We've got news for you.

Register on TimesLIVE at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

Kiara Nirghin, Cecilia Rangwanasha: SA’s young voices go global

Claire Keeton interviews two astonishing young South Africans who are making waves in the world

12 June 2022 - 00:00
Kiara Nirghin at 16, when her nappy-inspired idea to help farmers cope with drought was honoured at the Google Science Fair. Now 21, she lives in the US and is using her tech smarts to address global problems.
Kiara Nirghin at 16, when her nappy-inspired idea to help farmers cope with drought was honoured at the Google Science Fair. Now 21, she lives in the US and is using her tech smarts to address global problems.
Image: Supplied


Kiara Nirghin, 21

Watching her sister change a nappy was the eureka moment that led to Kiara Nirghin winning the Google Science Fair’s grand prize and its community impact award when she was just 16 — with an idea that could boost food security around the world.

Struck by the absorbent qualities of the diaper, Nirghin set about developing a polymer made from orange skins and avocado peels that soaks up and retains moisture in soil and provides a way for farmers to combat drought. Her biodegradable, natural product is a fraction of the price of the commercial equivalents now on the market.

Nirghin, now 21, grew up in Johannesburg and is studying computer science at Stanford University, California. In January she won a $100,000 (about R1.5m) fellowship from the Thiel Foundation, set up by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal. The fellowship, according to the foundation’s website, is “a two-year programme for young people who want to build new things”.

“You can build what you want, and it is very helpful,” Nirghin says from California. “I’m working on an exciting new product which I hope will have the same impact as my product for the Google Science Fair.”  

The public release of the new product — Nirghin is not saying what it is — should go ahead as soon as investors in Stealth, the aptly named company she co-founded for its development, are ready.

She also acquired an agricultural company to do research and development for her moisture-retaining polymer, which she says should be available by the end of the year. Many farmers in SA, South America and Europe have expressed interest in the product, which “increases the chance for plants to sustain growth by 84% during a drought”.

“I can’t sit still,” says Nirghin, who has been named as a UN Young Champion of the Earth and one of SA’s Top 50 Women in Tech.

It's a trait she might have inherited from her father, whom she talks to daily across the 10-hour time divide.

My mom is also one of my biggest role models. She has shown me what it means to be strong and resilient
Kiara Nirghin

“My dad wakes up at 4.30am every day. He left home at an early age to follow his dreams. My mom is also one of my biggest role models. She has shown me what it means to be strong and resilient.”

Following in her footsteps, Nirghin is an advocate for girls and young women to pursue Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers and use their knowledge to safeguard the environment. One of her early research projects was for a temperature-sensitive dye that could be applied to rhino horns to curb poaching. 

Resilience is critical to make an impact, she says. “When you get knocked down, you have to get up.”

A blow to her health at 13 — when she got bacterial meningitis and had undiagnosed bilharzia — acted as a catalyst for the former St Martin’s High School pupil. “Having that sickness when I did, completely changed the way I thought about school and achievement,” she says.

For most of the pandemic Nirghin stayed with her family in Johannesburg and worked there rather than in the US, where she moved when she was 17. 

“I love South Africa and I was a homebody for a while,” says Nirghin,  who has featured on “most-influential teen” lists in Time magazine and The Guardian, and has been on the cover of magazines such as Forbes.

She has given a TED talk and in 2019 published her first book, Youth Revolution.

“It has never been more important to get young South Africans to think about innovation in science and technology. If we don’t, we will be left behind,” says Nirghin, who has met the founders of tech pioneers Google, Airbnb and Facebook.

“The rest of the world is thinking about innovating and building. I want young South Africans to know it is possible to achieve this,” she says. “I am flying the SA flag as high as I can.” 

Opera singer Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha outside Artscape in Cape Town.
Opera singer Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha outside Artscape in Cape Town.
Image: Esa Alexander


Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, 28

Soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, 28, is dazzling opera fans and critics on stages across the world and winning international awards, including the song prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in June 2021, where she represented SA.

Though she has won countless music distinctions growing up, Rangwanasha planned to study law until her late mother stepped in. She says: “I loved music but I thought it was a hobby, not a safe career choice. Then my mother said: ‘You love to sing, why don’t you do music?’”

Visiting SA in May, Rangwanasha went on safari at Sabi Sands Game Reserve for her first break since the pandemic hit. “Our clan animal is the elephant and we saw thousands of elephants, and leopards and lions,” she says, delight infusing her velvety voice.

Fortunately, her breath and voice were not compromised by Covid when she tested positive for the virus in December after a “wonderful” concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. “I was not sick but I had to do a Covid test to travel back to Switzerland,” says the diva, who joined the Konzert Theatre Bern last year for two seasons.

This followed her selection to the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House in London, where she was a salaried cast member. “I am so lucky to perform there regularly. It is so grand and majestic. I love it,” says Rangwanasha. 

In Cardiff, Rangwanasha was one of 16 musicians selected from around the world to perform two recitals. “This is a very high-profile competition and very tough. I chose a repertoire I liked and prepared very well. I’m naturally not a nervous person.” She  was a main prize finalist and scooped the song prize.

Rangwanasha is one of two artists chosen by BBC Radio for its New Generation Artist programme, starting in  September,  and she will remain resident with the Theatre Bern ensemble.

You have to be nice to the voice
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha

“Some days I work the whole day. Other days I just have to rest. If I had a late show, long after midnight, my voice needs to rest,” says Rangwanasha, who starts most mornings with coffee. “You have to be nice to the voice. I do not use my full voice every time I practise.”

Rangwanasha developed her talent by studying with Keiwiet Pali at the Tshwane University of Pretoria, before moving to the University of Cape Town, where she studied with Virginia Davids and graduated with distinction. For two years she was a young artist at Cape Town Opera, where she excelled in classical and contemporary productions, including the Mandela Trilogy and Porgy and Bess, which toured South Korea.

This rising star, famous across continents, cherishes her loved ones in SA. “Family are the most important people. They do not see you as a diva but for who you are,” says Rangwanasha, whose family and friends live in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

She also pays tribute to music teachers and coaches who mentored her. “They hear what you do not hear. You need someone professional to lead you and help you choose your repertoire. You have to trust people who know your voice.”

Rangwanasha breathes music and brought the score for her next performance — as Mathilde in Rossini’s opera Willian Tell — on holiday with her. This season includes performances at the BBC Proms First Night, where she will be one of the four soloists singing Verdi’s Requiem.

Rangwanasha, who was doing online performances at the height of the pandemic, says: “I have a lot of concerts [this year] and I’m so happy we have people in the theatres again.”

“Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha performed with such assured technique and emotional power that the jury was unanimous in naming her the winner.” — Judging panel chair John Gilhooly at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition

“An outstanding young soprano brings Handel’s Susanna back to life… The outstanding singer here is Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, whose richly coloured soprano is a luxury in Handel these days.” — Financial Times, March 9 2020

In SA: Her prizes include first prize and best singer in the classical category of the Unisa  International Voice Competition in 2018, and top honours in the ATKV and Woordfees singing and opera competitions respectively.

Abroad: Her triumphs include the audience prize and two special prizes in the 2019 Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition — an annual competition described as “the springboard for a career in opera”; first prize in the Phillip H Moore Music Competition; and the Encouragement Award in the Deborah Voight International Competition in the US.


Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.