Dr Kolobe Lucas Mmonwa

Marine biologist, KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board

Kolobe Mmonwa shouldn’t have ended up as one of South Africa’s leading marine biologists. His home village of Ga-Matlala in Limpopo is 400km from the nearest ocean. It’s also very hot and dry for most of the year. At first he did what any ambitious student with good marks in the province would do and enrolled to read for a BSc degree at the University of Limpopo.

While it has large fishtanks, it is even further away from the ocean than his home. But it was there that he became intrigued by biodiversity, and how ecosystems function. An honours degree in Zoology followed. While he wanted to see all the creatures he was studying in situ, he couldn’t because of his location.

It was only by chance that he then stumbled across an advert for MSc scholarships at Rhodes University. The only catch was that he would be studying the genetics of seaweeds. At this point he had no idea what seaweed was. His mother also didn’t know what it was, or what he was off to study.

She was convinced that her only son would drown in the ocean. But — having supported his studies up to that point through her work as a domestic worker — she backed this new adventure. He didn’t sleep at all on the 1 300km overnight Greyhound bus trip to Grahamstown. It was then, at age 22, that he got his first sight of the ocean, which would go on to dominate his career. A PhD followed before he spent a year as a postdoctoral intern at the Marine Programme of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, in Cape Town. He then joined the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board in 2014. Now his focus is on making it easier for children like him to get to where he is today.

Referred to himself as a “living testimony,” Kolobe spends a great deal of time on outreach programmes and working with the network of rural schools that the Sharks Board has links to. Transformation is critical for someone who tells children at career expos that they should never let their circumstances dictate their futures. That fires him up and makes him hit every week running. His end goal is to become involved in policy decisions around science. This will help ensure that South Africa’s marine resources are used in an inclusive and sustainable manner, something that government is aiming to do with Operation Phakisa.

This plan, to unlock hundreds of billions of rands in the ocean economy, will need people such as Kolobe to make it happen. It will also need the children from dusty villages like Ga-Matlala that he inspires to get into the sciences.

— Sipho Kings