Climate Action

Nontuthuzelo Nikiwe: Deploying curiosity and optimism to fight climate change

Nontuthuzelo Nikiwe hosts SHAPE Africa — an event supported by the Global Shapers Community—that brings together young leaders to explore the intersection of technology and climate change.

Nontuthuzelo Nikiwe hosts SHAPE Africa — an event supported by the Global Shapers Community—that brings together young leaders to explore the intersection of technology and climate change. Image: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Julie Masiga
Communications Lead, Centre for Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum
Chris Hamill-Stewart
Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Global Shapers Annual Summit

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  • This Global Shaper works at the intersection of infrastructure and inclusivity — particularly important in her home country of South Africa.
  • She is also a climate leader, educating others in her community on climate action.
  • Nontuthuzelo Nikiwe hosts SHAPE Africa — an event supported by the Global Shapers Community—that brings together young leaders to explore the intersection of technology and climate.

Nontuthuzelo Nikiwe wears many hats: innovator, activist and student. Perhaps her most important, though, is leader.

Nikiwe is the curator of the Global Shapers Tshwane Hub South Africa and a specialist in stakeholder engagement and reporting at Transnet, a state-owned South African transport and logistics company.

Not only that, but she’s also a Bertha Centre Scholar and a candidate for a Master of Philosophy in Inclusive Innovation at the University of Cape Town.

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Justice and climate change

“I am very curious in nature and ask a lot of questions, as much as I can. I am always thirsty for knowledge. I am an avid reader,” she tells the World Economic Forum, explaining that she is “driven by an innate optimism about seeing change.”

The common thread that binds all her roles together is a singular focus on justice, born out of her experiences growing up in South Africa.

“I have always had an interest in social justice in the many forms it takes,” she says. “I think being born in South Africa, and a fairly new democracy, I grew up seeing a lot of injustice.”

Today, she specialises in ensuring that technology and infrastructure are inclusive. This focus is critical in South Africa, she explains, where inequality remains a pressing problem and is now being exacerbated by climate change. This is also a problem that technology, used right, can help to solve.

“The intersection of the issues my country is facing around poverty and inequality, with the growing challenges of climate disasters affecting poor communities in my city and nationally, made this something I wanted to care about.”

The Tshwane Hub South Africa Global Shapers Hub is committed to making positive change in the community and wider world.
The Tshwane Hub South Africa Global Shapers Hub is committed to making positive change in the community and wider world. Image: Nontuthuzelo Nikiwe

Global Shapers — leading a Hub

Joining the Global Shapers Community and now leading curation for the Tshwane Hub, she explains, gave her a direction and way to pursue climate justice while playing to her strengths. Since joining the Shapers Community, she has undertaken training with The Climate Reality Project, which trains current and future leaders with the skills they need to make a difference in climate change in their communities and globally.

“I was actually inspired by other Global Shapers I met at the time. And I was really itching for something to do in my local community. I was very early in my career as well and looking for ways to strengthen my leadership capacity and start caring for my community. It ended up giving me so much more to be part of the Community.”

The contact with Global Shapers steered her toward climate change because of the engagement with other Shapers around the world, she explains, while extreme weather events closer to home — droughts, floods — hammered home the importance of this work.

Now, supported by The Climate Reality Project, she is training other young leaders in climate skills, and looking to engage authorities in the work to expand it further.

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What it takes to be a leader

But balancing her job, her studies and her work with the Global Shapers Community is no simple task. It requires not just hard work, but an innate sense of optimism, she says, as well as self-care and the help of others.

“My curiosity for a variety of things has often led me to burnout because I spread myself too thin,” she says. For Nikiwe, switching off is sometimes the hardest part.

“I am now starting to be specific and strict about my resting time because I also need downtime at the end of the day when I’m not picking up work or my studies. This has been difficult to manage and I honestly don’t always get it right but I’m also getting help to make sure I get there.”

For others like her, driven to achieve more and more for themselves or their communities, she has words of advice.

Be specific about the things you give your time to, says Nikiwe, and build time to rest into a busy schedule.

“I ask for help often. This is also something I’ve learned the hard way and it was really unnecessary to go through some things alone. I am no longer under the illusion that I can do this on my own.”

She’s found that colleagues at the Global Shapers Hub are often more than willing to help out — “I try my best to make sure I’m not carrying everything on my own if it’s not necessary.”

It’s also a good idea to reach out to mentors or others you respect in your field.

“I have found many people who have been willing to give of their wisdom and support,” says Nikiwe. “Talk to people who inspire you and learn from them. Spend time with them and let them help you think your goals through.”

Next for her is a PhD, she says — “that’s my biggest dream right now” — while continuing her work as a Global Shaper and climate leader.

What the future holds from there is not entirely clear, but “I think it is important to build our own stories as Africans, especially given how much of that has been stolen from us in the past,” she says.

"It is only when we take this work into our own hands that the narrative and impact of the work changes in its reach and its capacity to be amplified.”

Learning to Lead: How Grassroots Activism is Saving Our Planet is a blog series that delves into the Global Shapers Community's top Climate Leaders. This series aims to celebrate the accomplishments of our Climate Leaders and inspire readers to take action in their own communities.

By amplifying their voices and sharing their stories, we hope to empower individuals to join the global movement towards a sustainable and resilient future.

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