Professor Nokwanda “Nox” Makunga was born to parents who loved plants and it is not surprising that she has followed in their footsteps. Her father Professor Oswald Makunga of the University of Fort Hare was one of South Africa’s first black botanists. Her late mother was also an avid gardener.
Born in Alice in the Eastern Cape, Professor Makunga is currently is involved in a crucial study that aims to determine the value of the age-oldindigenous plant called Salvia, Sutherlandia, Sceletium and Pelargonium to supplement modern-day treatment for cancer and other diseases. Professor Makunga would use cutting-edge technology to examine plants that the past generations used for their medicinal purposes.
Professor Makunga, who is an associate professor in the department of botany and zoology at the Stellenbosch University (SU), uses biotechnological and laboratory tools to understand the make-up and biochemistry of plants. Her work has, among others, led to an international patent for a plant extract that holds promise as an ancillary to breast cancer therapy. The achievement has won her accolades within her field including earning her a place in the Future Professors Programme – a flagship programme of the department of higher education and training.
Advancing future economics
Not only is her work adding value to the field of medicine but Professor Makunga is also playing a critical role in boosting South Africa’s bioeconomy including strengthening conservation efforts. Says Makunga: “By looking at the plants through a different lens and from a different angle, one is able to learn more about them in terms of how they grow, how they will ultimately react to climate change, and how to preserve and maintain them for future generations.” She hopes all this will help advance future economics as well as using biotechnology to aid the conservation of medicinal flora at the same time.
Her deep love and passion for plants saw her obtain her PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2004. The degree was conferred to her after she developed a biotechnological method for the sustainable production of Thapsia garganica, an indigenous plant that shows the potential to treat prostate cancer. In 2008 she joined SU and was promoted to associate professor in 2015.
In recent years, Makunga has been studying the biochemistry of pomegranates, Pelargonium, Stevia, Salvia and Sutherlandia species, mostly with collaborators from the globe, including in China, Belgium, Mauritius, Canada, Kenya, the United States and France. Along with her students, she is also investigating the phytochemical and genetic aspects of Sceletium, or “kougoed” as it is commonly referred to in Afrikaans. The plant is a known mood enhancer and is already used in numerous over-the-counter products. She recently returned from a field trip to the Tankwa Karoo, one of South Africa’s most arid regions, where she helped search for populations of one of the eight Sceletium species found in the western parts of South Africa.
Prizes and awards
Professor Makunga’s inspiring work has earned her numerous conference prizes, awards and bursaries over the years. These include, among others:
- a stint at the University of California and an internship at the Agricultural Biotechnology Institute in Hungary during her student days,
- a National Science and Technology Forum Young Researcher award, as well as the SU Rector’s Award for teaching and learning.
- She was also a Fulbright scholar at the University of Minnesota in 2017 and 2018.
- Furthermore, she was listed as one of the 20 most visible South African scientists.
Professor Makunga is an adventurer who is always willing to learn new things. For instance, in 2011, she was one of the very first local scientists who started using Twitter (@noxthelion) to communicate her research to a broader public. Today she is a respected science communication expert and is also one of the founding members of the #BlackBotanistsWeek movement, and an active participant in the annual South African Garden Day.