Science is pumping in billions searching for solutions that will help humans live longer – and better – and one day even indefinitely.
If you are under 50 years old and reading this article, treat it as a crystal ball – and it will tell you that chances are you may live for another 100 years.
There are species of sharks, whales and turtles that live for hundreds of years. Likewise, researchers are trying to figure out how to make you live longer, if not forever.
“If we are made from the same ‘stuff’ then what’s stopping us from achieving the same,” asks John Sanei, a futurist and entrepreneur based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
For decades, scientists have been trying to do so. But before we go to the future, we must dwell on the past, and the present.
In 1770, Africans had an average life expectancy of a mere 26 years. With newer ways to cure deadly diseases such as small pox and polio, life expectancy gradually increased. Exactly two centuries later, Africans were living to almost 47 years. In 2001, the average life expectancy of Africans rose to 51 years, in 2005 to 53 years, in 2010 to 57 years and in 2015 to 60 years.
Even with such numbers, Africans are still dying sooner than most people in First World countries where life expectancy is in the 80s.
Dr Susan Coetzer spent 14 years studying to be a geriatrician, a specialty focusing on healthcare of the elderly, at the Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg in South Africa. She says the costs and access to healthcare are the biggest barriers. In Africa, according to Coetzer, poverty and lower education levels link to both frailty and cognitive diseases lowering life expectancy.
“Other risks are because of lifestyle-related problems like diabetes, hypertension and obesity. The HIV epidemic has also decreased life expectancy in the past, but with the availability of treatment, this has improved and we will certainly see more HIV-infected older people in the future,” she says.
As the universe often works, what has an advantage also has a disadvantage. Old age often comes with various accompanying diseases that require constant supervision and medication. The more old people Africa has, the more money it needs to pay for their upkeep.
“Older patients are at a higher risk of becoming frail and frail patients have been proven to cost more – in terms of hospitalization, medication and other needs and of course, the additional care. Even most of the developed countries are battling to budget for the increased financial impact,” says Coetzer.
It is true. In October last year, South Africa had 17.5 million social grant recipients and 3.7 million of them were the aged. There are also few specialists to give proper care to the elderly.
“There are less than 20 geriatric specialists in South Africa serving a population of more than seven million people older than 60 years,” says Coetzer.
The good news is we are in an era where scientists are developing the technology to prevent aging and the diseases associated with it.
If they succeed, you could work and live long without experiencing most symptoms of old age.
For this, it will take an understanding of our genes and aging itself.
According to Dr Samantha Baron, a research and development scientist at Optiphi Skin Care in South Africa who is an expert in genetics and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the primary cause of aging is damage to structures within the cells.
“Damage within the cell can be induced by oxidative stress, glycation, telomere shortening, mutations and epigenetic contributions. The progression of this damage is what leads to eventual cell death and what we know as the general cause of aging,” she says.
It means every time you celebrate your birthday, the probability of death increases. The older you get the more you become prone to diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis — all associated with age.
Dr Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, and co-founder of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation tells FORBES AFRICA these can be avoided. Instead of solving death, he looks at extending life.
“Aging can absolutely not be ‘cured’ but it absolutely can, although not yet, of course, be eliminated by medical interventions that are not cures…
“We already feel comfortable with spending lots of money trying to make Alzheimer’s history, so if we stop pretending that it is somehow separate from ‘aging itself’, we will have taken a huge step towards wanting to make that history too,” he says.
De Grey believes we can increase our lifespan by periodic, comprehensive repair and maintenance of the human body.
“We want to restore the molecular and cellular structure and composition of the body to something like how it is in early adulthood. That means things like using stem cells to replace cells that the body does not naturally replace on its own by cell division when they die, or introducing new enzymes to break down waste products that the body does not naturally break down,” he says.
Baron agrees. She says if scientists could delay cell death by reprogramming cells, increasing cellular lifespan and increasing the efficiency in damage repair mechanisms, they could potentially prevent the onset of diseases associated with aging.
“If true cellular regeneration can be accomplished, then these diseases can be treated and the damage reversed.”
Humans are already able to manipulate the longevity of organisms.
A number of researchers in the United States (US) identified a drug that delays several age-related symptoms in mice. It has sparked massive debate and research in the world of science.
“With an experiment that replicated stem cell-like conditions, Salk Institute researchers made human skin cells in a dish look and behave young again, and mice with premature aging disease were rejuvenated with a 30% increase in lifespan. The Salk Institute expects to see this work in human trials in less than 10 years,” says Sanei.
A growing interest in this field also led to biologists at Osaka University in Japan to discover a new way to nurture and grow the tissues that make up the human eyeball. Using a small sample of adult skin, they are able to grow retinas, corneas and the eye’s lens.
Another team of researchers in the US injected stem cells into the damaged cervical spine of a recently paralyzed 21-year-old man. Three months later, he showed dramatic improvement in sensation and movement of both arms.
Longevity Escape Velocity
According to Sanei, in the next 10 to 12 years, we will hit ‘longevity escape velocity’ — the point at which, for every year that you’re alive, science is able to extend your life for more than a year.
According to Oliver Medvedik, a Director at the Maurice Kanbar Center for Biomedical Research and VP of the longevity-focused non-profit Lifespan.io, interventions are being developed that “reprogram” the chemical signature of the genome, referred to as the epigenome, to a more youthful state.
“The epigenome is largely responsible for determining what the status of each of your cells is. As an adult, you typically don’t want this status to change, but as we age, it does change for the worse,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
There is also a new class of drugs being developed known as ‘senolytics’ that specifically target and destroy cells that are too far gone and are causing secondary damage in the body. These aged cells are referred to as ‘senescent’.
