‘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
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