It’s no easy feat to advocate for a product many know nothing about. It’s even more difficult when that product hasn’t always been seen in a positive light. Yet, that’s exactly what Asanda Gcoyi is attempting in her new role as the chief executive officer for the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA).

“One of the most challenging aspects of electronic vapour products (EVP) is that they have always been viewed as another tobacco product – which they’re certainly not,” says Gcoyi, who is working from her Pretoria home during the COVID-19 lockdown. “The majority of legislators – and even the anti-smoking advocates – do not fully understand the product. So they prefer to take the easy route of classifying it in the same category as other products containing nicotine, such as combustible cigarettes, chewing tobacco and the like.”

Since taking the helm of VPASA at the end of  last year, Gcoyi has made great strides in ensuring South Africans have access to accurate and educational information about EVP. The organisation has aligned itself with the United Kingdom Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), a forum for the support, development and promotion of the vaping industry in that territory, and abides by the best-practice rules of the UK government agency Public Health England (PHE), which supports the switch to vaping by current and former cigarette users, with the aim of eventually stopping nicotine consumption altogether.

Over the past 14 years, Gcoyi has steered the ships of other large companies such as Frontline Africa Advisory, a public policy and regulatory affairs advisory firm, and human-capital firm Cross Border Talent. She earned a postgraduate degree in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and holds an MBA from Peking University in Beijing, China. These achievements, along with her many entrepreneurial endeavours, has allowed her to bring a cornucopia of knowledge to VPASA – a wealth of knowledge that goes well beyond any job description written on paper.

“Everything I’ve done career-wise up to this point has helped me in both how I see my role as CEO of the association and as a responsible citizen of South Africa,” she says, noting her exposure to government, civil society, corporate as well as entrepreneurship. “This has enabled me to have a multi-stakeholder strategic approach to everything we do as an organisation. I appreciate what each of my past experiences brings and am able to leverage that to see results.”

With her exposure to diverse, cross-cultural environments and experience in execution strategy across business systems development, marketing and human resources, you would be forgiven for thinking this well-heeled powerhouse stepped into the role of CEO as easily as vaping has taken over the headlines. Instead, Gcoyi is the first to admit that her initial career ambitions had been elsewhere. Specifically, the media industry.

“I spent the whole of 2006 working in television production and hoped to stay in that field after committing four years of studies towards it. However, it was not what I thought it would be and I ended up doing communications for a non-governmental organisation. I haven’t looked back since!”

Her work in the not-for-profit arena lasted two years before she moved to a government agency, but also spurred her move to China in 2010 to pursue her MBA at Peking University, a decision she says was deliberate. “Peking is the number-one institution in China and also happens to house the National School of Development, the country’s leading think tank.

“My time there helped me hone a deeper appreciation of relationships within the professional environment and the importance of working with all people – those who are for and those who are against you.”

On her return to South Africa, Gcoyi worked in public policy advisory, interacting with the EVP industry. But it was her husband’s transition to vaping in 2016 that provided her with a purpose. ‘After witnessing him quit smoking after 20 years, I know first-hand what vaping can do for a loved one,” she smiles. “I truly believe in the industry and want to play a part in shaping its future – for my husband and other people like him who have turned to the less-harmful alternative of electronic vapour products.”

Outside of EVP, Asanda’s home life is filled with family. Her two young girls – ages 10 and six – keep her on her toes, while her downtime is spent indulging in the age-old pastime of reading. “There’s nothing more satisfying than cracking open a book on a Sunday afternoon in the sun,” she quips.

But come Monday, it’s back to business. For Gcoyi and her team at VPASA, education is a key element of what the association aims to achieve. “The lack of knowledge across the board is astounding,” she says. “There is a deliberate ignorance of scientific facts, even from individuals who are meant to regulate in this area.

“In addition to PHE, there are many other reputable institutions that have come out in support of EVP as a less-harmful alternative to combustible tobacco, yet anti-smoking advocates and others continue to categorise smoking and vaping as one and the same. It doesn’t make sense to me at all.”

Indeed, to drive this point home, the South African government included EVP in its draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, 2018, which is still under review. VPASA has submitted a response to the Bill and is awaiting a workshop with the National Treasury to discuss the way forward on taxation and regulation of EVP. Until then, Gcoyi and the vaping industry are doing all they can to help millions of smokers improve their health by providing advice and guidance on EVP as a harm-reduction alternative.

“I was created for a very specific purpose and this is merely one step on that journey,” she muses. “Years from now, no matter where I end up, I want to be able to say we did all we could to give this industry the best possible chance it deserves.”

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