19 November 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Agriculture was also never in my vocabulary when I was young. I entered the sector through the back door, says the recent recipient of the national Order of the Baobab, Dr Hlamalani Ngwenya.

At first, she thought someone was pulling a prank on her. Then she read the letter for a second time. But it was only after a phone call to the number in the letter from the Presidency that Dr Hlamalani Judith Ngwenya received confirmation that the President himself, the Honourable Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, will be honouring her with one of the highest awards the country bestows on its citizens who contributed towards the advancement of democracy and who made a significant impact to improve the lives of South Africans.

Dr Ngwenya received the Order of the Baobab in honour of her work in sustainable agriculture and community empowerment on Thursday 18 November 2021. The Order of the Boabab is one of six national orders.

The Order of the Baobab recognises South African citizens who contributed to community service, business and the economy, science, and technological innovation. 

Humility, honour, and integrity

About receiving this prestigious award, Dr Ngwenya says: “This is a lifetime achievement, which I receive with humility and honour and will guard with integrity. A baobab tree is significantly big and very visible. This award for me is as big as the baobab tree.”

“While the baobab tree is humongous in stature, it is able to stand tall and strong because it is held and fed by the strongest roots that are invisible and buried below that surface. Some roots are small, and some big, but they are working together to ensure the stability of this gigantic tree that everyone sees and celebrates. This is a true symbol of the story of my life. Today I am being celebrated like a baobab. For me, the true celebration goes to the many people at local, national, and global level across the 50 countries that I have worked with in the past 30 years. This is significant for them too,” she says. 

Dr Ngwenya lectured students in the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of the Free State (UFS) between 2015 and July 2021, teaching the Advanced Diploma on Extension for Sustainability and the master’s programme on Sustainable Agriculture and Extension: Theory and Practice. 

“The university has become a home for me at many levels. Under the progressive leadership of Prof Johan van Niekerk, Head of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development and Extension (CENSARD), I was not only allowed to innovate, but was encouraged to go out into the world to harvest knowledge and skills, to bring it home, and to share it with our students. I am confident that we have contributed positively to many students’ lives.”

“Although I joined government, the UFS will always be my home,” she says. 

Capacity, agriculture, and community

Of all the different exploits in her career of 30 years, Dr Ngwenya is recognised for the three qualities she is most passionate about – capacity building, sustainable agriculture, and community empowerment.

“Qualified as a teacher in 1992, capacity building has always been my first love and career of choice. Since a young age, I always wanted to be a teacher."

She continues: “Understanding that knowledge is a powerful commodity, I consciously invested in and equipped myself with a set of diverse skills. For the past 20 years, I have excelled in different forms of capacity building through activities such as lecturing 21st century skills development, organisational development, change management, and strategic planning; facilitating systemic change and policy dialogues; and moderating high-level multi-stakeholder engagements globally (with a record of more than 350 such engagements to date).”

“Agriculture was also never in my vocabulary when I was young. I entered the sector through the back door. This is, however, now the sector I know and understand the most. I supported policy processes and worked with policy makers, including the United Nations and the African Union. I have also done work in the research and education space; with farmers and financing institutes; with extension and advisory services; as well as on issues pertaining to technology and trade.”

“It was through these practical engagements that I began to understand and appreciate the broadness and diverse nature of the agricultural sector.”

She says her contribution to community empowerment is multi-fold. “I consciously reach out to individuals, especially women and the youth, using my time and often resources to try and make an impact.”

Profit, people, and planet

When asked what an ideal South Africa would look like in terms of sustainable agriculture and community empowerment, Dr Ngwenya responds that the country was making significant efforts to contribute to sustainable agriculture through policies and resources to support implementation on the ground. She believes the challenges that the country is dealing with are systemic in nature and that it will take time to realise the full impact of all the efforts.

She also subscribes to the principles of sustainable agriculture that put emphasis on profit, people, and the planet. This means finding a good balance between economic gain (profit), while preserving the environment (planet) and ensuring that the social aspects (people) are taken care of accordingly.

In her new position as Chief Director: Agricultural Producer Support and Development in the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, Dr Ngwenya will continue to contribute to the sector by addressing key issues at grassroots level where it matters the most.

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