Oliver Chitambo: DRIP scholar who found his way “home”

icipe’s vision of building scientific and leadership capacity in Africa is often realised within complex scenarios that the Centre addresses through various approaches. One example is the icipe Dissertation Research Internship Programme (DRIP) programme, which broadens opportunities to harness young scientific talent from within and outside the continent while also expanding the Centre’s global network. DRIP scholars may be registered at any university anywhere in the world; they may conduct part or all of their research at icipe, being co-supervised by researchers at the Centre and in their respective universities or research institutes. As is the case for Oliver Chitambo, a Zimbabwean DRIP scholar who recently completed his PhD research at icipe, the programme can be the ‘long way home’ for African students studying abroad. Registered at the University of Bonn, Germany, joining icipe enabled Oliver to employ world class scientific skills on an Africa specific problem – the management of pests of African leafy vegetables – in an African context. 

Born in 1984 in Marange area, Mutare, Eastern region, Zimbabwe, Oliver witnessed first hand the challenging events that have characterised the country over the past three decades. In particular, the Land Reform and Resettlement Programme that started in the 1980s, the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme introduced in the 1990s, and frequent droughts, culminated in a globally headline making crisis in Zimbabwe, with extensive impact on most aspects of life.

 

Oliver Chitambo
Oliver Chitambo working in the icipe Research on Nematodes laboratory

For example, one of Oliver’s earliest memories is of a severe drought in 1992, which plunged Zimbabwe into a food crisis that left many families dependent on maize donated by the government, yellow in colour; strange to the eye and to the palate. Moreover, due to a countrywide promotion of modern hybrid varieties of important crops such as maize and vegetables in the early 1980s, many farmers abandoned locally adapted crops like sorghum, millet and traditional vegetables. In regions such as Marange that are prone to acute dry spells, cultivation of non-traditional crop varieties is basically a gamble, the result being constant food shortages and evident malnutrition. These happenings had a significant bearing on Oliver’s perspective on life and his academic journey.

“I believe that the situation one grows up in greatly influences their choices. In my case, I developed a passion for agriculture; a strong desire to understand solutions for better productivity,” he explains.

Therefore, after attaining excellent high school leaving grades and earning admission to the University of Zimbabwe in 2003, Oliver opted to undertake a BSc in Agriculture focusing on Crop Science, instead of medical sciences or engineering, the obvious options for well performing students.

He qualified for a government scholarship that catered for most student expenses. However, by this time the economic crisis in Zimbabwe had intensified and the sponsorship fell through in the course of his studies. After completing his degree under duress in 2007, an even worse situation awaited him.  

“I felt that the job offers I received did not make any sense especially in terms of the remuneration. Also, although I had plans for further studies, the economic crisis had spread to universities across the country, leaving them grossly underfunded, understaffed, and barely operational,” says Oliver, adding: “In any case, the goal of every day survival superseded all else, and for three years I was a “hustler”, hawking clothes and taking on any odd jobs that would bring in money”.

In 2009, in response to hyperinflation, the government of Zimbabwe abolished the country’s currency in favour of a multi currency system. This decision stabilised the economy to some extent, marking a turning point for Oliver who obtained a position as a lecturer at Gwebi College of Agriculture, affiliated to the University of Zimbabwe. The re-entry into the world of academia revived his own plans for further studies.  

“I began to search for international scholarships, basically making blind shots, not certain of the course I wanted to pursue.  A Google suggestion led me to scholarship opportunities for MSc courses in Nematology at University of Ghent, Belgium. I had no prior knowledge of the University, or Nematology as a field of study. But, all the same, I decided to pursue the opportunity,” he explains.

As luck would have it, Oliver was awarded a scholarship for a two year MSc degree commencing in 2012. As part of the course mobility track, he was required to undertake some studies outside Belgium, a stipulation that led him to the University of Bonn, Germany. Here, under the mentorship of Prof. Florian Grundler, he was introduced to an exciting area of research: how plant parasitic nematodes use their saliva to manipulate host plants, thereby establishing a longterm parasitic relationship with the plant. Oliver joined a group that was investigating early plant responses to nematode infection. The results from his research were intriguing, as they showed that nematodes manipulate these early plant defense reactions to successfully establish a feeding site that ultimately becomes its sole food source. This study opened interesting research questions, now the subject of intense investigations in the Molecular Phytomedicine Department, University of Bonn.

