National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Onisimo Mutanga

For developing research capacity through the use of remote sensing techniques to support land use management

Three things motivate Prof Onisimo Mutanga: creating new knowledge; bridging the gap between science and action for the common people; and training tomorrow’s problem solvers.

He wins an NSTF-Eskom award for ‘Engineering Research Capacity Development’, largely in honour of the many previously disadvantaged students he has managed to attract to postgraduate studies.

So far, he’s helped 32 PhD’s and 58 MSc’s walk across the stage with qualifications in the field of spatial sciences. “I feel so happy and satisfied … when I see them ululating at graduation with their families, brothers and sisters,” he says. 

His lab uses remote sensing technology to support farm, rangeland and forest management, by monitoring things like vegetation quality, invasive species and crop health.

Mutanga began focussing on this research, and on training students, when he was appointed as the SARChI Chair in Land-use Planning and Management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) five years ago. “I feel that I have a calling for research more than administration,” he says.

Indeed, he’s made several advancements in remote sensing science since, especially on approaches and products that work for poorer countries in the Global South. The global community is taking note — Mutanga is often invited to speak internationally, to serve on various boards and to edit high profile journals.

He says his students gain skills in sensor design, data analysis, fire detection, and burnt area mapping, among many others. Some of their skills are also valuable to electricity producers like Eskom for monitoring power lines.

“My approach to research and training of PhD students via the paper publication route has inspired a strong research culture,” he says. He also trains his postdoctoral team to supervise MSc and PhD students. 

“By the time they leave my lab, they will have acquired thought-leadership skills, developed skills in funding applications and established international collaboration links,” says Mutanga.

Mutanga is an NRF B-rated scientist with more than 300 scientific publications. “The quest for new knowledge is the primary driving force behind my work,” he says. “The thrill of pushing the boundaries of understanding and contributing to the advancement of remote sensing fuels my passion.”

Prof Onisimo Mutanga won the Engineering Research Capacity Development Award for an outstanding contribution by an individual over the last 5 to 10 years. — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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