At the cutting edge of science

At the cutting edge of science

MASERU – HE is arguably one of Lesotho’s brightest talents in science.
It was a talent that was noticed even when he was still wet behind the ears.
It is not surprising that Seforo Mohlalisi, 36, has been privileged to work in projects that are deemed to be at the cutting edge of science.

While studying for his MSc in Particle Physics at the University of Cape Town in 2007, Mohlalisi was picked to be part of the US$10 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, a rare honour for a Mosotho.
The idea of the LHC, Mohlalisi says, is to understand how the universe works and how it came into existence.

Despite decades of research, scientists are nowhere near unpacking the nature of the universe and how it all began.
The project seeks to unravel what happened “in the beginning”.
The scientists at the CERN particle physics laboratory are looking for particles that “slip into existence when subatomic particles crash into one another at high energies”.

Finding that particle – called in scientific circles the ‘God particle’ – will unlock man’s understanding of the nature of our universe and how it came into being. Mohlalisi says his brief stint in Geneva was an eye-opener.
A few years earlier, Mohlalisi was fortunate to also come into contact with “cutting edge science” while studying for his Bachelor of Engineering degree in electronics at the National University of Lesotho.

While doing his internship at Ithemba Laboratories in Cape Town, South Africa, he could for the first time, see that science was not an abstract concept limited to the lab but that it could be put to greater use to serve the needs of society.
The Ithemba Laboratories was involved in cancer treatment research. He was particularly thrilled to see how they “programmed robots” to target cancerous cells in their treatment programmes.

“It was exciting. It was an eye opener and I learnt new things every day,” he says.
“You also realise how most of these countries progress. Most of the machines they use, they build them from scratch. That inspired me to pursue research to build things.”

Mohlalisi says he believes the two experiences, in Cape Town and Switzerland, helped shape his vision about the role of science in a developing country. A holder of a MSc in Electronics, Mohlalisi lectures in the Department of Physics and Electronics at the NUL.
“I feel very honoured to have an opportunity to contribute to what was already being done at the university.”

Mohlalisi, who grew up in the humble farming town of Teya-teyaneng in the 1980s and 1990s, says he has always wanted to be a scientist.
“I was always fascinated by things and wanted to understand how things work.”
It was no surprise that when he went to the NUL in 2001, his mind had already gravitated towards the engineering courses.

With Lesotho’s unique developmental challenges, Mohlalisi believes science must address the people’s real needs if it is to be relevant.
Lesotho remains largely an agrarian society with the majority of its 2 million people being subsistence farmers.
“My idea is to simplify science so that we can create products that can help a person in the rural areas. My interest lies in developing products that are simple but which solve real challenges.”

That will boost agricultural production and improve food security in rural areas, he argues.
“I also want to mix science with engineering. Science ends somewhere with the creation and analysis of materials and engineers take the materials and use them for the greater good.”

It is this theoretical grounding that seems to underpin Mohlalisi’s engineering work.
He speaks with fondness about two projects that are at the core of his work as a scientist.
Mohlalisi has since 2014 been working on developing a chicken incubator that seeks to increase the efficiency and performance of incubators in Lesotho.

The incubator they designed at the NUL has a hatch rate of above 80 percent, a marvelous feat considering that most incubators imported from Europe are at around 40 to 45 percent. The engineering marvel is one of the biggest success stories to come out of the National University of Lesotho.
“It was the first of its kind to be produced locally. Everything from the design of the circuit boards, the whole package, we designed from scratch. It has been a very successful story,” he says.

Mohlalisi believes Lesotho is now at a level where it can begin to produce the incubators on an industrial scale “where we can as well begin to export them”. He says incubators developed in Europe have lower hatch rates unlike the one they designed.
“And in most of the incubators humidity is not controlled; in ours we control the humidity at the correct range.”

As a result of the higher hatch rates, Mohlalisi says the incubators have become a hit with local farmers.
He says they hope to publish the results of their incubator in a scientific journal so it can be assessed by their peers.
Mohlalisi says he is equally proud of another project they designed – the food dehydrator – that dries fruits such as bananas, peaches, apples and mangoes for sale in shops.

“We are simplifying science to come up with projects that help solve people’s real problems,” he says.
He says in the past Basotho would resort to very rudimentary methods to dry fruits, methods which were not hygienic.
They would lay the fruits on the ground and wait for the sun to dry the fruits, exposing the fruits to sand and flies.

“The result was that they would lose quality and colour because of the dust. It also took too long to dry the fruits and they would be darkened in colour. But with the dehydrator, farmers are able to keep the colour.”
Mohlalisi says there has been a tremendous response from the community who are enquiring about how they can get the incubators and food dehydrators.

“It looks like the people were waiting for these products to be produced locally.”
Critics have in the past said the university in Roma had failed to move with the times and had remained frozen in time for decades.
For years, the NUL was torn by bitter divisions and infighting between university staff and students.
The university had become a byword for mis-governance, chaos and instability.

That appears to have changed, thanks to ground-breaking research projects such as those by Mohlalisi and his team.
In fact, the university appears to be slowly reasserting itself as a powerhouse on the African continent.
The good old days seem to be back at Roma.
And the community is slowly noticing.

Mohlalisi says things are slowly changing for the better.
“Over the past four or five years, the university is trying to shift direction to address societal challenges. I have seen a lot of positive changes,” he says.
“It has slowly changed from a university that was only for the educated but now I see a university that is trying to solve the problems of society.”
He cites the yoghurt production project as one of the flagship projects at the NUL.

Mohlalisi believes a total change of mind-set is required to address Africa’s under-development. Those who have received a university education must use their newly acquired skills to create jobs and not “wait to be hired”. “We must shed the culture of not taking responsibility,” he says.

We always look at the government to provide jobs and always want to blame the government, he says.
“The moment we realise we have to do something ourselves, then Africa will move in a different direction. Governments cannot solve our biggest problems.”

He blames a small rapacious clique in politics that he says is determined to look after its own interests and not the interests of the majority.
“We need to realise that politics will not take this country forward, rather it is the small businesses that will.”
He says key institutions such as the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) and the Basotho Enterprise Development Corporation (BEDCO) “must do more to help people grow their businesses”.

“They should focus more on growing business. That is the only way this country can move forward,” he says.
“There should be more funding for research and more funding for the small guy running a small business.”

Abel Chapatarongo

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