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'World's best' uplifts Matabeleland South farmers

by Simbarashe Sithole | Alice Mangwara in Harare
30 Oct 2021 at 07:58hrs | Views
Prince Matova, a PhD student in the Department of Plant Sciences, has been working on breeding a maize that can resist the fall armyworm (FAW) – a maize-eating pest. Later in September, he will receive the Young Scientist Award from the Plant Mutation Breeding Division of the International Atomic
When farmers in Matabeleland South province received help on improving yields from a Zimbabwean plant scientist, little did they know that they were in the company of someone who would be recognised as one of the world's best in his field.

Just recently, Dr Prince Matova, a Zimbabwean scientist raised the country's flag high after he was honoured by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture for developing Zimbabwe's first cowpea variety using a nuclear technique called mutation breeding.

He won the prestigious international award: the Young Scientist Award 2021, in recognition of his work in the mutation breeding of cowpea and maize over the past 10 years.

Through sheer hard work and determination, Dr Matova, a research and agronomy manager and maize and legumes breeder spent most of his career working at the Crop Breeding Institute in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement, has realised his childhood dream.  

The award came ahead of Dr Matova's graduation with a PhD at South Africa's University of the Free State, where he has been enrolled in the department of plant sciences.

Dr Matova's international award was preceded by recognition at regional level. While leading the maize breeding programme at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement, his team twice won the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) award for best maize-breeding team in Southern Africa, between 2016 and 2020. The work is highly significant in a continent where more than 300 million smallholder farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa rely on maize for food and livelihoods.

"I started working as a cowpea breeder soon after university in February 2006. Things were hard and research funding was so little in the Ministry. I had to endure and started exploring ways to get things done," he said.

"I started working on mutation breeding as a side project in 2007. My colleagues then were not very much keen because mutation breeding was not funded in terms of working capital."

Dr Matova said in 2008 he went to Vienna for the first time to present his research findings at an International Symposium on Mutation Breeding.

"I went through several technical and project officers within the IAEA and national liaison officers in the Government of Zimbabwe. The late Mrs Danisile Sibanda-Hikwa appointed me a project coordinator for mutation breeding in Zimbabwe in 2009," he said.

"Things got better and I started gaining mileage with mutation breeding even within the IAEA itself over the years. This was mainly from 2014 to 2017 when I released Zimbabwe's first cowpea mutant variety."

In 2017, Dr Matova was awarded expert status by the IAEA to train international participants at a regional training course hosted by Cameroon in Yaoundé. With striking results of elite mutant varieties that Dr Matova and the cowpea breeding team at Department of Research and Specialist Services developed, he was in 2019 invited to Vienna in Austria to share experiences with other African colleagues.

Dr Matova's work resulted in the release of the first mutant variety of cowpea in Zimbabwe, CBC5, which is drought tolerant and has 10 percent seed size advantage over its parent CBC1, thus performing 20 percent better in terms of grain yield potential compared to most farmer varieties in Zimbabwe. The variety was commercialised in 2018. Communal farmers from Matabeleland South displaying cowpeas varieties of their choice

"We managed to extensively test our cowpea breeding materials and disseminated a lot of elite varieties across many districts in Zimbabwe including the project target districts which are Bulilima, Mangwe, Gwanda and Matobo. This collaboration led to the release of four cowpea varieties between 2016 and 2019," said Dr Matova. He said he has enjoyed working with farmers in Matabeleland.

"I have worked with farmers in Matabeleland in four districts: Matobo, Mangwe, Bulilima and Gwanda. This was from 2016 – 2018. We were training farmers community-based seed production, on-farm variety selection and genetic enhancement techniques as well as linking them with seed producers. We also took the opportunity to introduce and evaluate our cowpea, bamabaranuts, sorghum and millet with the farmers. We believe farmers should have a voice in choosing varieties they grow in their fields and as part of the formal variety release process, we engaged farmers on farm variety testing," he said.

"We introduced good genetics of these four crops and farmers were very happy especially with cowpeas. That was in Matabeleland. I like it there, apart from achieving our goals of disseminating varieties and having farmers helping us select the best varieties adapted to the arid conditions of Mat South, it was also very fun and interesting. I met very generous and welcoming people. Language was my biggest challenge but I was trying and they accommodated me and my team very well." Dr Matova attended Zengeza 3 High School in Chitungwiza from 1996 to 1999, where he excelled in Biology and Science. He then proceeded to the Salvation Army church-run school, Howard High for his A-Level studies from 2000 to 2001.

After completing his Advanced Level, Dr Matova said his father wanted him to go to the UK, but he secretly applied for a place at UZ to study crop science.

"I was raised in a family of five children. We didn't have everything but we were happy. We could afford food and clothing but not necessarily luxuries," he said.

"My father wanted me to go and explore new opportunities in the UK soon after my A-Levels, but I was not sure if that was going to succeed and also if it was going work out well in the end. Instead, I decided to remain home and enrolled with UZ."

In 2005, he graduated at UZ with BSc Honours degree in crop science followed by an MSc in plant breeding at the same university.

In 2015, he secured a loan from BancABC and the Public Service Commission and studied a MSc Plant Breeding in 2015. In 2018, he enrolled for a PhD at the University of the Free State in South Africa with research funding from CIMMYT-Zimbabwe.

"I have already passed my studies and I will be graduating this coming December.  During my PhD studies, I collaborated with both CIMMYT-Zimbabwe and the IAEA," said Dr Matova.

"I left Crop Breeding Institute, DR&SS in the Ministry of Agriculture where I worked breeding Maize and Cowpeas from 2006 to 2020, on 31 October 2020. I am now the Research and Agronomy Manager and Maize and Legumes Breeder at Mukushi Seeds (Pvt) Ltd. I am loving it so much here, I have a small, young and self-motivated team and we have the best boss, Dr John MacRobert. He allows me to explore my full potential, and he is so supportive. I believe employers hire  people to get the best out of them, and for scientists, you can achieve that even more if you give them enough room to experiment, of course within the bounds of work and this is what Dr MacRobert does."


Source - Byo24News