Professor Robson Mafoti: A lifetime of innovation, impact and achievement Prof Mafoti

Sifelani Tsiko-Innovations Editor

The death of Professor Robson Manyuwa Mafoti on November 8, one of Zimbabwe’s leading figures in the field of industrial chemistry has robbed the country, Africa and the world of one of the brightest, most innovative and most genuine individuals who was committed to the country’s scientific and technological advancement.

His love for Zimbabwe was unparalleled. 

He left a highly paying job in the United States and settled here as head of the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC).

I met him and interviewed him several times when he was head of SIRDC. 

Prof Mafoti was a man of razor-sharp intellect, contagious enthusiasm, incurable optimism and with a genuine passion for helping his colleagues, young students, poor communities and people from all walks of life.

His dedication to his craft, his creative yet pragmatic approach to science and his empathy for rural communities were unrivalled.

Prof Mafoti was one of Zimbabwe’s finest minds, foremost industrial chemist and inventor, former  SIRDC chief executive and presidential advisor.

He died aged 74 and was accorded a State-assisted funeral. He was laid to rest on Saturday at his farm in Beatrice, a few kilometres south of Harare.

Prominent people who thronged the Borrowdale Methodist Church in Harare for the funeral service hailed Prof Mafoti for his incredible contribution to science and national development.

The eminent industrial chemist and holder of 100 patents — local and international died in India where he was receiving cancer treatment.

He was a visionary. He was straightforward, open, often blunt, helpful and carried a good sense of humour. He contributed substantially to the growth of SIRDC. 

He made a difference for SIRDC and programmes he spearheaded to local communities.

Prof Mafoti’s life has lines of a lifetime of innovation, impact, and achievement.

He glowed every time he talked about science and how it could transform the quality of life of people in Zimbabwe.

He would go on and on for hours, not to boast but simply because he was passionate about science and what he worked on.

He was admired and he assumed a higher level administrative position with greater responsibilities. 

Prof Mafoti was a visionary in the field of science and he always generously shared his wisdom and knowledge with his colleagues.

There are many memories of conversations and interactions with Prof Mafoti. 

He led SIRDC for 20 years with sterling leadership.

During the rough economic patch 2007-2008, he led SIRDC to develop many import substitution interventions without requisite funding.

In a tribute, National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) commissioner and former SIRDC administrator Dr Geoffrey Chada hailed Prof Mafoti for his outstanding leadership qualities and for transforming SIRDC through the difficult and rough economic patch that the country went through.

“Prof Mafoti’s outstanding leadership skills are behind SIRDC’s success today,” he said. “As a leader he inspired the scientists with clear vision and knowledge of how research could be done better.

“One of the reasons behind SIRDC’s success under the difficult economic problems we experienced was Prof Mafoti’s ability to stay focused. He had the capacity to lead and rally people to a common purpose. This inspired confidence and was the bedrock of Prof Mafoti’s leadership at SIRDC.”

Some of his many achievements included the development of the drought tolerant maize variety – SIRDAMAIZE, production of 12 prototypes per year, technology commercialisation as well as the provision of industrial support such as instrument calibration, energy audits, boiler efficiency tests, gaseous emission tests, environmental impact assessments, production management and other interventions food and nutrition security.

During his tenure, SIRDC was chosen to host the Pan African University of Mineral Science and Technology, to help train African students on mineral exploitation on the continent.

“Prof Mafoti stands out as an astute leader in institutional creation. He created strategic business units through the commercialisation of R&D outputs which include: the Zimbabwe Technological Solutions, SIRTECH Investments, GAMMA Foods, SIRDC Farm and numerous other ventures,” said Dr Chada.

He also led community development programmes in Chivi and Wedza that covered solar power irrigation systems, irrigation technology, agro-processing, solar drying technology, piggery, potato production and entrepreneurship.

SIRDC won numerous awards — national, regional and international under his leadership. 

Prof Mafoti also forged regional and international alliances to promote research and development.

SIRDC now has links with CSIR of South Africa, BOTECH of Botswana and the Korea Africa Food and Agricultural Co-operation Initiative (KAFACI).

At a funeral service held in his memory, Prof Mafoti was described as a phenomenally strategic thinker and someone who could almost always inspire and influence others positively.

“He was a really interesting person to talk to, with a rich fund of wonderful stories, a number of eclectic interests such as livestock farming and technology innovations,” said a colleague.

“He handled difficult times with grace and humour. When things were tough and hopeless, he stood firm and inspired hope in all of us.”

In an emotional tribute, Korean Ambassador to Zimbabwe Jae Kyung Park hailed Prof Mafoti for playing an instrumental role in the establishment of the South Korean Rural Development Administration (RDA) run Korea Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (KAFACI) and Korea Partnership for Innovation of Agriculture (KOPIA) project which was implemented in partnership with SIRDC in Zimbabwe.

“I cannot find the proper words to console the family and friends who have lost a loved one. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. He was such a great man and a loving father. He overcame so many challenges when he was growing up. He was strong willed in his pursuit of education,” he said.

“I am here today in remembrance of this great man who was instrumental in the opening of the KOPIA project in Zimbabwe. We will miss him.”

Prof Mafoti was born in Wedza on June 11, 1949 and first attended school at the Methodist Church-run Chematendere Primary School from 1956 to 1961.

The Mafoti home was on the foothill of the Wedza mountain. In 1962, he dropped out of school because of lack of funding.

