Youth Month 2021: Nelly Virginia Nkosi

Youth Month 2021: Nelly Virginia Nkosi

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Ms Nelly Virginia Nkosi is a PhD student in Consumer Science at the University of South Africa (UNISA).  She is a former DSI-NRF intern, hosted by UNISA’s Florida Campus, and also received an NRF Innovation Scholarship for her Master’s studies.

This is her story…

I am from a family of five siblings, raised by street food vendor parents. I grew up in the Uphongolo area in a very small town called Pongola, located in KwaZulu-Natal. I completed my high school there. In 2012, I proceeded to the University of Zululand.   

My educational journey has had good as well as challenging experiences. Thinking back, I remember that I used to envision myself as a medical doctor, but due to barriers and circumstances such as access to resources that could have enhanced my high school performance, I was hindered to achieve such. For the most part, my educational journey was positive – I always desired more change that would transform my life and that of my family.

It all started in 2012 when I got caught up in the pressures of being at University. I eventually enrolled for a Bachelor of Consumer Sciences (Nutrition). Back then, I did not understand what it was. As time went by, to my surprise, my passion for food and nutrition unfolded and grew stronger as the degree was addressing community issues such as food insecurity, rural development, food science, nutrition and the wellbeing of humans. I related to the content of the degree as it spoke directly to the community I came from. For instance, back at home, we have edible indigenous crops that I never knew could address malnutrition issues, supplement individual health status, and be agro-processed to add value, thereby generating income for households.

I have always been determined, striving for academic excellence. I finished the degree in record time. I vividly recall the Head of Department, Dr du Preez, encouraging the class to apply for an NRF-Internship. I boldly took a leap of faith and made my application in 2015. Luckily, at beginning of 2016, I received the call that changed my life completely.

Being a rural girl, I was challenged to relocate to a big city in Gauteng. I never even knew what the place looked like and honestly, it was a heavy burden. However, I looked beyond and made it to my first day at UNISA as a DSI-NRF Intern. The program exposed me to various opportunities that professionally developed me, educated me, reshaped my thinking and, eventually, increased my passion for my research. As a result, I decided to further my studies and I enrolled for a Master’s which I completed cum laude in 2020.

What is your area of expertise?

My research focus area is food safety, food security and food product development.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

I would start by outlining the background analysis. Even before the pandemic, South Africa as a developing country had a higher risk of food insecurity due to disrupted socio-economic backgrounds, lower employment rate and inadequate access to resources at a grassroots level. Another challenge faced by rural communities is the increased number of foodborne disease outbreaks emanating from street food vendors due to a lack of adequate food safety knowledge. The pandemic has exuberated some of the mentioned problems as, due to the stricken economy, food retail prices also increased, forcing many households to cut down on the quantity and quality of healthy food consumption.

My research work inspires the South African rural-based communities by educating them to use the minimum resources they have to create sustained food access through subsistence agriculture practices and household food agro-processing. This may minimise large retail spending and enhance sustained nutritional food access which, in turn, will promote health and reduce malnutrition and foodborne cases. Furthermore, it may interactively educate food street vendors using Fourth Industrial Revolution resources which blends South African foodstuffs, regulations, and principles relevant to govern food safety at a local trading level. This may enhance street food safety practices, reduce foodborne illness outbreaks, and reduce hospitalisation-related costs associated with the consumption of contaminated food. As a result, this would promote income sustainability at a household level, thus contributing to local economic development.

Furthermore, my research may improve the subsistence agriculture image in rural communities, encouraging households to utilise agro-processing techniques that add value to crops.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I scored myself an NRF scholarship! I was also the Best Student of the Class of 2020 as I obtained my Master’s cum laude and in record time.

I would like to thank the NRF for the internship program initiative. It transformed my life completely and I achieved what seemed impossible. I began as a mere intern, now I am a lecturer with a passion for research.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

I was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as it completely slowed down my work pace. By that time, I had already submitted my dissertation for examination, and it, therefore, prolonged the release of my dissertation results. I remember I had to put everything on hold when I woke up to hear that the country was closed. I had to immediately leave a resourceful area that was enabling me to be fruitful towards achieving my research outputs.

It was difficult having to write corrections feedback at home where there wasn’t even basic resources, such as electricity. However, the situation forced me to adapt and to take every step as it came. I had to develop my writing schedule timetable and make my family understand the whole situation. This channelled me to develop coping strategies and focus my priorities on what mattered at that time. As a result, I was able to resubmit my dissertation, which later on came back with a cum laude.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

The best advice I have ever received is from my academic supervisor, Prof F.T. Tabit, who said that the race is not for the strong or wise but time and chances happen to them all, and to say, “take care of your education and it will take care of you”. Well, this has always channelled me to remember where I come from and where I am going. Mostly, it enabled me to refocus and prioritise my energies on my research. Today, I am proud to say that hard work pays off and brings confidence to succeed.

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

The best ways to encourage youngsters to be interested in science-related careers is to actively engage them in blended learning programmes from the early stages of their development. Stakeholders such as teachers should strategically utilise resources provided by the Basic Education sector which encourages a child to think about science-related matters and allow a child to be curious and ask questions such as “what” instead of “why”. Teachers may even encourage children to think technologically by teaching them how to use technology to solve their own problems. This may allow children to become logical and helpful, rather than just to socialise and have fun.

At a household level, parents can help to shape children by simply engaging them with math-centric activities, such as baking, which teaches the child importance of counting and correct measurements.  

In closure, a disadvantaged background does not define tomorrow. Instead, what you do today waters tomorrow’s garden. STEM improves a child’s learning abilities and narrows the gaps between children’s educational achievements.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

It is not easy to predict the future, however, I believe that through hard work, I will obtain my PhD in record time and join the ranks of NRF-rated researchers.

A long-term goal is to form a non-profit organisation that will target the youth, offering solutions to rural communities. I aspire to verge into a collaborated farming business which will allow me to utilise my skills and experience in food product development technology/agro-processing (food value-adding) while empowering disadvantaged communities with essential skills that may enhance their development and income generation.

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