Dr Hlamalami Ngwenya writes for The Village Voice

Finding my PERFECT angle and going beyond farming

By Dr Hlami*  

Did you know that Agriculture is bigger than farming?

When you think of agriculture, what comes to your mind?

Farming, right?

Yeah, you are not alone who thinks that way. Many people equate agriculture to farming too.  I am sure as your mind is racing; you can already imagine that woman or man holding a hoe (xikomu) in that small field (emasinwini);  Or you can imagine that person on a tractor or herding livestock.

Your knowledge and imagination are not incorrect; but they are also incomplete. Farming is part of Agriculture; but Agriculture is bigger than Farming.

Dr Hlamalani Ngwenya
Dr Hlamalani Ngwenya

When I was young, I also thought agriculture was farming and nothing more. I did not see myself as a farmer, so I did not want anything to do with agriculture. I recall that when I was still in high school in the mid 80s or so; we had an option do agriculture as a subject; or Home economics. I obviously went for Home Economics because, I wanted nothing to do with farming at all. During those days, Agriculture was also associated with punishment. When you did something wrong, you would be sent to work in the field as part of the punishment.

Teaching was my first love  

I always wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. So teaching was my first love and it remains so to date. When I pursued my teaching career back then, my core subjects were Education, Home Economics and Food and Nutrition.

If you had asked me back then if I would work in the Agriculture space; my answer would have been a big NO. Of course, I never studied Agriculture, so why would I have imagined myself working in this sector.

I qualified as a Home Economics high teacher in 1992 and in 1993 (aged 21) I landed my first job teaching job at Shingwedzi High school, in Malamulele.  Taught there for 1 year and then transferred to Isaac Kheto Nxumayo Agricultural High school in 1994.

Agriculture found me

As I continued to study further for my Honours and Masters, I specialized in community nutrition and extension advisory services. This earned me a position at a College of Agriculture (called Tompi Seleka) in 1998. The college had three departments of 1) Plant Production, 2) Animal Production and 3) Community Development. I initially worked in the Community Development department teaching Home Economics and Consumer sciences related subjects as well as managing community outreach programmes with students. I later started teaching Agricultural Extension subject too; that was literally forced on me.  But I fell in love with it.

Look at me now, three decades later I work in this sector.

A million-dollar question remains. Am I a farmer?  My answer is yet another big NO.

I am sure now your mind is racing again; even faster and wondering. If you are not a farmer, what then are you doing in Agriculture?  

Farming (what is also known as primary agriculture) is part of Agriculture. In fact, while farming is the backbone of Agriculture; it alone does not make agriculture complete. There are other functions that are equally important. 

We need to understand that agriculture is a very big and diverse sector. It offers many opportunities for those who wish to pursue farming as a business; as well as those who want to pursue opportunities beyond framing. I for one have found other pathways to this beautiful sector, but not through the farming route. Through my lived experiences, I have become one of the self-proclaimed ambassadors of the Agricultural sector and I also advocate for what I call PERFECT Opportunities in AgriCOOLture: Going beyond just farming. A concept that I explain below.

Finding my PERFECT angle and going beyond farming

In the past 30 years I personally have worked with, engaged with, supported and continue to do so to a wide range of organisations that play critical role in shaping and driving the Agriculture agenda at various levels. For example, organisations whose mandate is to define agricultural Policies, frameworks, programmes and strategies and Policy think tanks at national, regional, continental and global levels. Agricultural Education and Research institutions at national, regional, continental level and global levels playing significant role in defining the cutting-edge education and research agenda for agricultural development. Agricultural Financing is also a very critical function were innovative ideas are generated. Farmer organisations at regional and national level also to self-organise their collective voices. Extension and Advisory service institutions that are also organisation their collective voice at various levels. Communication and Knowledge management is increase becoming an important aspect in agricultural development. I have been involved in initiatives around communicating science, advocacy, and the use of theatre in policy advocacy.  The advancement of Technologies in agriculture can never be over emphasized. I have also worked with and supported Organisations that play leading roles in developing innovative Technologies and support for agricultural development. Trades and harmonisation of markets are also important aspect in agricultural development.

Through these lived experiences, I continue to see a number of opportunities that exist in the broader sector that remain untapped by the majority. I find it unfortunate that the dominant thinking of Agriculture is that of farming or primary production. This is also what I thought it was before I started finding the different pathways as shared above. What I have observed is that if there is an expansion of the thinking of agriculture, it often leans towards development value-chains, which is often about adding value and agro-processing related activities. This is what I call vertical expansion and it still builds on farming and/or primary productionn

I have over the years learnt that the narrow perspective of Agriculture and often equating it to just farming robs many people from seeing the bigger picture of what the sector really is and what it has to offer. It also robs people from seeing the many opportunities and roles they could potentially play and contribute to this sector. It for this reason that I have started the PERFECT Opportunity campaign. 

When people ask me what I do, I sometimes say I am doing the PERFECT Job. PERFECT not in an arrogant manner that implies that my job is perfect. But for me I use PERFECT as an acronym  to better articulate the role I play in the broader agricultural Policies, Education, Research, Farming & Finance, Extension and advisory services, Communication, Trade & Technologies space. Most importantly, I use PERFECT to broaden the lens through which people should see and understand Agriculture beyond farming.

Navigating through One webbed Agri-food System

As I continue to engage in the Agriculture field along the PERFECT continuum, I realised that the sector has sub systems around Agriculture, Food, Nutrition and Natural Resources that are also interlinked into one webbed Agri-Food System. Interesting to note is that individuals and organizations within these sub-systems are interconnected. With the complex challenges that the world is dealing with that know no boundaries; individuals and organisations at different levels are forced to talk to each, engage, negotiate and sometimes collaborate in collectively defining the agenda and trends for the broader agricultural development. More and more we see strategic partnerships emerging either by design or by force. 

An ocean of PERFECT opportunities exists at national, regional and global levels. Individuals and organisations continue to innovate within the Agri-food system to find better ways to address the challenges within the sector. New institutional arrangements emerge, technology advancements and other innovations.

Working across the sector I found that the understanding of these connections has an added advantage. It puts one in a comparative advantage of knowing what is trending in the sector and where the opportunities exist. The advancement of digital technologies also makes it easier to access information and connect across the global.

I am paying it forward and Bridging the knowledge gap

Reflecting on the journey travelled so far to where I am today, I also recognize the many helping hands (whether big or small) that different people that came my way. I salute the many people who believed in me or picked me when I was at my lowest. This inspires me to extend my helping hand to others too. Once the bug of ‘paying forward’ bites you, there is no turning back.

It is for this reason that I will use this space here to share what I know about the Agricultural sector with the hope that someone somewhere out there will see value and be inspired to pursue any of the many PERFECT pathways  into this beautiful sector.

I will use this space to unpack every aspect of the PERFECT concept so that people have tangible examples and also provide links on how people can access more information. These will include information about jobs, funding, career development, networking, events and many more.

Follow the @DrPERFECT Opportunities on Facebook for more information.

*Dr Hlamalani Ngwenya who is the Director in the Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape boasts of a PhD in sustainable agricultutre from the University of Free State.

She has also received the Order of Baobab in bronze from President Curil Ramaphosa.

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