And in the year that followed he went to stay with his uncle in Bulawayo who later helped him enrol at Gampo Primary School at Matshobane. He did his primary education here until he finished his standard 6.

In 1966, Prof Mafoti enrolled at Mzilikazi High School which was opened in 1965 to serve blacks during the colonial era.

He finished his O’Levels in 1969.

“When I was growing up in Wedza I didn’t know that I would be a scientist. They say that I had a rare talent of moulding clay oxen and carving rocks of oxen pulling a plough,” the eminent chemical researcher told the writer in an interview in 2007.

“I suppose the environment around me helped to shape and influence my career path.”

He said he had this burning desire inside to excel in education and surpass some of the well-known and successful people and families at the time.

“I used to say: ‘I will not stop at standard 6. I want to reach standard 18,” he said laughing. “This is what motivated me most. In the environment I grew up in, I saw with my own eyes what school could do to our neighbour’s children.

“Perhaps my biggest motivation was staying close to Sijabuliso Biyam (a friend and once a managing director of Sea Freight in Harare). He was the big brother I was always looking up to. I was always telling myself that: ‘I want to be like this man. He was my role model. Sometimes role models influence our lives.”

Mentors at school also helped Prof Mafoti to have an interest in the sciences. “At high school, I was good at science. I had a natural inclination for sciences. Science and mathematics became my favourite subjects. I just loved the practical aspect of science. This was quite fascinating to me.

“I just could not write like historians. I was too scientific in my approach. I didn’t have the gift for the arts,” he said.

He said he got a lot of inspiration from Mr Godfrey Motsisi, a South African science teacher who taught him at school in Bulawayo before he later became a principal at Fletcher High in the early 1970s.

“Motsisi was a good scientist. He was inspirational in many ways. He led a good life and together with other white teachers at Mzilikazi I was taught to love sciences,” Prof Mafoti said.

He left for Swaziland in 1972 and enrolled at Waterford Kamhlaba School, a multiracial school were he studied for his A ‘levels from 1972 to 1973.

He stayed at the house where a Danish family ran a charitable organisation to assist afflicted children from apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

During that time, he met renowned eye surgeon Dr Solomon Guramatunhu and many other young Zimbabweans who later succeeded in life.

After completing his A ‘levels, Prof Mafoti got a place at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) near Roma town in Lesotho in 1974 after getting a scholarship from a Geneva-based organisation.

At Roma, Prof Mafoti majored in chemistry and biology. He graduated in 1977 and taught briefly at Amavheni Secondary School in Kwekwe.

In 1977 he taught briefly in Lesotho and later left to study for MSc in the United States after getting a scholarship from the African American Institute.

He obtained a MSc in analytical chemistry from Texas Southern University (1980), a MSc and PhD both in organic chemistry from Rice University in Houston, Texas (1985).

From academia, he later managed to break into the industrial and practical side of science. In 1985 he joined the Bayer Corporation (USA) researcher centre.

Prof Mafoti designed the fascia of cars used for making grills using material that could resist movement when heat was applied and conversely when it was subjected to very low temperatures.

He made a breakthrough and designed fascia material which was later used successfully by leading American motor companies such as MG, Chrysler and Ford. This became his first patent and one of his most prized and enduring innovations.

“They could not believe I had done it. Because I was black, it was subjected to several rigorous tests. I managed to retain 90 percent of the properties of the material I had designed,” he said. “This earned me a lot of respect and recognition. My work expanded from this point onwards.”

After working for five years at Bayer, he was voted the Most Proliferous Inventor. 

“I had 13 patents which were issued in one year at Bayer in 1990,” Prof Mafoti said. “Invention is by serendipity. You cannot dream about it, no.”

His inventions are in the field of paints, plastics, decorative surfaces, sealants and adhesives. Prof Mafoti left Bayer Corporation and joined Wilson-Art International to expand his industrial knowledge in 1995.

“At Bayer, while they respected my technical ability they never gave me the chance to enhance my managerial skills because I was black,” he said.

In Austin, USA, he oversaw the growth of Wilson-Art International from an annual turnover of US$500 million a year to US$1,2 billion a year by 1999 through research, product development and appropriate marketing strategies.

The death of his mother in January 2002 forced him to return home. He quit his job in the US and joined SIRDC on July 1, 2003 taking over from Prof Christopher Chetsanga who had retired.

Prof Mafoti’s global work experience covered research and development, patenting, intellectual property licensing, manufacturing and commercialisation of research outcomes.

He was a member of various boards that included Industrial Development Corporation, Zimbabwe Council of Higher Education, Chinhoyi University of Technology where he was chairperson of council among others.

In June 2019, President Mnangagwa appointed him to the 26 – member Presidential Advisory Council (PAC).

Prof Mafoti was a recipient of the Robert Mugabe Commendation Award for service in Human Capital Development which was bestowed on him for outstanding leadership for transformative service in human capital development.

He was a holder of 48 patents issued by the United States patent office and several others issued by the European Union, Japanese, Mexican and Brazilian patent office.

He won international recognition for his administrative prowess.

Prof Mafoti held several roles with various local, regional and international bodies.

He is survived by his wife Ann Jeanette Ntsoaki and the couple had two children – Fadzayi and Muchaneta.

Other children, namely Simphiwe, Kento, and Farai survive him.

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