Posted on August 20, 2021
Twenty early-career research fellows from 12 different disciplines will work on a project launched by the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) to produce research that will meaningfully influence various sections of the food system. Masego Panyane caught up with Clarity Mapengo, who has been selected as a fellow, to learn more about the research project and her journey as a researcher.
Tell us about your research interests – what has been the primary focus thus far?
My current research work forms part of a multidisciplinary EU InnoFood Africa project tackling food and nutrition security through the development of nutritious products from underutilised African indigenous crops. Part of my experience and research publications to date have been around food chemistry and biopolymer processing, focusing on enhancing the health-promoting properties of starchy foods to alleviate diet-related, non-communicable diseases. I am also interested in the application of material science in the characterisation of these developed functional food and food ingredients. Overall, my research interests include utilising emerging green technologies to develop functional food and food ingredients, sustainable packaging and food innovation/entrepreneurship.
What did you study, and what inspired you to choose the field of food science?
I studied Food Science and Technology (BSc), then did a PhD in Food Science. My passion for material science and chemistry inspired me to further my studies. I have always wanted to contribute towards food security in my community, and felt that chemistry and material science could be applied in developing nutritious food products. When you grow up surrounded by impoverished communities with the echoing message of food insecurity across Africa, you can’t help but yearn to transform the narrative.
You have been selected as one of the fellows of the FSNet-Africa research project. What areas will you be looking at?
I am interested in looking at food governance, food choice measurements and business modelling relating to foods and food ingredients developed from indigenous African crops. Part of what inspires me to follow this direction of research is that I have realised that so much research has been done in showing the potential of indigenous crops and their corresponding food products, yet one hardly finds any of these products on the market.
After working for a while on food structure and the development of these improved nutritious food/food ingredients, I feel there is a missing link between the consumer and industrial insights. Perhaps this is the hurdle we need to get past in order to put our local products – such as sorghum biscuits or snacks from sweet potatoes, cowpea, etc. – on the market. During my FSNet-Africa research, I will be delving into social and business sciences to understand consumer insights when it comes to food choices as well as understanding the technological/business model feasibility of manufacturing these products from local industries.
What are you looking forward to most about the project?
I am looking forward to having this project provide more substantial insights that will be adopted not only by local food companies but by upcoming small-scale entrepreneurs seeking to add value to our underutilised indigenous crops, and contribute towards building more resilient food systems. There is so much potential in our indigenous crops and fruits, and I am excited to work on a project that will tap into that potential or at least create a roadmap for entrepreneurship.
What do you hope to achieve by being part of the fellowship, personally or professionally?
That I will broaden my portfolio as a researcher and widen my network with a more diverse group of amazing people from the FSNet-Africa community. As a young innovation enthusiast, I hope to have a better sense of innovation when it comes to our underutilised crops and fruit, and perhaps become an equipped entrepreneur contributing towards building more sustainable food systems by improving not only food security but also livelihoods via employment creation or increased business opportunities.
Women researchers often face many challenges. What have been your primary challenges and how have you overcome them?
Work-related stress and a work-life imbalance are the challenges I’ve faced as a female science researcher. I often feel jaded, but when I see more women having research breakthroughs, I feel a sense of belonging and am inspired that the sun will shine on my path. As a young, unmarried female researcher, I’m often given buttressing and chaperoning support, steering me a certain way. Sometimes I forget that I have my own skills, ambitions, perspective and personal life outside of work, and this can make it impossible to break free. The way I have handled it is with grit and determination, and resisting dimming the divergent light in me. It’s a daunting job, but I keep at it, because striking a balance between my work and personal frustrations has kept me sane. I am always cultivating positive thinking because, just like compound interest, my positive habits will build over time.
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