Leading Women in Agriculture: Interview with Dr. Kathy Hurly

Dr. Kathy Hurly has been actively involved in agricultural and rural industries for over 40 years. Her background in research and technology led her to become an extension specialist for the sugar industry. Currently, she is an independent Board member of AgriSA, the Chairman of the AgriSA Social Ethics and Transformation Committee, a Board member of Kwanalu, an honorary member of SASTA and AgriSA as well as a member of IoDSA and TEI.

Her mission is to use collective wisdom, collaboration, and partnerships to develop practical solutions that will contribute to dynamic, sustainable, entrepreneurial rural areas with full participation from women and youth, improving livelihoods, food security and job creation. In this interview she talks about her role as a mentor and the importance of female participation in the agriculture sector. 

Thank you for this opportunity Dr Kathy. When did you know you would pursue a career in the agriculture industry? 

My love of agriculture started at university. All my projects for my Honours, Masters and PhD were agro-industrial projects aimed at addressing a problem in an agricultural industry.

Briefly share with us how your career started in the agri sector? 

My career started in the sugarcane industry first as a stakeholder engagement liaison officer and later as the head of the sugar industry extension service at the SA Sugar Association sugarcane research institute and finally into an executive role at SA Canegrowers.

How did you get to where you are today in your leadership position?

I looked for roles that would provide me with opportunities to enable farmers and their surrounding communities in achieving their potential at the local, national and international level. My broad knowledge from governance to research, extensive experience in stakeholder engagement and relationship building and the values I live, were recognized by the agricultural sector. 

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Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.

I consider myself a collaborator and I believe partnerships provide the best solution to any problem. These three activities will demonstrate this: A Joint Venture extension partnership that I was instrumental in setting up and supporting in 1996 still exists between the KZN Department of Agriculture and the SASA Research Institute. A complex collaboration that started in 2006 focused on the implementation of a Road Transport Management System in the sugar industry. More recently a collaboration of partners through Kwanalu fed 500 000 people in one week during the KZN unrest. 

A few women we have interviewed have mentioned you as their mentor. Why do you think mentorship is important for women?

That is a great honour and endorses my management style which has always been inclusive aimed at preparing young people for the opportunities that may come their way. My mentorship style requires mentees to be courageous and committed to the journey they will walk. Courageous because nothing gets coated in honey, we leave behind the poverty mind-set and become responsible and accountable citizens.  

Who was an inspiring woman leader to you growing up and who inspires you now? 

My greatest female role model was my mother who set the framework for a young woman who saw no boundaries, my Grade 3 teacher at Longmarket Girls School Pmb, Mrs Chew who showed me how art can change the world, Mr Piet Visagie our headmaster at Pelham Primary School Pmb who encouraged us all to be creative, sporty and academic, my teachers at Pmb GHS who taught us to be confident women, my Professor van Staaden at University who taught me discipline and my group of close friends who I trust to guide me in major decision-making.

How do you feel the agri sector is doing in terms of gender equity and embracing the power of diversity?

This is a very big challenge for organised agriculture although there are pockets of excellence within the commodities and scientific institutions. It is probably doing much better with youth transformation and this presents an opportunity for young women to rise up.

What steps can women take to be visible? What are some strategies that you think can help women grow within their organisation?

Use every platform to showcase yourself. This could be a meeting, a chat at the tea table, a conference, a webinar or workshop. Always remember you are your brand especially in the way you dress, speak and engage people.

Women must support each other and that is why mentorship is critical. You must choose the organisation you work or associate with carefully. Research where the women are positioned in the leadership structures and find out what culture exists in the organisation. Determine if there are programmes in place to advance leaders and are these plans put into practice. Then make your decision. Once in place then the usual attributes of a successful employee should apply.

From your experiences as leader, what advice would you give to emerging women leaders in the agri sector?

For young leaders decide if you would like to be on the technical or management side. Once that is decided then grow the skills and experience you need to move up the technical or management ladder. Start leading in your family, church and community as young as possible so when you get to the workplace you have a good record of leadership.

In your opinion, what is the most important characteristic, trait, behavior, and/or skill a leader can possess?

Integrity based on sound values. Always deliver what you promise.

How important is it for women to empower, support and lift each other up, and what does that mean to you?

Critically important that we support one another. Leadership is a very lonely journey and having trustworthy colleagues is important.

What do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when you were starting out in your career?

Learn to say no to things that sap your energy. 

Can you tell us how you manage your work life balance?

Badly there was hardly any balance in my approach to work. Covid19 has shown up our workplace value system and found it wanting. Decide what level you want to be at in the workplace and give yourself room for friends and family and most of all be kind to yourself.

Connect with Dr Kathy on Twitter.