Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi, who was recently awarded a PhD degree by the University of Pretoria (UP), developed an interest in nutrition during her high school years. She explains that when her mother was diagnosed with diabetes she was the one who was really interested in ensuring that her mother did not receive medical treatment only, but also followed a diet that would help manage her condition.
Dr Vilakazi chose to work in the food industry, where she hopes to help rural people find ways to manage common medical conditions by relying on local foodstuffs, rather than on medication and expensive food grown elsewhere. Her research, which resulted in a locally produced superfood, is bringing her closer to realising her dream.
For her PhD research, she chose to investigate the possibility of using locally produced grains – sorghum and cowpea – to develop a nutritious, ready-to-eat meal comparable to some of the so-called superfoods sold in shops. She was particularly interested in improving the diet of young children in rural communities, and chose cowpeas and sorghum to achieve this as both these grains are grown in rural areas locally and across sub-Saharan Africa.
Since mothers in these areas often have no option but to feed their children food with little nutritional value, she wanted to develop a nutritious instant food that poor mothers could afford. Unlike other crops that often fail, sorghum and cowpea are well-established crops that are grown successfully in the rural areas, and she found that the pre-cooked, ready-to-eat meal she made using these indigenous grains compared well with a similar, commercially available maize and soy-based product. She also found that the meal could provide in most of the daily zinc, protein and iron requirements of young children, which meant that it was actually better than other fortified instant meals on the market.
She prepared the meal by milling sorghum and cooking it in a specialised high-temperature barrel called an extruder, which is an energy-efficient cooking method. She then cooked the cowpeas using infrared light waves in a process called micronisation, after which she mixed the two to make the final product.
Dr Vilakazi hopes to teach the technologies she used to make the superfood to local farmers to enable them to produce it themselves in a cost-effective way. 'I would like to encourage commercial producers to become more involved in developing rural communities and to partner with scientists, and to use my research to introduce and support the use of this technology in rural areas,' she says. She is proud of her rural background, which enables her to relate to rural communities. She enjoys being able to give something back and derives satisfaction from helping others, especially the most neglected individuals in society and children.
Dr Vilakazi's postdoctoral research, which she is doing at the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being, goes beyond grains and she plans to add the highly nutritious mopane worm, a local delicacy, to her superfood. She would also like to conduct further tests to better understand how people benefit from the nutrients her product contains.
She would like to share her scientific knowledge with the communities that need it the most and to communicate her scientific work to the public and promote it by means of different media platforms. 'If studies of this nature receive sufficient exposure, industries could be encouraged to open their doors and partner with scientists to undertake research that will benefit people in the rural areas,' she says.