Author: Engela Duvenage
Studying the biochemistry of Salvia, Sutherlandia, Sceletium and Pelargonium plant species to determine their value in supplementing modern-day treatment for cancer and other illnesses, plant scientist and science communicator Prof Nokwanda (“Nox”) Makunga is constantly aware of the connection between past, present and future. She feels privileged to be able to employ high-end technology to examine the very same plants that generations past have used for medicinal purposes.
“I’m a ‘pestle-and-mortar’ plant scientist who was trained in a lab to understand the inner workings and biochemistry of plants,” explains Prof Makunga, an associate professor in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University (SU). Her work has, among others, led to an international patent for a plant extract that holds promise as an adjuvant to breast cancer therapy. It has also earned her a spot in the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Future Professors programme, which develops South African academics from across all disciplines for the professoriate. She is the only SU academic to have been included in phase 2 of this programme.
In addition to adding value to the field of medicine, Makunga is also playing her part in boosting South Africa’s bioeconomy and strengthening conservation efforts. “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 says. “And, hopefully, all of this will help drive future economics, whilst using biotechnology to aid the conservation of medicinal flora at the same time. This philosophy really keeps me excited about my work.”
Pomegranates, “kougoed” and hopbush
A second-generation botanist, she has followed in the footsteps of her father, Prof Oswald Makunga of the University of Fort Hare, who was one of South Africa’s first black botanists. Her mother, Nosisa, who recently passed away, was an avid gardener with an eye for a spectacular bulb. Therefore, Makunga was immersed in all things plants while growing up in Alice in the Eastern Cape.
This “homegrown” love for plants eventually saw her obtain her PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2004, having developed a biotechnological method for the sustainable production of Thapsia garganica, an indigenous plant that shows promise in treating prostate cancer. She joined SU in 2008 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, often along with collaborators spread all over 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.
These days, some of her outputs are being commercialised through Scientia, a new phytopharmaceutical spin-off company supported by SU’s technology transfer office, Innovus. Scientia is currently in the process of commercialising a plant extract from the hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa), which Makunga and colleague Prof Anna-Mart Engelbrecht of SU’s Department of Physiological Sciences found to be beneficial in aiding breast cancer treatment. The two researchers have since obtained an international patent for the innovation. Makunga also previously patented a method to propagate well-known medicinal plants Pelargonium sidoides and Pelargonium reniforme.
“I hope my contributions elevate the knowledge of these plants, and of the people who used them, and place the medicinal use of plants onto a higher dimension of acceptance and trust,” says this past president of the South African Association of Botanists. “Nature is a blessing in so many different ways. It is wonderful to be out in the field and to experience how everything functions and works together. It sparks curiosity about how plants that, for instance, are found in arid environments survive under such harsh conditions.”
Award-winning and respected
Makunga’s innovative work has earned her numerous conference prizes, awards and bursaries over the years. These include 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.
In addition, in a recent study focusing on local science communication, Makunga was listed as one of the 20 most visible South African scientists. Indeed, this vibrant lecturer does not shy away from the public stage and giving talks on anything from the wonders of nature to career opportunities in science. “It probably comes from my days as a soloist in the school choir,” she laughs.
In 2011, for instance, she was one of the very first local scientists who started using Twitter (@noxthelion) to communicate her research to a broader public. She has since become a respected science communication expert who promotes botanical and medicinal plant research, and an advocate for a stronger voice for women and other underrepresented groups in the discipline. Makunga is also one of the founding members of the #BlackBotanistsWeek movement, and an active participant in the annual South African Garden Day.