Despite his success, and aware of the growing plant parasitic nematode menace across the continent, Oliver desired a chance to advance his knowledge in an African context on an Africa-specific problem. His good fortune came in the form of a collaborative initiative between the University of Bonn, icipe, the World Vegetable Centre, and national partners from Kenya and Tanzania, aimed at finding solutions for major pests of two African indigenous vegetables: amaranth (known locally as terere or mchicha) and African nightshade (managu or mnavu). In recent years, African indigenous vegetables have gained attention due to their proven nutritional superiority compared to exotic varieties. However, the yield and quality of these crops remain far below potential and demand due to a range of challenges, among them pests. As current management strategies rely heavily on often ineffective and harmful synthetic pesticides, more sustainable options are needed.

Oliver was accepted in 2015 as a DRIP PhD scholar at icipe supervised at the Centre by Dr Komi Fiaboe and Dr Solveig Haukeland, and by Prof. Florian Grundler at the University of Bonn, supported through a scholarship from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

Oliver’s research focused on understanding the diversity, distribution, molecular identification and integrated pest management of plant parasitic nematodes in African leafy vegetables. Although widely cultivated, the role of African nightshade and amaranth as hosts of parasitic nematodes is not well understood. Oliver’s research demonstrated how specific species of these two vegetables lure plant nematodes to a dead end. In other words, while nematodes are attracted to the roots of such plants, the plants are able to deny them access to food, which means that the pests do not survive. This discovery provides a promising strategy of using specific species as dead end trap crops for parasitic nematodes.

Based on these findings, icipe, with funding from GIZ Small Grants, commenced a project to investigate the potential of integrating African nightshade as a dead end trap crop for the invasive potato cyst nematode (PCN), discovered in Kenya for the first time in 2014. PCN is a particularly troublesome nematode due to its ability to survive as tiny cysts in the soil for long periods. The pest also spreads easily, for example through contaminated seed, soil, agricultural tools and activities. Indeed, a recent survey by icipe and partners shows that PCN has spread to all major potato growing areas in the country, causing huge yield losses.

“The opportunity to study at icipe broadened my knowledge through interactions with the Centre’s researchers and collaborating farmers; it inspired me to think broadly, from lab to  field, and it enabled me to expand my academic network,” notes Oliver. “Importantly, the huge community of students from across Africa and the world is a source of experience and ideas, peer support and cultural enrichment.”

He adds: “Interacting with Kenyan farmers, has been a lesson in resilience for me as a researcher and on a personal level. Aside from PCN, I have observed them cope with outbreaks of Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease and the invasive fall armyworm, unreliable rainfall and challenges in market structures. And yet, they remain enduringly hardworking and dedicated.”

Oliver’s tenure at icipe has also been beneficial for the Centre, especially because it coincided with the creation of a dedicated laboratory for research on nematodes.

“Oliver was instrumental in the setting up of the facility, as we were starting from the basics with limited personnel. With his somewhat advanced knowledge, he supported other students, mostly MSc and BSc level, introducing them to nematology, while offering practical guidance on how to use the various equipment. Overall, he was a source of inspiration to our team of budding researchers,” explains Dr Haukeland, Leader of the Laboratory.

As a result of his experience at icipe, three issues stand out for Oliver. First, is the confirmation that plant parasitic nematodes are a major problem in Africa, yet one that is not fully understood or addressed. Second, there is inadequate knowledge among African researchers on the pests. Third, is a reinforcement of the importance of indigenous crops, an idea that clearly resonates with his early recollections of agriculture and food security in Zimbabwe.   

As he continues to build his own experience in the management of plant parasitic nematodes, Oliver’s vision is to become involved in the establishment of demonstration sites where some of the issues discussed above could be addressed. For example, such sites would serve as learning and awareness creation hubs on all field related aspects of nematodes, for farmers and other stakeholders. The sites could also be used for knowledge on indigenous crops in relation to nematodes and other pests, as well as their overall importance in food and nutritional security. He considers it viable to maintain his icipe and Kenya base, as an ideal platform to his own country,  Zimbabwe, and the rest of Africa.