HUMAN WELLNESS IN THE CONTEXT OF GLOBAL CHANGE – finding solutions for rural Africa

Global change refers to the interlinked changes that are altering our contemporary earth at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. Human wellness in this context, and in terms of the university’s response, means four special foci in particular: human wellness, societal wellness, environmental wellness and economic wellness.

Why has a partnership been formed between universities in South Africa and Flemish universities in Belgium? VLIR stands for the Flemish Inter-universities Council, and IUC for University Development Co-operation. The answer is perceptive: the Flemish universities realise that the world is facing common problems and that southern Africa is facing challenges that may soon be their own.

The four wellness areas described above equally describe the four VLIR-IUC project clusters, with another being concerned with an overarching data management and analysis function. The full title of this important Flemish/UL and SMU connection is Human Wellness in the Context of Global Change – Finding Solutions for Rural Africa.

The first phase began in 2010 when VLIR, through its University Development Cooperation actvities, launched the partnership by funding five project clusters that dealt with aspects of public health, food security, water, ensuring community competence in the context of global change, and an overarching data management project to be used by all the clusters. A total of R34-million was made available to drive the eight research projects operating within the cluster focuses.

At the end of the five year term, an extensive evaluation was undertaken. Among other comments, it was stated that implementation had been effective, that the VLIR model of North-South collaboration had been convincingly validated, and that research outputs, although variable across the projects, nevertheless had heightened the research profile of the University of Limpopo. Post graduate studies, the production of peer reviewed publications and conference presentations, both national and international, had dramatically increased in those departments directly involved in the various aspects of the VLIR programme.

We entered phase two in the beginning of 2015, which will be funded to the same extent as phase one, and will support and give focus to much of the university’s research effort until the early months of 2019. However, there have been some changes to the configuration of the projects to be incorporated. The original five clusters comprising eight individual projects have given way to six project fous areas in the VLIR-IUC programme. The main activities during this second phase will consist of consolidating and building on the gains achieved in phase 1 and to improve the international ranking of the University of Limpopo in the research fields being pursued.


    This project synthesises all the relevant ICT services used as a resource by the projects selected for phase 2 of the programme, and also integrates the projects collectively into a coherent research endeavour. During phase 1 of the programme, a government-funded Regional Centre for spatial Analysis and Modelling was installed at the University of Limpopo. This has made availalble to Limpopo scientists a variety of data sets from both international and national sources, including the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth System Studies; the SA Department of Science and Technology’s Global Change Grand Challenge Research Plan; a geographical and meteorological data from Western Europe and the Americas; a special platform that hosts data from the SA Risk and Vulnerability Atlas, the SA Earth Observation System, and a prototype World Data Centre for Biodiversity and Human Health in Africa. In addition, the Centre will provide access to the CSIR’s Built Environment and Geospatial Analysis Framework; and the “Working for Water” project that monitors the environmental impacts, especially regarding water quality, in the areas of Limpopo province experiencing rapid mining and industrial development. The long-term objective is to contribute to quality research, academic training and improved postgraduate qualifications at the University by creating and providing a solid academic foundation in the areas of IT and related services.


    The University of Limpopo has run the Dikgale Demographic Surveillance Site since 1995. Annual surveys have allowed scientists to track births, deaths, causes of deaths, in and out migration, and economic and educational status in a rural community not far from campus. The original demarcated area was 71 square miles and comprised 8000 individuals in 1 200 households living in eight villages. At the start of Phase 1 of the VLIR-IUC programme, the demarcated area was increased to incorporate 15 villages and the number of people directly involved to 40 000. The data gathered has resulted in increasingly valuable annual comparisons, enabling the tracking of trends, especially as they relate to lifestyle changes and related chronic disease patterns. A specific objective for phase 2 is to build and monitor an integrated disease management approach that encompasses both prevention and control, that identifies common health risks, and that brings together different diseases of a chronic nature under one unifying strategy. The aim is to improve the situation with regard to chronic conditions in the enlarged Dikgale surveillance site.


    The project is designed to develop the capacity of University of Limpopo researchers, student and staff (as well as provincial primary and secondary school systems) in language literacy, science literacy and the use of multi-model texts. The Project has developed on-campus partnerships with the Department of English Studies, the Department of African Studies (School of Communication and Languages), and Department of Language Education (School of Education). There is also a working relationship with the University’s Academic Centre for Excellence, and Science Education Centre. Externally, the Project has a relationship with the University of the Witwatersrand, Department of Languages and Literacy Studies, and the Department of Education in Limpopo Province. A major focus in phase 1, and equally for phase 2, is English language literacy and particularly reading capacity development because this helps to extend the educational endeavour beyond the borders of the classroom. Community involvement becomes essential, with parents, siblings, friends, and extended family members all roped in to aid the literacy development process. The concept of science literacy refers to awareness and competencies to deal with life situations where science related knowledge becomes critical. “Health” has been chosen as a key entry point because it is already incorporated in the primary school curriculum. Research and the development of practical manuals is taking place in all these areas; and one of the medium-term objectives is to develop the project into a centre of excellence in multiple literacies training in southern Africa.


