Youth Month 2023: Thulani Ningi

Youth Month 2023: Thulani Ningi

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.

Mr Thulani Ningi is a PhD student in Agricultural Economics at the University of Fort Hare. He is currently funded by the NRF for his studies and is also a former DSI-NRF intern.

How did your journey start?

I grew up in a village called Mqukwane in a small town, Keiskammahoek, in the Eastern Cape where I completed my primary and secondary school. I was the only learner to graduate with a Bachelor’s pass out of ten learners in my class. Even though we did not have a Life Science and Tourism teacher at my school, I managed to teach myself; passed my matric exams, and went to university to pursue Agricultural Economics. I am the first and only graduate at home. I have siblings and cousins who look up to me, and they are currently in colleges in the Eastern Cape. During my university life, I worked as a domestic worker so that I could stay in school. During the December holidays, I would visit my aunts in Cape Town and work in restaurants to assist in buying essentials such as clothes.

So far, my career has been doing well, despite some hiccups here and there. Back in my junior days at school, I dreamed of studying medicine and becoming a doctor. However, the school I had access to did not offer Math and Physics by the time I reached matric. Growing up in a farming community, I developed a passion for agriculture. In my matric year, we had a Life Orientation assignment where we had to select a career. With the limited information I had at that time, I chose to be an agricultural businessman. One teacher called me and asked if I was sure about the career I presented, and I confidently said yes. She then organised application forms for me and applied on my behalf to two institutions in the Eastern Cape. Therefore, the university was decided by her since I didn’t know much about universities. Growing up in villages those days, we hardly knew anything about universities.

As the years went by, I fell in love with the program and I have never looked back. I love my career path and would encourage others to pursue it since it offers numerous opportunities.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

I received my NRF scholarship to pursue my PhD in 2021, and since then, I have been able to support my family and focus on my studies without worrying about financial matters.

In 2022, I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright Scholarship in collaboration with the NRF, which allowed me to visit the United States and conduct non-degree research at one of the most advanced universities in Agriculture and Applied Economics. Currently, I am participating in this program, and have the opportunity to work on my PhD research under the guidance of professors in my department.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

As a young child from an underprivileged rural area with a poor family background, it is often challenging to get noticed or recognised. People tend to overlook individuals like me because nobody knows about our potential. However, my first breakthrough came in 2017 when I became an NRF intern and had the opportunity to meet my mentor. It was my mentor who encouraged me to enrol in a Master’s program. Since then, I have worked tirelessly to prove that rural children from disadvantaged backgrounds are just as capable as those who attended private schools in towns. This is a point I still have to demonstrate wherever I go, even today. Doors do not easily open for those who are poor, but with mentors like mine, slowly but surely doors are beginning to open for me. Sometimes I even question my worthiness concerning the great things happening in my life, but I believe that everything happens for a reason.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My research focuses on the water-energy-food nexus at the household scale. While previous research in this field has mainly emphasised resource security, my research highlights the direct trade-offs that households must make to access these resources, as well as the potential synergies they can exploit to ensure resource availability.

Additionally, my study measures the resilience of livelihoods in the face of shocks that affect these trade-offs and synergies. By examining these aspects, my research aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and interdependencies within the water-energy-food nexus at the household level.

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

The primary objective of this study is to provide policymakers with valuable insights into the interconnectedness of resources and how they rely on one another within the water-energy-food nexus. By understanding these connections, policymakers can develop targeted policies to address the trade-offs that occur within this nexus and effectively manage resource consumption.

Furthermore, the study aims to share knowledge with households regarding the potential synergies that exist within the water-energy-food nexus. By understanding these synergies, households can take advantage of them to enhance resource security. This knowledge can empower households to make informed decisions about resource allocation and utilisation.

Lastly, the study also aims to identify key areas within livelihoods where attention should be focused to effectively manage and bounce back from risks and uncertainties. By identifying these areas, households can develop strategies and approaches to improve their resilience and adaptability in the face of challenges within the water-energy-food nexus.

Overall, this study seeks to provide policymakers with evidence-based recommendations, share knowledge with households, and identify critical areas of focus to enhance resource management, security, and livelihood resilience within the water-energy-food nexus.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

One of my proudest achievements as a rural child is receiving a scholarship to study in America. This experience has been a significant highlight in my life. However, what truly fills me with pride is being the first person in my family to pass matric, attend university, and have the opportunity to travel abroad. These milestones represent not only personal accomplishments but also breaking barriers and defying the limitations often associated with rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. They serve as a testament to my determination, hard work, and the support I received along the way. These achievements remind me of the progress I have made and inspire me to continue striving for success and creating positive change in my life and community.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

Since completing my Master’s, I have been actively involved in publishing academic papers, which has resulted in more than seven publications to date. Additionally, I have contributed three book chapters and have participated in the creation of reports. Alongside my research work, I have taken on part-time lecturing contracts to gain valuable experience that I hope to showcase in my application for an NRF Rating in the future. I consider these small accomplishments to be significant stepping stones in my academic and professional journey.

While I have a strong passion for public service and helping those in need, I am also open to exploring opportunities within the business sector as long as they align with my values and have a positive impact on society. I believe in utilising my skills and knowledge to contribute to the well-being of others, whether it be through public service or business endeavours aimed at benefiting the community. Ultimately, my goal is to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and contribute to the betterment of society in whichever path I choose to pursue.

My Google Scholar profile can be viewed here.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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