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According to an exploratory study on Women in agriculture, patriarchal and traditional values influence gender roles which continue to create barriers for women being key players in the industry. The study highlights that women are expected to attend to household chores and are not encouraged to take up leadership roles. It further indicates that women enjoy less respect than men from their male colleagues and that women view themselves as less than men and do not necessarily apply for higher position in the business – concluding that prejudice, sexism, and discrimination, from both men and women, are generated by the idea that agriculture is a “man’s job.”

With more than 18 years working in agricultural research and innovation systems with a focus on biotechnology, Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh has led multi-institutional, multi- disciplinary, and multinational teams and efforts to improve sustainable agricultural productivity for small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. She was appointed as a Commissioner in the South African Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution, worked as Divisional Head for Innovation, Support and Protection of Companies & Intellectual Property Commission, and with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Abuja, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya. 

She is proof enough that women do indeed belong in agriculture. We got in conversation with her to better understand the industry and her career journey in Biotechnology.

  1. Take us back to pre-1994, when access to quality education in South Africa was still almost impossible due to the racial profiling. Where did you get the courage to pursue a field that not many young, black women at the time, were going for?

I completed my High School education in 1990 in Mamelodi, and since the universities in the area were still segregated, I went to Ongoye – the University of Zululand, which is six hours away from my home, where I pursued a BSc degree. From my tender age, I have wanted to pursue a career in Sciences, as I have always admired Doctors in hospitals wearing their white coats and saving lives, and I saw myself taking up a career in that area – but due to financial constraints, the nearest degree I could register for was a BSc and I majored in Microbiology and Biochemistry in my final year. 

2. Cataloguing your achievements from your University days (where you graduated 1st class, passing with 6 distinctions and receiving an award for top female graduate student), ‘til today could take the whole day. The Biotech field may be quite difficult for many to understand. So, In simple terms, how would you best describe what you do in your line of work?

I obtained my Master’s degree from the University of Pretoria and PhD degree from the University of Cambridge, UK in Plant Biotechnology, and I worked mainly in the laboratory conducting research to understand at the molecular level (the genes/DNA), what controls the growth of plants and how do they survive and grow under stress. This fundamental research, became even more meaningful, when I worked as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Cambridge  and then as a Research Manager at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in the Plant Biotechnology Division, where I applied the molecular techniques to our indigenous crops, in order to identify the genes (genetic materials/DNA) that makes the plants to be tolerant and survive in areas where there is drought or limited water or to be resistant to insect attacks. What this means is that with that knowledge, we can use these genes to improve other important crops such as maize to be tolerant to drought or to be resistant to insect attacks.

It also meant that I moved from being a strictly laboratory-based scientist, to being both in the farmers’ field as well as in the lab. That enabled me to use the Biotech tools to assist to solve the real problems faced by our farmers. 

3. You were raised by your mother and grandmother whom you describe as a very strong support structure. What lessons have you learnt from them that when you look back and reflect on their teachings, it all comes full circle. What are those things they taught you that have helped you to become the Nompumelelo we know today?

The Nompumelelo we know today is humble, hard-working, family-oriented and purpose-driven. I know who I am, and I am solidly grounded in my relationship with the Almighty God as a disciple and a change agent. I start my day with a prayer, by committing everything to God. The teachings and virtues of life mastery were instilled in me by my grandmother (may God bless her soul forever) and my mother from when I was a teenager and I remain grateful to them for always being there, encouraging and steering us through this school called Life. They taught us that nothing is impossible, once one commits it to God and to have that “go for it attitude”. They are my role models.

4. A lot of people would say ‘only the brave’ choose Maths and Science – and even pursue it past High School. What drew you to taking up these subjects?”

I am not sure whether I would say it is bravery in my case. I struggled initially with Maths in High School and I remember very well when my mom would sit with me and show me other simple ways to solve maths problems. That tutorial was like magic, it turned things around for me and I started enjoying Maths from then on. I suppose the positive attitude and the zeal to know more and to be better at these subjects, also made me to be more curious and to excel even past High School. And this is what I teach my children – when they complain that these subjects are not easy, the magic is the positive attitude, consistent practise and study – and that, what we feed our minds, determines whether we succeed or not. 

[We love that her mom worked through the maths with her and the nurturing she herself gives her children around subjects – it emphasises this parenting article: Nurturing Your Child’s Interests in School Subjects]

5. The pandemic had a global impact on the world’s economy – the impact was also felt by the food and agriculture sector, where food security is already an issue. As someone who has led several agricultural industry projects to address food security, can you expand on how this affects the local agricultural sector and the efforts to get more young, black farmers into the industry?

Indeed. The pandemic, compounded by climate change – where we see prolonged periods of drought, changing weather patterns, heat waves, flooding and erratic rainfall patterns etc. have had a devastating impact on the agricultural sector and on sustainable food production world-wide. It is projected that the world population will reach 9.7 Billion by 2050 from the 7.7 billion today and most growth will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, with doubled population growth from 1.1 in 2020 to 2.2 Billion people by 2050. Thus, there will be more mouths to feed using the limited natural resources of water, land and energy. 

