#CareerFocus With Tsholofelo Ngobeni Head of Manufacturing Danone SA

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1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Pretoria, Soshanguve. I am a widowed mother to amazing children and am currently employed by Danone Southern Africa. I hold a qualification in chemical engineering and an MBA together with several short course qualifications within the supply chain field.

2. What work do you do?

I am the Head of Manufacturing for Danone Southern Africa. In this role, I am responsible for the end-to-end process where we produce Danone products of superior quality keeping the correct price point in mind. Ensuring the safety and wellness of the people as well as preserving and renewing the environment through our daily operations is integral to my responsibility.

3. How long have you been in the industry?

I have been in the manufacturing sector for 23 years and during this period, have had the privilege to serve in different portfolios within the manufacturing functions e.g. EHS, Quality & Food Safety, Production, Continuous Improvement, and Co-Manufacturing.

4. Has your work always been your passion? Tell us why?

Growing up I always knew that I wanted to be in roles that serve others and contribute to the betterment of the communities that I grew up in. Being part of Danone Southern Africa gives me an opportunity to participate in courses that are meaningful and aligned with my passion to serve others. Danone has recently reframed its sustainability goals into the Impact Journey which feeds into the corporate purpose of bringing health through food to as many South Africans as possible.

The Impact Journey concretely captures our dual purpose where economic and social goals are interdependent and consists of three pillars – focusing on the health of people, the health of our planet, and lastly, making sure that we support people and communities to thrive.

5. Being a woman in the industry – what does it take?

Being successful in any industry takes dedication and hard work. Although manufacturing and supply chain has historically been seen as a male-dominated environment, I have seen great strides in the transformation of this sector to include more women. I have learned that you do not necessarily need to portray the stereotypical male characteristics in order to reap rewards, but that experience and leadership skills as well as trust in yourself is the key to success. My passion is to uplift the people I work with as collective success is much more sustainable than the individuals.

6. What has been the most difficult challenge of your career?

Challenges are what makes any journey interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. As a female in a male-dominated environment, the most common challenge I faced was the perception from decision-makers around my ability to be assertive and hold people accountable early on in my career.

Fortunately, I had mentors along my journey that assisted me to navigate the perceptions and enhance my natural abilities as a woman and distinguish my leadership preferences I leaned into these: Qualities like serving others, getting results through people, and putting other’s needs before my own were crucial in my success as a leader in manufacturing. In my opinion, today’s working environment is geared towards servant leadership as people require more from their leaders than they did previously.

7. What advice do you have for other women in your industry?

Sometimes as women, we believe that for us to progress we need to be experts in everything, we tend to doubt our abilities and as a result become too hard on ourselves. My advice to other women in the industry is that we must never stop learning; it is important to keep ourselves abreast with changes that are happening in our fields to remain impactful. Secondly, it is important to have networks and mentors that can assist you in navigating your journey and lastly keep a good work/life balance and stay self-aware – do not let yourself burn out.

8. Tell us more about the background of your journey as a woman in a male-dominated industry

I qualified as a chemical engineer and started out my career in the automotive manufacturing industry. As my career progressed, I defined a roadmap for myself that enabled me to identify opportunities that would be relevant to my journey as well as determine postgraduate programmes that would be complimentary and advance my career path; these include an MBA together with qualifications in the supply chain field.

9. What inspired you to pursue a career in manufacturing / industrial?

The manufacturing sector is diverse and is one of the core drivers of GDP growth and employment in South Africa. Careers in the manufacturing environment are also very diverse as they do not only relate to producing the required product but also incorporate other aspects of food safety, quality control, people safety, and financial management to mention a few.

Thanks to 21st-century globalisation, manufacturing has become innovative and offers not only advancements in technology like AI but critical thinking, problem-solving, and an agile mindset to South Africans. This has given South Africans the same competitive advantage as our peers in first-world countries. This provides us with future opportunities and means that the manufacturing sector will remain relevant as the skills required in the industry change.

10. What ideas and strategies can be proposed to promote the interest of women in manufacturing?

I have seen quite a shift in the manufacturing sector in recent years; companies are intentional in bringing women into the industry. Institutions are also aligning their policies to ensure that women are taken care of while in their employment.

11. What being part of Danone means and how the company has inspired you as a woman

Being part of Danone means being part of an organisation that not only produces quality products but truly prioritises people and the planet by placing sustainability at the forefront of operational excellence. Danone has recently reframed its sustainability goals into the Impact Journey, which frames our corporate purpose and concretely captures how we have a positive impact – that means no greenwashing.

The Danone Impact Journey consists of three pillars – focusing on the health of people, the health of our planet, and lastly, making sure that we support people and communities to thrive. The company’s values of HOPE (Humanity, Openness, Proximity, and Enthusiasm) are also the values that I live by in my everyday life, which means that I get to remain true to who I am while executing my duties as a Danoner.

12. Women empowerment in the agriculture industry should also include promoting women to being landholders and not just labourers. What do you think can be done to ensure that women are promoted beyond just being employed in the industry?

Companies should be deliberate in promoting an equal playing ground for all South Africans and the women’s agenda plays a central role. In fact, Danone recently hosted the Future Farmers: Women in Agriculture programme where five female farmers from Ncora Diary located in the Eastern Cape were invited to a comprehensive workshop. These aspiring farmers were exposed to the different aspects of the business world. It is through programmes like these that companies like Danone empower women to take up space in areas that are previously male-dominated.

These five female farmers were afforded the opportunity to understand what skills they require to run successful businesses, with exposure to marketing, route to market, and manufacturing. Danone has made it possible for them to have access to mentors that could assist them along the journey.

13. Plans for the future

I enjoy my work and it fulfills me, my plans for the future are simple: Continue giving the best version of myself on a daily basis and lift other women to occupy spaces within the manufacturing/technical sector.