Former Rocklands resident receives PhD for study on indigenous teas

From left are friends and supporters of the Small Things Fund, Oluwegbenga Ajila, Siphosethu Magqupu who received her MSc in Animal Sciences at the same ceremony, Dr Rhoda Malgas, SU lecturer and founder of the Small Things Fund who received her doctorate in conservation ecology from Stellenbosch University, Monika Basson, a director of the fund, and Mpho Molapo.

Conservation ecology lecturer, founder of the student-centered Small Things Fund and former Rocklands resident Dr Rhoda Malgas received her PhD in Conservation Ecology from Stellenbosch University (SU) last month.

Dr Malgas’ study focused on rural communities who make a living from wild harvesting indigenous rooibos and honeybush in the fynbos region. It has its roots in her experiences working with a tea co-op in Nieuwoudtville, Northern Cape.

Dr Malgas grew up in Rocklands, opposite her primary school, Westville.

Wim de Villiers, Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University and Dr Rhoda Malgas, SU lecturer and founder of the Small Things Fund, who received her doctorate in conservation ecology from Stellenbosch University in December last year.

She left Mitchell’s Plain when she moved to Clanwilliam with her first job in 1999, and then moved further north to Nieuwoudtville to start her Master’s in Science degree (MSc) there between 2003 to 2006.

She moved to Nieuwoudtville to live there for the rest of her MSc, as she could no longer afford the monthly travel from Mitchell’s Plain to her field sites.

“A local policewoman kindly offered me free rent in a small house that colleagues helped me to furnish with some basics. When I got married, I moved to Athlone, and from there to Stellenbosch,” she said.

She lived in Mitchell’s Plain from 1981 until 1991, and then on and off depending on where she worked, until 2006 when she got married and moved to Athlone.

The Small Things Fund is a crowdfunding initiative that has supported students who need small amounts of money to keep going with their studies since 2015. In some cases it can mean the difference between academic success or not, between a student giving up or going on.

“We offer first line support to first generation university students in aid of their academic success. To some our contribution might mean being able to buy a lab coat, while to others it might be in the form of data or airtime, or a ticket to a concert that they need to attend as part of their course. The support we provide is capped at R3500, hence the name of the fund,” said Dr Malgas.

And she never says yes to a request without first sharing a meal and a heart-to-heart chat with the student who has knocked on her door for help.

Her decision to start the fund is not only a reflection of her community spirit. It is this first generation scholar from Rocklands in Mitchell’s Plain’s way of paying back the many kind people who has supported her journey.

Dr Malgas has been a lecturer in Conservation Ecology at SU since 2009. The topic of her PhD thesis by and large reflects her belief that “the search for sustainability is in fact all about the search for community”.

The research idea has its roots in the community education work in the field of public archaeology she did in the early 2000s in Clanwilliam, a town at the heart of South Africa’s rooibos industry, and her later work in the mid-2000s as programme manager for sustainable natural resource use at Indigo Development and Change.

In this role she became acquainted with small scale farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld who are harvesters and custodians of wild rooibos tea.

“Rooibos and honeybush wild-harvesting supports many rural livelihoods. It’s important that we sustain production in Fynbos landscapes. Through my research, I explored the plants, and people’s knowledge about them, to investigate how environmental and social sustainability can be achieved,” said Dr Malgas, who studied archaeology and geography as an undergraduate at UCT.

She used it to better understand the pathways and pitfalls that stand in the way of the long-term sustainability of co-operative ventures in the rooibos and honeybush sectors. This includes sustainable harvesting, sustainable livelihoods and the importance of ensuring that the ecological integrity of wild rooibos and honeybush populations are maintained.

“The fact that permits are issued for honeybush wild-harvesting in the Eastern Cape, but not in the Western Cape, is an example of a disjuncture in the institutional arrangement within a sector that relies on species that straddle both provinces. The result is a potential loop-hole: there is no mechanism to trace or monitor wild honeybush biomass entering Eastern Cape processing plants.

“It also nullifies cross-border law enforcement, limiting the effectiveness of the permitting system in the Eastern Cape. This points to institutional weaknesses in the sector.”

Dr Malgas is a strong believer of the value that lies in tapping into local knowledge when trying to solve big questions such as environmental sustainability, and the provision of better livelihoods in rural communities and conservation of indigenous fynbos crop species.

“I hope my work will inform regulatory frameworks that reflect the ethos of local users. A policy framework more closely aligned with the aspirations of farmers is likely to be more palatable to them. For instance, one should include local knowledge and the monitoring of local species into management plans and harvesting protocols, if you want to ensure sustainable rooibos and honeybush production,” she said.

“The people themselves should be part of decisions that are made,” she said.