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‘Will the AgriSA speaker please come up?” But in spite of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s se­nior economist, the diminu­tive Thabi Nkosi, al­ready ap­proach­ing the plat­form, the ques­tion is re­peated.

As she heads to­wards the lectern, there’s a stunned si­lence as the room, which is filled with in­dus­try lead­ers, ab­sorbs the fact that this 30-year-old in high heels is about to talk to them about maize con­sump­tion and rain­fall.

It’s a fa­mil­iar sce­nario for Nkosi, who soon be­came ac­cus­tomed to be­ing the only woman in her 2007 grad­u­at­ing class of the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria’s BSc pro­gramme, spe­cial­is­ing in agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics.

She grad­u­ated top of her class. “Peo­ple were cry­ing,” re­calls Nkosi.

That de­ter­mined city slicker, who didn’t grow up in the coun­try or on farms, has ma­tured into a highly knowl­edge­able economist and a soughtafter speaker.

She deals with a va­ri­ety of is­sues daily that in­clude in­ter­na­tional trade “be­cause agri­cul­ture is one of the most con­tentious top­ics in the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion”.

“We look at fair trade prac­tices and how the macroe­con­omy is go­ing to af­fect agri­cul­ture,” she says as we sit in her of­fice at AgriSA’s Pre­to­ria head­quar­ters.

In South Africa, agri­cul­ture is in­te­gral to the plight of poor peo­ple, “so I get a lot of calls about food se­cu­rity”.

Just be­fore our in­ter­view, Nkosi had spo­ken to a lead­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group about poli­cies to en­sure food se­cu­rity in South Africa.

The group deals a lot with cli­mate is­sues such as pro­duc­ing food sus­tain­ably in South Africa, she ex­plains.

“Not enough peo­ple re­alise the ef­fect of cli­mate on us and our food. It is be­ing pre­dicted that El Niño will reap­pear next year, for ex­am­ple. If it ma­te­ri­alises, this will im­pact food pro­duc­tion and food prices.”

Nkosi can call on a range of AgriSA spe­cial­ists for data to use in her analy­ses. They in­clude a nat­u­ral re­source spe­cial­ist and a dis­as­ter risk man­age­ment spe­cial­ist.

She also con­sults with com­mod­ity or­gan­i­sa­tions and will dis­cuss, for in­stance, “the nor­mal con­sump­tion of maize, and where we can source it if our crop doesn’t meet our needs”.

She talks about coun­tries that South Africa could ap­proach, for in­stance Zam­bia, “but then it too might have drought, or it may have en­tered a trade agree­ment with another coun­try”.

Nkosi fol­lows the news closely for she needs to know if the Chi­nese stock mar­ket will con­tinue to fall, “as I am in­creas­ingly asked what the ef­fect of its cri­sis could be on South Africa, so I can warn our farm­ers”.

She adds that AgriSA is gen­er­ally re­garded as “the voice” of our farm­ers and she is of­ten con­tacted by the media for com­ment on agri­cul­tural is­sues.

Nkosi points out that since she be­gan her stud­ies, “the land is­sue, with which I am in­volved, has grown in


Best book:

In­spi­ra­tion: promi­nence and im­por­tance”.

She un­der­stands the pol­i­tics and emo­tions around it, but em­pha­sises the ne­ces­sity for food pro­duc­tion to be main­tained, men­tion­ing that there can be pro­hib­i­tive in­put costs, such as seed and ir­ri­ga­tion, for emerg­ing farm­ers.

It’s clear that Nkosi re­gards her­self as fully part of the AgriSA team and her early qualms about be­ing a woman in such a male-dom­i­nated field have long since evap­o­rated.

Friends and some rel­a­tives of the Bloem­fontein-born and Pre­to­ria-ed­u­cated Nkosi were sur­prised when she de­cided to study agri­cul­ture, although they knew her pas­sion for eco­nom­ics.

“Are you go­ing to be a farmer?” they asked her.

What they do not re­alise, says Nkosi, is that agri­cul­ture has peo­ple from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines work­ing in it, from in­ter­na­tional trade lawyers, lab­o­ra­tory tech­ni­cians, sci­en­tists, econ­o­mists and stock ex­change traders.

“I don’t par­tic­u­larly en­joy the phys­i­cally de­mand­ing farm en­vi­ron­ment or the dust,” she quips, adding: “I en­joy work­ing on pol­icy is­sues, not nec­es­sar­ily the science of grow­ing a mealie.”

But be­fore tak­ing up the role at AgriSA ear­lier this year, Nkosi was em­ployed in San­tam’s agri­cul­tural in­sur­ance di­vi­sion, where she had worked closely with its then head of agri­cul­ture, Dr To­bias Doyer.

“He took me un­der his wing and more than once I was asked if I was his sec­re­tary.”

She is of­ten the only woman at of­fice braais, “and I make a point of so­cial­is­ing and stay­ing to the end”.

She has worked for the SA Sugar As­so­ci­a­tion, and as an economist and se­nior man­ager in the of­fice of the Au­di­torGen­eral of SA.

“Ini­tially, I wore dark clothes, no red lip­stick and tied my hair back so I looked se­ri­ously pro­fes­sional, but now I am just me,” says the economist, who is now work­ing on her post­grad­u­ate stud­ies.

This means Nkosi ends a long day at the of­fice by work­ing into the night when she gets home. But her buoy­ancy and en­thu­si­asm, “which ir­ri­tate some peo­ple, have car­ried me

a long way”. Wow! mo­ment: My BSc grad­u­a­tion day, when I re­alised how proud I had made my fam­ily. Life les­son: Run your own race. Don’t con­stantly com­pare your­self to oth­ers.

GROUNDED Thabi Nkosi, AgriSA’s

se­nior economist

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