Youngest Hortgro hotshot takes transformation to heart

She has worked for the European Union and United Nations and has built an impressive CV working across the globe. Now Unati Speirs is a Hortgro director and a young black woman with great vision for the deciduous fruit industry, she tells Food For Mzansi

Unati Speirs has vast experience in agri-business strategy and business funding and was recently appointed as a new board director for Hortgro. Photos: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Unati Speirs has vast experience in agri-business strategy and business funding and was recently appointed as a new board director for Hortgro. Photos: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Unati Speirs needs no introduction. With her extensive experience in the agriculture space, both in South Africa and abroad, she is no stranger to the sector.

And as the newly appointed and youngest board director of Hortgro, the deciduous fruit industry body of South Africa, she plans on leaving quite a mark in the industry.

Speirs, who took over from Dr Mono Mashaba, says her biggest priority is transformation. She hopes that her appointment as a young, black woman will inspire young people and other women to take up space in agriculture.

Food For Mzansi caught up with this new Hortgro hotshot to find out more about her – and her vision for the industry.

Duncan Masiwa: Being appointed as the new executive director of Hortgro must be quite a milestone.

Unati Speirs: Honestly, it is a dream come true for any agricultural professional to be approached by an organisation to be appointed as its director. Growing up young, black and female in South Africa, it’s also an opportunity that does not come your way every day. This appointment is special to me.

I’m sure you have a gazillion things to do. What’s first on your to-do list?

First on my to-do list is transformation and a look at how far the industry is in this regard. This is a priority area for me because it’s the future.

Innovation is also important. We must find new ways of farming and interacting with the entire value chain. This includes finding new products that we can develop for other uses [so we don’t] depend on the farm only but explore other revenue streams, for instance agritourism.

We need to look at the other business opportunities that are found within farming communities that people can take advantage of.

Inspiration is another important aspect for me. We need to look at how much we can go out and inspire more women in agriculture to participate in horticultural activities. I’d like to see more women farmers in the industry, and even farmworkers converting and participating as horticultural farmers.

Unati Speirs speaking at an event as the former banking head of agro industries at South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation. Photo:Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Transformation weighs heavily on your heart. Why is it so important to you?

Transformation in the deciduous fruit industry is important because it holds the core business of the labour market. Transformation cannot be neglected.

On a farm, the owner might be one individual, but at the core it is the workers and the community members who are the custodians.

When we bring transformation or bring an element of transformation, the environment improves. It’s a scorecard that we need to take and being a black woman, I am obligated to have this set of eyes.      

We have advanced ourselves in consumer education and ownership, but we have not advanced ourselves in transformation. So, transformation is an area that still needs work.

You’re the youngest board member. How do we get the youth revved up about the deciduous fruit industry?

I think my appointment will make the industry appealing and approachable. The industry [seems] far from [outsiders’] reality. So, it is quite special that it happened during this time.

Being the youngest board member, I should show or inspire people to say that, if I can do it, they can too. Inspiration is important but also youth involvement. The youth must be involved in the sector.

What are some of the current industry challenges?

Some of our biggest challenges include rising input costs, availability of water and political instability. It can take one labour strike for a whole region not to be able to access markets.

A bit about Speirs

Speirs holds an MSc degree in agriculture and is currently a PhD candidate. She has worked in agriculture since 2009 when she started as head of agriculture at the East London Industrial Development Zone.

Since then, she has gained extensive experience in senior management in the agriculture sector in South Africa and abroad, where she worked in the US, Japan and with the United Nations and European Union in Italy.

Speirs is currently a ministerial trustee for the Red Meat Industry Trust of South Africa and a board member of All Joy Foods. Formerly, she was a vice-chairperson for the International Sugar Organisation based in London and a former chairperson of the UN Environment Programme’s Sustainable Agri-Food Production.

Speirs has vast experience in agri-business strategy and business funding, having previously held the position of head of business for industrial development and chief director at the department of trade and industry.

ALSO READ: Young farmers: Economics key to ‘true transformation’

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