A third year education student has made it through to the finals of Miss Earth South Africa – and has “fallen in love” with the change she hopes to make in environmental issues.

Ntandoyenkosi Kunene entered the pageant when she heard about it from a friend. “And the weird thing is they were already closed for applications but we went to the casting anyway,” she said.

Kunene was selected for the next round and eventually became a finalist for Gauteng.

“When I saw the email that read ‘CONGRATULATIONS’, I didn’t even continue to read anything else – I gave the phone to my sister while running into my parents’ bedroom screaming,” said Kunene. “The noise woke up everyone else and we just danced around screaming. It was such a great moment.”

According to their website, Miss Earth South Africa aims to “empower young South African women with the knowledge and platform to create a sustainable difference in our plight to combat the destruction of our natural heritage.”

The event helps create awareness of our environment, wildlife and conservation in South Africa.

Although Kunene describes environmental issues as very close to her heart, she says knowing the facts is not essential for entry into the competition. “But you must be willing to learn. And you fall in love with the change you want to make.”

The Miss Earth contestants were expected to get involved in various charity and community projects while competing for the title. Kunene was involved in a variety of projects, including teaching Katlehong and Tembisa children about planting beans.

“It’s quite inspiring. Even though we can’t change the current situation that we’re in, we can influence how they [the children] see the future,” Kunene said.

“It’s life-changing for those kids. With Miss Earth we strive to do that. We strive to change lives, to empower. And we also strive to give awareness to the environmental problems that we are facing as a country.”

According to Kunene, it is the way she tackles challenges that sets her apart from the other finalists. “I’m not your every day ‘what you see is what you get’ [kind of girl] because in most cases after meeting people, [they] always say: ‘I wasn’t expecting that from you’.”

If Kunene wins the title, she wants to get involved in environmental projects in her home town of Piet Retief in Mpumalanga. She has already organised a tree-plating campaign in the town.

“I want to work with rural schools, to plant gardens, to plant trees. We want to give hope. If I could win Miss Earth, that would be my major priority.”

The final gala evening will be held at Montecasino on August 25.