole District, near Dimbaza.

“I see how climate change is a challenge in rural areas every day, hence the interest to want to contribute [to understanding it], research wise,” she said, adding that the biodiversity of the province is also a plus to her study.

“I worked across semi-arid, forest and coastal areas and so this allowed for a variety of experiences and perceptions of climate change to filter into my work.”

She says the research highlights the challenges of communal farmers from their point of view.

“By understanding perception, we can understand where the challenges lie and emanate from when it comes to reduced cattle production rates as a result of climate change.”

“I hope my research and its findings can strengthen the vulnerable rural population and help different stakeholders — government, farmers, policy makers, research institutions – share climate change information more effectively, improve communication channels or strategies, and implement climate change adaptation strategies that will improve cattle production in the province.”

A PH balance

When looking in the rear view mirror, with research results and powerful findings in hand, it’s easy to feel buoyed by the completion of the project, but Dr. Gwala notes that doing a PhD is also about balancing a personal ecosystem too.

“The process was tedious, frustrating and draining, but worth it in the end,” she said. “Being a permanent employee with a high workload, a mother, and a student is demanding and maintaining balance is not easy. You must deliver in all those areas. So, it was not easy.”

She says the way through is to stick to a plan. “Learning is a process, especially when it comes to research. You will have your work plan but when it comes to execution, things will go west and you have to start the process again from scratch.”

“The key is to never give up. Finish what you started no matter how long it takes. Run the race until the finish line and never take shortcuts or go against your principles.”

Dr. Gwala will now work on research collaborations and publishing her findings, alongside working to ensure that addressing the climate emergency is a top priority.