    Aspects of phase 1 project 7 (public health) and project 8 (infectious diseases) have been reconfigured in phase 2 into a deeper focus on sexually transmitted diseases from the point of view of laboratory-based research as well as from the public health management angle. To narrow the field even further, specific attention is being given to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including population subgroups which are often marginalised (adolescents and Men who have Sex with other Men – MSM) and to limit the scope of infectious agents to STI pathogens including Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea, just to mention a few. In phase 2, the project aims to establish a HPV detection and genotyping laboratrory for the region, to strengthen the existing Microbiology Department’s STI laboratory and to set up collaborations with other VLIR-IUC projects, especially with the demographic surveillance site in Dikgale (project 2). This, and other collaborations, will help to investigate the genetic diversity of HPV types in women from rural and semi-urban areas, to research the prevalence of other STIs in non-pregnant and pregnant women, and to investigate the prevalence of oral HPV types and characterize HPV-related oral lesions in healthy HIV negative and HIV infected individuals. From the public health aspect, the project will also investigate social and sexual behaviours that may influence the acquisition of selected STIs comparing the rural and semi-urban regions. The link established between public health and laboratory sciences will make this platform unique for Sub-Saharan Africa and will render the leverage of further finance a distinct probability.


    These river systems are amongh the most threatened in South Africa due to anthropogenic activities in the catchments. People living around the river catchments drink the water and consume the fish from both river systems, which may have an effect on their well-being. The bio-monitoring of water quality, sediment, biota, fish health and fish parasites of these river systems started in 1996 in the Department of Biodiversity at the University of Limpopo and have provided invaluable data for rural development planning. Several significant studies were continued or launched in phase 1 of the VLIR-IUC programme. The main phase 2 research endeavour will examine the link between the bioaccumulation in fish muscle tissues to human health. This study will assist in the management of water and sediment quality and their effect on fish health when fish are consumed on a regular basis. In addition, phase 2 will focus on the impact of land use on the river ecosystem and identify sub-catchments responsible for high loading of pollutants. The strengthening of these research endeavours will help to address the shortage of qualified aquatic scientists in the SADC region.


    Current food security efforts are largely directed to the production systems of exotic animal breeds and crops, most of which are products of the ‘green revolution’. This means they have high demands on various environmental resources and are, therefore, not easily sustainable. Persistent drought spells and high temperatures are making it increasingly necessary to assess the role indigenous animal breeds and crops can play in improving food security. Most importantly, new products must be developed from indigenous animal breeds and crops, and these products will need to be widely marketed if they are to become attractive to producers. Phase 2 of this important VLIR-IUC Food Security project will be built on the gains made in Phase 1 where existing indigenous chicken and crop development and improvement research studies, as well as work on related biotechnologies, were further developed. It is envisaged that the improved research infrastructure within the University will be used as leverage for funding from the University of Limpopo and other donors. However, in Phase 2 the focus will primarily be on human resources development, research and extension support for existing farmers. This will strengthen the internationally recognised work already being undertaken by UL’s School of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.


The VLIR-IUC progrmme has attracted significant additional funding to the University of Limpopo. At the heart of the programme, when it was first established in 2010, was a “data management and analysis project”, which drew together ICT services, data mining and production, data management, GIS remote sensing services, spatial anaysis and modelling, as well as statistical analysis, to deepen the effectiveness of and integrate the individual projects in the VLIR-IUC programme.

Onto this basic project, thanks to some creative thinking at the University of Limpopo, was grafted the CSIR’s network of regional centres for Spatial analysis and Modelling (C-Sam). In the light of VLIR-IUC support, and willingness of the university to contribute R2-million, the CSIR collaborated to establish a C-Sam on campus, as one of several such centres being set up and linked around the country.

This technological enrichment of the original VLIR investment, attracted still more interest which resulted in a Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Centre (RVAC), one of only five around the country, being added to the original VLIR project. The basic function on these centres was to establish and quantify the various climatic, ecological and demographic challenges and to feed this information to a central point where a national Atlas of Risk and Vulnerability is maintained.

The RVAC is being jointly funded by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation to the tune of R5-million over three years.

When the VLIR-IUC and university contributions are compounded with the C-Sam and RVAC opportunities, an immensely powerful hi-tech facility with huge research and teaching capabilities looms on the horizon. Above all, though the opportunities for service provision – and for third-stream income generation are considerable.

All told, the original VLIR investment in just this single project has leveraged more than R12-million in additional funding. With this support, the university has placed itself in the vanguard of institutions offering high-grade IT teaching and research facilities, particularly in the areas of climate change and human development.


General information on UL, VLIR-IUC and the University of Antwerp can be found at :
VLIR House Tel : +27 15 268 2596/2286