13 Aug Interview with Dr Nompumelelo Happworth Obokoh
Dr Nompumelelo Happworth Obokoh
Chairperson of National Research Foundation Board
Divisional Manager for Support and Protection at the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission
Commissioner of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Nompumelelo is a registered natural scientist in biological science with the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions. She trained as a plant molecular biologist at the University of Cambridge’s Magdalene College in the UK and worked as a post-doctorate research associate at the university’s Institute of Biotechnology, where she deciphered and deployed new molecular technologies to improve agricultural yield. She has led several agricultural projects to address food security in Africa, with a focus on empowering small-scale women farmers. She is the Chairperson of the National Research Foundation, which has the mandate to promote and support research. She is also a Commissioner of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which assists government to take advantage of opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution.
Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?
I was born and raised in Mamelodi, a historical township in Pretoria. I was raised by my mother, who was a single parent, with very strong support from my grandmother. These are the two strong women who worked very hard to support us as we were growing up. Although my grandmother did not complete her primary education, she understood the importance of a good education. She and my mum, who was a high school teacher at the time, instilled in me, at a very young age, a love of mathematics and science.
I completed my high school education, and when I was getting ready to undertake my first degree, the universities in the area were still segregated. So, we drove for seven hours, to Ongoye – the University of Zululand, where I pursued a BSc. In my final year, I took up majors in microbiology and biochemistry, and graduated with a 1st class pass and 6 distinctions. I received the university’s Mirriam Babangida award for top female graduate student. In 1994, when I was finishing my final year, I volunteered as an electoral officer — my friends and I were so excited to be participating in South Africa’s first democratic elections.
The new democratic South Africa opened many doors. I returned home, and enrolled for a BSc honours degree at the University of Pretoria and, in 2008, for an MSc in Plant Biotechnology, funded by the National Research Foundation. I graduated cum laude, and this paved the way for me to pursue my PhD in Plant Molecular Biology at the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge. I received the Mandela Cambridge Scholarship administered by the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust (CCT), the Overseas Research Student Award, and the Mandela Magdalene College Scholarship. I received the 3rd year PhD student award. I returned home in 2005, after working as a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge, and took up a position as a senior researcher and manager in the biotech division for the Agricultural Research Council, based in Roodeplaat, Pretoria. During that time, I received several research grants and awards.
After the ARC, I worked for the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which is an international organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya. I continued to pursue the management of agricultural biotech projects. One was to genetically improve a bean called a ‘cowpea’, which is a very important crop in West Africa. I then headed a satellite office of the AATF in Abuja, Nigeria, whereafter I oversaw other strategic portfolios of the organisation in West Africa. I went to Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria to work with different partners, locally and internationally, developing crops to help small-scale farmers enjoy good yields under very diverse biotic stresses.
I then came back to South Africa, in 2012, to head AfricaBio, a stakeholder association that advocates and supports the use of biotechnology in agriculture, with ties to the health- and industrial sectors. Thereafter, I joined the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, where I am heading a division responsible for innovation support and protection. This is an office that registers intellectual property in South Africa. We see in other countries that companies thrive and become competitive through the protection and effective management of their intellectual property assets.
I am fully dedicated to ensuring there is an appreciation for and understanding of how our SMMEs and we as a country can use our intellectual property and leverage it as a tool for economic development.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?
I’ve experienced a number of challenges, but the way I was raised was to look for opportunities in challenges.
When I came back from the UK, I took up a position with the ARC. I was full of energy, and I had many ideas on how I would contribute to and advance the agricultural biotech programme, but I didn’t receive much support from my superiors. The agricultural space was still very white and male-dominated, and the council was still struggling with transformation. I had studied at one of the best universities in the world, and I still had technicians checking that I wasn’t breaking anything. But that did not deter me, because I realised that, if you are an ambitious black woman in science, you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself, and that you deserve to be there.
Of course, there were also a lot of gatekeepers. I remember trying to apply to other universities and other research councils. We heard that the country needed more biotechnologists with these skill sets, but, at the end of the day, you applied and heard nothing back. I had to explore other opportunities outside of the country. That’s when I took up employment at the AATF, where my efforts were valued by local and international partners, and I was able to contribute meaningfully to the organisation.
Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?
I think, and this also comes from my mom and grandmother, that it’s good to give back time and to help others — acts of kindness. To the young women of South Africa, my advice would be that they must believe in themselves — nothing is impossible. The sky is the limit, it’s only you who can block your success. Work very hard and persevere. There will be many storms and distractions along the way, but if you know where you want to go, focus and keep moving. You will see that dream being achieved at the end of the day. Only you can stop that dream from being achieved. Self-doubt is our worst enemy, especially for us as women. Somehow, we doubt ourselves when we’re out there. We must also live a purpose-driven life. It can be a simple thing like an act of kindness and giving back your time, not just financial resources.
What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?
Let me start with my personal life, because one needs to be grounded before you go out there. I am proud and fulfilled and grateful to God. He has blessed us with three beautiful children. I am very proud of and grateful for my husband, Lawrence. He is a professor and HOD of the Department of Cost and Management Accounting at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. He is my anchor and my prayer warrior. I’m also grateful for the support of my mother. She started as a teacher in Mamelodi, and gradually advanced her studies until she got a PhD herself. She always motivates us to be the best in everything we do. As a result, my sister also has a PhD, in mechanical engineering, and my other sister is a medical doctor.
Career-wise, I’m proud and honoured to serve as the chairperson of the NRF, and I am also grateful and humbled to serve as a commissioner in the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In May 2001, when I was still a student at Cambridge, I was honoured to be nominated to don the robe of our struggle icon and South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela, which he wore when he received his honorary fellowship at Magdalene College at Cambridge University. These are moments that I cherish and remember very well.
What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?
I wish for an end to gender-based violence. It is a serious crisis in this country. The numbers are going up every day. Yes, there are initiatives and forums that have been created to address the scourge, and there are so many things that are going on which are positive in this country, but gender-based violence is masking the gains we have made in various areas over the years.
I wish that women will take their rightful positions in the home, in society, in the country, and in global affairs.
I also wish that we would nurture and mentor young girls and boys. We cannot leave boys behind. Sometimes we concentrate on the girls and we leave the boys. We need to grow these young people to be independent and responsible citizens. So, my wish is that, as a community, we will be proactive in our efforts to eliminate gender-based violence, and it all starts with the economic empowerment of both women and men. Concentrating only on women is going to create even more of a divide. We have to address these issues as a society and a community. I wish for ubuntu — that we recognise that we are who we are because of others. We should also instil this in our children.