Although South Africa is considered a food secure country, there is widespread food insecurity at the house-hold level. Some of the local agricultural industries were not severely affected by the pandemic, as the government prioritised the agricultural sector as an essential service from the initial lockdown restrictions. The production continued as most of the economy came to a standstill. According to StatsSA, the overall annual performance of the sector recorded an impressive 13.1% growth in 2020. 

There are a number of agricultural development initiatives to increase youth and black farmers’ participation in the Agricultural industry, these are driven at the national and provincial levels by various government departments, agencies and the private sector. 

6. Through your work, you have also focussed on empowering small-scale women farmers. Can you tell us more about the work you’ve done or are currently doing to give women opportunities that they were previously denied?

When I was the CEO of AfricaBio, I had the privilege to work with and serve especially small-scale women farmers, empowering them through education and awareness to use new agricultural technologies and information to help them grow their crops and realise good profit margins. 

Throughout my career, I have been mentoring young scientists especially young women in their career journeys in agriculture. It is so fulfilling when you see them succeed in their careers, following the same path as well as mentoring others. 

My mom and I have recently established a greenhouse project in Kwa-Mhlanga, Mpumalanga where we grow and produce winter and summer vegetables. Our plan through this initiative is to teach and mentor women and the youth in the community on how they can utilize the opportunities, and every piece of land at their disposal for self-sustenance, and for national food security. 

7. You’ve also worked in different parts of the world through the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AAFF), based in Kenya. What was that experience like (from the culture, to how they run the agriculture-economy)?What learnings did you feel you just had to bring back home?

The AATF is a Nairobi-based non-for-profit organisation that accesses, develops and disseminates appropriate proprietary agricultural technologies through public-private partnerships and supports farmers in Africa and especially smallholder farmers in their quest for access to the best technology to improve agricultural productivity. I was instrumental in establishing the West-Africa satellite office, in Abuja, Nigeria. I had a fantastic time there, I travelled extensively in East Africa and West Africa, especially in Kenya and Nigeria, enjoyed local delicacies and the rich culture of these countries. The overall reception was amazing; I was accepted as a sister. I made a lot of friends and I learned a bit of Kiswahili, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Twi, French and Pidgin which comes in handy when I go to the markets and negotiate good prices for goods.

I truly cherished the humanitarian work that the organisation pursued in partnership with some of the world-renowned scientists, who dedicated their time and expertise to develop innovative technologies for smallholder farmers. I brought the learning back home, when I took up the job as the CEO of AfricaBio, an independent, not-for-profit Biotechnology stakeholder association – advocating for the safe, ethical and responsible research, development, and application of biotechnology and its products.

8. Can you explain what your role was, as the Commissioner in the Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution and how it links to the digital space soon taking over the world? 

As a Commissioner in the Presidential Commission on 4th Industrial Revolution, I was particularly looking at ways to harness and unlock the potential of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies to provide the much needed solutions for sustainable agricultural productivity in the midst of a climate crisis, and to boost the green economy – considering that South Africa is the third most biodiverse country in the world. In the six workstreams which were formed. I was involved in the Science, Technology & Innovation workstream and specifically on 4IR for environmental sustainability: ensuring a resource-secured future. The overall work of the Commission, culminated in a comprehensive report that outlines SA’s strategy and planned response to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The report was also presented to President Cyril Ramaphosa before its gazetting on 23rd October 2020.

9. How would you describe a day in your life and what do you do to relax and destress?

I enjoy my role as a mother and wife. I start and end my day with prayer with my family, and I always endeavour not to miss the special morning prayer sessions organised with a group of powerful prayerful woman. Then I move on to make school lunches for the children and dropping them off at school when my husband is away to his work station. There is never a dull day or monotonous schedule, I basically multi-task in between, participating or facilitating back-to-back Zoom meetings with various stakeholders, writing proposals and articles from research projects, and driving to the field to monitor the crops at different stages of growth. I relax with my family and de stress by listening to gospel music and motivational talks by other powerful women.

10. As a parting shot during Women’s month, what is the mantra you live by – that keeps you going as a black woman that you’d like to pass on to other women on their journey to succeeding in their respective fields?

The mantra that I live by and that keeps me going is “find time to slow down, move steadily but not stop, practice gratitude and seek inner peace that only God can give”. The pandemic has no-doubt caused a re-set of everything, and has made us to be more conscious and to prioritise the things we have taken for granted or neglected in the past. As black women, we need to invest in our learning, growth, health and wellness, and extend these virtues to others. Only then will we be able to unleash our full potential and tackle life challenges head-on with an open or expanded mind-set.

What a woman! What a change agent! 

We are so inspired by Dr Nompumelelo’s career journey and the work that she is doing to ensure the world is a better place. We lift her higher!