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Unisa multidisciplinary team wins the NRF Science Team Award

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has recognised a multidisciplinary team of Unisa researchers with the prestigious NRF Science Team Award. The award recognises the contributions, creativity and achievements of a science team towards extending the boundaries of scientific research in Africa, producing science outcomes which have positively impacted society and for the role they played in raising South Africa’s international stature as a world-class research destination.

From the back, starting from the left: Prof Tonderayi Matambo, Prof Kitty Dumont, Prof Xinying Liu, Prof Godwill Nhamo, Prof Simi Dube and Dr Bakaka Sempunga. At the front, starting from the left: Prof Diane Hildebrandt, Prof Thenjiwe Meyiwa, and Kamogelo Sehoole.

The winning team consists of the staff and students of Unisa’s Institute for the Development for Energy for African Sustainability (IDEAS) who are engineers, microbiologists, and chemists. The team comprises of the former Director of IDEAS, Professor Diane Hildebrandt, Professor Kitty Dumont of the Social Change Research Lab, who is a social psychologist specialising in interdisciplinary research on leadership and climate change, Professor Godwell Nhamo, Exxaro Chair in Business and Climate Change, and Dr David Kimemia and Professor Ashley van Niekerk of SAMRC-UNISA VIPRU who are social scientists, and EWB, a Unisa student organisation that uses their skills to benefit communities.

The award validates Unisa’s contribution to the knowledge and information society as well as the university’s continuous efforts to advance development through impactful research. To win this prestigious award, Unisa’s team was recognised as having a number of researchers who provide complementary interdisciplinary expertise, each of whom have made separate, substantive and quantifiable contributions to research as well as having produced science research outcomes which have had demonstrable uptake and impact in society.

Asked what the award means to the team, Hildebrandt, who is the team leader, says: “The recognition helps keep us motivated to continue to try and use our knowledge and skills to help the people of South Africa. We as a country face significant challenges, and we have to work together to find practical solutions. These solutions need a multidisciplinary approach to ensure that not only does the technology work, but that it also meets the social and   psychological needs of people and communities in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.”

Societal impact

The IDEAS team has been investigating the factors that impact on the efficiency of biogas technology, the effectiveness of the uptake of the technology as well as the barriers to this uptake. So far, the team has installed a bag-type biogas system on a small holding in Muldersdrift.  Hildebrandt says: “The farmer has been able to operate this biodigester since its installation without any problems.  He uses the biogas for cooking, lighting and running a small generator for pumping water.”  Furthermore, the waste from the biodigester has been used by the farmer as an organic fertiliser which supported his farming activities.  This first experimental pilot plant shows that the technology was simple, robust and safe.   Additionally, under the correct circumstance, the technology meets the user’s needs for having access to cheap and effective energy.

The team has also worked with various communities to understand sources of energy and community needs. “Our research, as well as international research, show that it is important to understand the needs of the community in order to ensure that any proposed technology meets the community’s needs and takes individuals’ concerns into consideration,” explains Hildebrandt. “Particularly, recent work done by Professor Kitty Dumont and the team shows that communities at all social levels do not perceive energy derived from biomass as desirable. We found in surveys that people who are unfamiliar with biogas technology regard this source of energy as ‘un-natural, which negatively influences their social acceptance for these technologies.”

In another community project, the team has installed digestors in various communities and continues to monitor the performance of the digestors as well as the impact they have on the quality of the lives of users.  Some of the users include an NGO that works with disabled children, a green organic farm-restaurant complex, and a school in an informal settlement. Passionate to make a difference in underprivileged communities, the team has further worked with school learners from an informal settlement, training them on various aspects of science and biology as related to biogas and teaching them to do engineering design calculations, developing business plans and to make business pitches on the installation of biogas at their school.

IDEAS has also worked with the Institute for Social and Health Sciences (ISHS) through the    Safety, Health Impacts and Social Acceptance of Safe and Sustainable Community Energisation. The project is a multidisciplinary, participatory demonstration directed at the design, demonstration, performance validation, implementation, and impact evaluations of renewable energy technology that utilise local resources to provide safe, health promotive and cost-effective energy in impoverished communities. Phase one has been completed and entailed setting up a demonstration biodigester unit at the ISHS Lenasia campus where members of community from target sites and local leadership structures were invited for live demonstrations in anticipation of full project implementation in 2020-2022.

Team member Professor Ashley van Niekerk says: “This is a wonderful achievement by an accomplished and capable team that is undertaking cutting-edge research. Access to safe and affordable energy is critical for Africa’s social and economic development. Unisa is leading with innovative community-engaged research into the social and technological interventions required to enhance energy access.”

Professor Iqbal Jhazbhay, Acting Director of Projects in the Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor says: “This accolade is a good, inspiring story for our Unisa staff and beyond. The team has contributed to flying the Unisa flag high in science research.”

 Access to energy is regarded as one of Africa’s largest barriers to social and economic development. Although African countries generally have large solar, wind and biomass resources, the implementation of technologies that can utilise these resources has been slow. This Unisa team has been advancing Scientific efforts to develop decentralised power systems which will eventually ensure Africa’s transition to sustainable energy futures, thereby contributing towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

*By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021/11/03