Career Guidance: We talk to Akinson Tumbure, a Soil Scientist

What is your job title?

I am a soil scientist.

Where do you currently work?

I work at The Soil Productivity Research Laboratory (SPRL) which is a section under The Chemistry and Soil Research Institute (CSRI). This is a government research institute in the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DRSS), under the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development.

What does your firm/ organisation do?

The Chemistry and Soil Research Institute provides soil testing and advisory services to farmers in Zimbabwe and conducts soil based research to improve sustainable crop production. The institute also produces a bacterial inoculant (NFixer™) for use as a cheaper substitute to ammonium nitrate (AN) fertilizer when cropping legumes like beans and peas.

Tell us a little bit about your career history?

After finishing my first degree in soil science, I worked as a Land Use Planning and Conservation Extension officer in 2007 under the Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX). After a year in 2008, I transferred to the Chemistry and Soil Research Institute and became a research officer. I am now a principal research officer at the same institute.

Was this always your dream career or it changed somewhere along the line?

I never dreamt I would become a soil scientist – I didn’t know such a profession existed until I went to inquire about university education after finishing my ‘A’ levels!.

I have always had the desire to make a lasting impact in people’s lives and when I was at secondary school, I would hear about the work of doctors without borders and being a medical doctor was the only profession I knew that had potential to positively impact people. I loved applying science to solve problems and only found out much later in life that I could do this and pursue my desire to positively impact people’s lives as an agricultural scientist. 

How closely does your academic education fit in with your job?

I apply most of the concepts I learnt during my academic education on a daily basis – from very simple skills like titration I learnt in High School to some very complex ones learnt at university. Everything I learnt and skills I acquired doing my Masters are indispensable in my job.

I feel that what lacked in my education that I had to obtain elsewhere were people and organisational management skills.

What qualifications do you hold?

I have a Masters by research (MPhil) degree and BSc Hons in Agriculture – Soil Science degree. Both are form the University of Zimbabwe.

I have also received various on the job trainings on specific topics through master classes, fellowships and short courses. These covered topics that include:

  • Soil and Water Management (Egypt, 2008),
  • Isotopic techniques in soil nutrient management (Uganda, 2009)
  • The Isolation, Identification and Utilisation of Root Nodule Bacteria (Rhizobia) in Promoting Sustainable Agricultural Productivity (Sri Lanka, 2012)
  • The Assessment of soil erosion and soil particle dispersion through the use of 137Cs fallout radionuclide techniques (Madagascar, 2014).

In short what educational path got you where you are? Could you have made the path shorter?

O’ levels to A’ levels (Sciences) to BSc Degree, unfortunately this could not be made shorter. Another path exists if you want to specialise in other areas such as crop science, this includes doing a diploma in Agriculture after O levels and then a degree (unfortunately it is longer and it was not available for those doing soil sciences since ‘A’ level chemistry was a prerequisite).

What are the tasks that you do regularly in your profession?

My work involves drafting agricultural research proposals and implementing research projects. I participate in analysing samples, setting up and managing laboratory, greenhouse and field experiments. I collect various field and analytical data from experiments and perform statistical analysis and publish technical reports. I am also involved in making results of my research work public to various stakeholders that include scientists and farmers through publishing in peer reviewed journals and establishing demonstration sites in farming areas. I design training materials for workshops and publish information sheets for farmers and other stakeholders.

Can you tell us some of the projects you have worked on, which you found interesting?

I worked on a project called “Putting Nitrogen Fixation to Work for Smallholder Farmers in Africa (N2Africa)” from 2010-2014. This was financed by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to Wagenigen University and the project was implemented in eight African countries. We were responsible for rhizobiology (root-nodule bacteria) work in Zimbabwe and we estimated indigenous populations of root nodule bacteria in seven Zimbabwean districts, isolated new strains and tested their effectiveness as cheaper options to provide nitrogen needs of soyabean and sugarbean. Under the same project I was also involved in training other scientists from Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe in advanced rhizobiology techniques.

Currently I am working on a project called “Enhancing plant phosphorus uptake from unprocessed Dorowa Rock Phosphate (RP) through inoculation with Phosphate Solubilising Microbes (PSMs)”. On this project I seek to isolate and identify microbes that are able to make available the phosphorus bound in rock phosphate so that it can be used by plants. Combined application of PSMs and rock phosphate will be a cheaper option to provide phosphorus needs of commonly grown cereals in Buhera District.

What is it that excites you the most when you are doing your job?

I am thrilled at the idea of discovering something new, the idea of being a pioneer, the opportunity to better lives of communities through sound research.

What bits do you find boring in your daily tasks?

The varied nature of the job keeps me engaged every time and removes monotony, at one time I am in the laboratory, at another in a farmer’s field and sometimes in my office. Sometimes I am on the road travelling to communal farming areas – I always stop to enjoy nature and find some crafts to add to my small collection at home!

Any advice to those studying or aiming at this job or career?

The number one thing you need to have is passion because often times research is challenging.