NRF celebrates female TUT researcher during Women’s Month 

23 August 2023

The National Research Foundation has identified and selected one of our own, Dr Portia Pearl Siyanda Sifolo, as an outstanding South African female researcher who have made remarkable contributions for the betterment of humanity. The NRF annually identifies and recognises several female researchers in celebration of Women’s Month in August.  

 Dr Portia Pearl Siyanda Sifolo

Dr Sifolo is a Y- rated NRF Researcher and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Tourism Management who received funding from the NRF for her final-year B-Tech studies as well as a Rated Researcher Grant.

In an interview published on the NRF website, Dr Sifolo shared her academic journey and wonderful personal stories.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

When quitting my job in December 2005 to improve my studies, I only had a registration fee for the B-Tech in 2006. When the lecturer announced that there was funding from the NRF for students who had an average of 65% and above in all their third-year core modules, I realised that I qualified and I received funding from the NRF for the year

In 2021, I submitted my application for the Evaluation and Rating Process at the NRF. Based on the quality and impact of my research outputs and the comments O received from the reviewers, I was placed in the Y category, level Y2. All, or most reviewers, categorised the applicant (me) as having the potential to establish him/herself as a researcher (demonstrated by recent research products).

I received the grant, which I spent on a trip to Mid-Sweden University as well as coaching students at the Africa Youth in Tourism Innovation Summit & Challenge in Namibia, from the Incentive Funding for Rated Researchers fund. In 2022, I received an NRF grant for Support for Y-rated Researchers for a research project titled Digitalisation of the Tourism Small Micro M Supply Network: A transformative transdisciplinary approach.

I believe in diversity and unity in South Africa and a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development which is reflected in the work I do.

What has been your study/career journey?

My humble beginnings are rooted in a picturesque area known as Hlathi Dam in Nqutu in KwaZulu-Natal. Growing up, I always wondered what lay beyond the mountains of eMome and the rivers of uMzinyathi and iNcome. Starting school at the age of five was normal but growing up in the Basotho “Monareng” household in the predominantly Zulu area was unique, because it offered us opportunities of understanding diversity and inclusion (since my grandmother was a nurse). 

During my high school years, I went to a boarding school in Newcastle. I saw my mother working hard as a nurse, such that she would sometimes work in Johannesburg too; whilst my policeman father would workday and night. I was intrigued by their work ethic and their lifestyle of travelling and visiting different family members in different towns. They challenged me to always do my best. In generating additional income, they sold a variety of products such as cream, chickens, spinach, pork chops and more. In addition, they were dedicated to their work as patriots.

I obtained a B-Tech in Tourism Management at TUT (2005); a Master’s in Business Leadership at UNISA (2011); a Doctorate in Business Administration at UKZN (2017) as well as a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (UP). To balance studies and my family was not an easy journey. Obtaining certificates from the University of Florida, Mid-Sweden University and the African Doctoral Academy in Stellenbosch, was extremely exciting and unlocked several great opportunities for me.

During my Doctoral studies, I developed an interest in the nexus between supply chain management and stakeholder engagement for the balanced and optimal development of the tourism sector. I am grateful to UKZN for funding my tuition for the Doctoral study as well as CATHSSETA for a discretionary grant for collecting data.

 My story began when I joined the tourism business sector in 2003.  I started at the local level as a Tourism Information Officer but also got exposure at the provincial level. From 2006 to 2010, I spent four years ‘as a spouse’ in the diplomatic community in Addis Ababa, where I had an opportunity to conduct research on marketing strategies for major economic regional players in Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa). In 2011, I was afforded an opportunity to pursue my career in teaching on a part-time basis. In 2013, I was appointed as a full-time lecturer. That was the start of my pursuit of my career based on tourism leadership, entrepreneurship and tourism supply chains in Africa as economic development initiatives.

In 2017, I received an Institutional Award: Researcher-in-Training of the Year (Female) and in 2021 I received my NRF rating. Moreover, from a total of 114 applications, I was selected as one of the 29 candidates for the Department of Higher Education & Training’s 2021/2023 Future Professors Program. In 2021/2022, I was also awarded the Faculty of Management Sciences Women Researcher of the Year.

