SA Canegrowers

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SA sugar industry doyenne retires

Colleen Dardagan

“For 20 years, time stood still in the sugar industry, until 2015, when the fabric of the sector was torn apart, and change was forced on us.” Dr Kathy Hurly, former corporate executive, SA Canegrowers.

Dr Kathy Hurly, who has served South Africa’s sugar industry with distinction in a variety of positions for 25 years, the last 15 at SA Canegrowers, has retired.

The 60-year-old high achiever has yet to announce her plans for the future, but one thing is certain: her retirement will not, in any way, be idle.

“The past five years in the industry were particularly rocky,” she said. “At SA Canegrowers, we have all had to step up and provide the association with stability and a constant, or steadfast, set of values and principles in everything we have done. And while this experience has taught me about courage and probably made me more resilient, it has also meant that I need to take a short sabbatical before I start the next chapter of my professional career. I am hoping to use my skills and experience to further the goals of all members of the sugar industry.”

In the final two years of her tenure, Hurly, was instrumental in developing a strategic communications campaign at SA Canegrowers to highlight the plight of the declining sugar industry. Her particular emphasis was on mitigating the divisive impact of the political instability within the industry, the consequences of the Health Promotion Levy legislated by the government in 2018 and the impact of cheap imports on the livelihoods of the thousands of mainly small-scale growers in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.

“This was an incredible communication drive,” she said.

“It culminated in the SA Canegrowers’ Home Sweet Home campaign, which is still ongoing, to encourage South Africans to buy sugar grown and refined inside the country. What the project has shown is how important it is to disseminate credible and impactful information – that is always truthful – not only to the general public, but to the government and to all those who participate in our sector.”

SA Canegrowers’ Vice Chair and head of the board’s sub-committee on communication and stakeholder engagement Dipuo Ntuli said that in every action, Hurly, was dignified, professional and loyal. “Kathy has served the association with distinction. She has been a light for so many, particularly those who are small-scale growers or women in the sector. Every time we stumbled or sought knowledge and development, she was there. She is and was a champion for the development of women in the sugarcane sector,” Ntuli said.

Hurly started out as a plant physiologist under the guidance of the renowned Professor Johannes van Staden, who instilled the love of research and a strong focus on delivery, rigour and discipline, which has followed her throughout her life and career.

After a short stint in the UK and in the hotel industry, Hurly joined the South African Sugar Association’s Sugarcane Research Institute in 1995.

While she continued to work with scientists and in the field of research, it was at this time, she says, her focus began to shift towards relationship-building and communicating the relevance of the institution, particularly to commercial growers and millers, who are its main funders.

“The role also involved having to build partnerships with the government and spending a large chunk of my time on the road visiting growers and communicating the outcomes of the research and technology on which the institute was working. At the same time, I was also making sure the growers’ needs were being met through the various research projects,” she said.  

It was also during her stint at the institute that Hurly was appointed to head up the South African Sugar Technologists’ Association which, she said, provided her with an opportunity to build sound relationships with sugar millers.

In 2006, when she was appointed as corporate executive at SA Canegrowers, her portfolio was not only broad but far reaching.

“I was tasked with communication, stakeholder engagement, research and development, regional economic extension service provision, knowledge management and grower development. This position really gave me scope and an opportunity to hone my skills in strategy development, delivering on the strategic aim and being accountable for its outcome,” she said.

The self-confessed workaholic also served on the AgriSA board.

But it was the years of turmoil that followed the acrimonious split between SA Canegrowers and the newly formed South African Farmers for Development Association that saw Hurly’s true mettle, and that of her colleagues, put to the test.

“I learned to navigate my way through what were tense political negotiations and stand-offs without losing my integrity or my dignity. Not only were we brought closer together as a staff, but I found I was able to motive our teams to deliver under the most difficult of political circumstances and then measure what mattered. Treating those with whom I work with dignity and respect is a core value of mine: I always finish what I start, and I am a team player,” she said.

SA Canegrowers’ Chairman, Rex Talmage said Hurly’s ability to build friendships and her “real” empathy for the difficulties growers endure, particular small-scale growers were strengths the association would sorely miss.

“Kathy has the remarkable ability to deliver a message or, rather, tell a story, in a way that people really hear. She has also had many situations in her years in the association where her ability to be diplomatic has served her and us really well. Her passion for women in the sector is a legacy that will live long in the industry,” Talmage said.

This article first appeared in the April edition of the Shukela magazine.

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