My role in the tourism community includes being an adjudicator for the National Tourism Awards in South Africa from 2015 to 2019. I was nominated as one of the coaches 2021 to 2023 by the African Tourism Partners in the Innovation for African universities project, focusing on Accelerating Youth Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Sustainable Tourism in Africa. It is the same project that I was working on with colleagues from universities in the UK, Kenya and Ghana. In 2023, we collectively co-constructed the African Youth Entrepreneurship in Tourism for Sustainable Development Programme and Toolkit. The project was presented to more than 80 delegates at the Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit that took place in Mombasa, Kenya, June 2023.

Being part of the organising team for the ENTER23 Conference, responsible for the ENTER23 PhD Workshop, I contacted Professor Juho Personen, President of the International Federation for Information Technologies in Travel and Tourism (IFITT) to spend two weeks as a visiting scholar at the University of Eastern Finland in August 2023. These are some of the opportunities that come with being a team member in the department and the Faculty.

In addition, I am on the Editorial Board of the International Journal on Tourism & Sustainability and the Tourism Planning and Development (TPD); a member of the Education Association of South Africa and Tourism Educators in South Africa; I have co-authored different books; published research papers in academic journals; and participated in both domestic and international conferences. I also have been invited to be a keynote speaker at the 12th International Conference on Sustainable Tourism & Development: Risks and opportunities in uncertain times in October 2023 at Pokhara, Nepal.

What is your research focus /what is your area of expertise?

My research focuses on the supply side of tourism. My specific interest is in the nexus between stakeholder engagement and tourism supply chain management (TSCM) for optimum growth and sustainability of the tourism sector in a developing market context. I believe that effectively managing this nexus may lead to economic growth. However, the tourism industry is complex. The problem lies in effecting the meaningful engagement and inclusion of small micro and medium enterprises (SMMEs) as stakeholders to access the tourism market. Hence, my interest is to demonstrate the critical role of SMMES towards economic development whilst integrating them as one of the key stakeholders in the tourism value chain for market access to drive tourism economic growth.

From a theoretical perspective, the tourism supply chain has been generally neglected in the field of tourism, particularly in the African context. The focus has mostly been on the demand side of tourism and the limited research on the tourism supply chain has focused on the individual component or one element in the tourism supply chain, not how the integration of all elements happens. My research is guided by pragmatism epistemology that blends positivism and constructivism because it allows me to conduct research in the fragmented and heterogeneous nature of the tourism industry. Consequently, I mainly use a mixed method, transformative approach to produce research that can be applied in practice by the different stakeholders.

The research conducted thus far highlights the challenges and the possibilities of how stakeholders, specifically tourism SMMEs, could be effectively engaged within the tourism supply chain to improve the underperformance of the tourism sector. Taken together, the research produced thus far has evaluated the relationship among the tourism operations, drivers and enablers of supply chain management as a catalyst to development in the African continent’s hospitality and tourism sector. Digitalisation and the sustainable supply chain practices that consider the business networks were also examined.

Why is your research/work important?

Social network analysis for SMMEs has been neglected in the South African context. Although my work is grounded within the tourism discipline, it has an impact on the African research agenda. Some of it was published in the African Breakthroughs Studies in Research and Practice 2020. Social network analysis remains one of the critical tools to promote transformative, transdisciplinary research that is likely to impact different stakeholders in the field of technology and the tourism value chain. Hence, I view digital procurement of tourism establishments, business leadership and development in Africa as sustainable features for economic growth.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

I believe in raising your hand. We are all worthy. We need to be bold to articulate what we would like our research to focus on. We need to be curious and participate in our communities, in our country, our continent and the world. There are numerous resources, programs and workshops designed to encourage participation. Let’s grab the opportunities and enhance our skills and knowledge and be bold in who we are and what we can do.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

As a mother to two boys, I will be inclusive in providing advice to a girl child because they are all children. Ubuntu as a value remains at the core of who we should be. Being altruistic is an attribute that we must possess and nurture. Therefore, I would say to them, cultivating professional attributes begins where you are. STEM fields can be incredibly rewarding, intellectually stimulating and impactful. Embrace your passion for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and know that you have the potential to make a difference in the world through your STEM-related career. As young and future entrepreneurs in your fields of study, you see the world through a different lens; start now to develop your capacity so that you can advance your future endeavours. “Never trade your authority for approval….strive for intellectual excellence."

The story is courtesy of the National Research Foundation.

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