“Tremendous progress has also been made in learning exactly how to reprogram the epigenome of cells so that they become new adult stem cells. These can then be reintroduced into the body to potentially promote the rejuvenation of tissues and organs, after perhaps senescent cells have been cleared,” says Medvedik.
The low-hanging fruits are small molecules that may help slow down aspects of the aging process and allow us to live healthier and longer.
“One such candidate molecule has been known for many years as a Type 2 diabetes treatment, metformin, and is now being set for clinical trials,” says Medvedik.
Scientists are also debating how long humans can possibly live in the future. Some say we will live up to 150, others say 200, and some go as far as a 1,000 years.
Baron says that at this point in time, this is mere speculation.
“It is too premature to accept a maximum lifespan of humans. Eventually, science may lead to the first 200-year-old. I would have to say that living to a 1,000 years old is highly improbable.”
Similar to De Grey and Medvedik, she says to increase lifespan, research needs to focus on improving DNA repair mechanisms, making it more efficient. This would slow down the progression of accumulated damage within the cells and consequently aging. The cells will be able to maintain homeostasis for longer.
Alternatively, she suggests the focus to be on reversing the signs of damage through cell regeneration where the healthy and younger state of the cell is obtained.
“Presently, all we can do is try to minimize the damage we provoke on to our cells by controlling our environmental factors (i.e. eat healthy, exercise, don’t smoke etc) as well as understanding our genetic predispositions. For example, at Optiphi, we offer a comprehensive DNA skin test to decipher your genetic predispositions to certain aging characteristics. Results from this test allow one to approach skin aging from a holistic point of view,” she says.
According to Baron, from an aesthetic point of view, the future market will benefit more from cell regeneration through reprogramming.
“This way you reprogram your own cells to their younger state and maintain the youthfulness of your skin. From a medical stand-point, regeneration of whole organs is definitely the future of regenerative science and exciting advances are happening in this field,” she says.
And indeed, success will mean high profits for those who invest.
Investing in the immortality industry
The rich and famous are ploughing billions into research as they try to solve the issues of ‘growing old’.
“The main wealthy people investing in this space are the techno-visionaries like Peter Thiel, Vitalik Buterin and Michael Greve but increasingly there are also people like Jim Mellon whose expertise is not in tech investing. The field is growing fast,” says De Grey.
Those with money are really keen on this next new frontier.
According to Bay Area News, Scott Smith, founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based investment bank, Viant Capital, said “the Venture Capital community has finally woken up to the fact that, next to millennials, this is the largest market in the world and it’s grossly underserved”.
The last 24 months has seen a huge uptick from the investment community.
Google’s Calico, founded in 2013, has more than $2.5 billion in funding. It paved the way for other startups and foundations like Apollo Ventures, Oisin Biotechnologies, Longevity Fund, Kizoo Technology Ventures, Methuselah Fund and Jim Mellon’s Juvenescence.
If investments trickling in are anything to go by, there is a lot of money to be made in the industry. For example, UNITY Biotechnology reported cash and investments of $198 million as of June 30 compared to $92.2 million in December.
“The increase in cash reflects net proceeds of $59.9 million from UNITY’s Series C convertible preferred stock financing, and $75.9 million from UNITY’s initial public offering. We ended this quarter in a strong financial position as a result of our recent financings. We are well-resourced to move towards our goal of extending human healthspan,” says Keith Leonard, the Chairman and CEO of UNITY in a press statement.
The company is already in first-stage human trials.
“We treated the first patient in our Phase 1 clinical trial evaluating UBX0101 in moderate to severe osteoarthritis of the knee. This is an important step in assessing the role that eliminating senescent cells may play in the treatment of diseases of aging such as osteoarthritis, and we expect to share initial results in the first quarter of next year,” says Leonard.
Big business realizes there is need for startups working in this space.
Ichor Therapeutics, a biotechnology company in New York that develops therapeutic interventions for age-associated diseases, is one of them. It has created Grapeseed.Bio, a life science strategic fund and accelerator program where life science entrepreneurs receive up to $100,000 in seed funding, technical training, full access to Ichor’s research laboratory and mentorship in exchange for equity.
“Direct funding vehicles like Grants for Growth and the TC Growth Fund, combined with mentors and a physical facility at the Tech Garden, have cultivated many promising companies in the software and tech sectors. We want to do the same in the life sciences,” says Kelsey Moody, CEO at Ichor Therapeutics and Managing Partner of Grapeseed.Bio.
The $331 billion anti-aging market
In South Africa, Mic Mann, a futurist, through his advertising and marketing agency Mann Made, co-organizes the SingularityU South Africa Summit. This year, in October, the summit is bringing to Johannesburg speakers like De Grey from all over the world to also discuss aging, longevity and a “future-proof Africa” to make sure we embrace this wave of technology coming our way.
Tickets for the whole two-day event cost between R14,850 ($1,012) and R18,150 ($1,239) and he says they are almost sold out. That’s steep prices for a country where there are more people on social grants than are employed.
“There is massive interest. We have about 100 tickets left. We are going for 1,800 people this year. Last year, we sold out at 1,300 people,” says Mann.
According to Mann, there are many investors getting into the immortality industry.
“I think there will always be a debate or drive of humanity on how we will solve the issue. Firstly, we will become amortal [pursuing a lifestyle that defies the process of aging], but we could still fall off a car or train and die. Eventually, we will become immortal and able to put our conscience in another being or hard drive,” he says.
According to the global anti-aging market research report by Orbis Research, a leading market research company, the anti-aging market is expected to reach $331.41 billion by 2021.
“The industry is exploding in size. I have seen a 1,000 percent increase in the last 18 months in investment in life extension research and technology. Everybody realizes that if life extension can fulfil its promise, many new billionaires will be made,” says Sanei.
According to Sanei, the worldwide pharmaceutical market surpassed $1.1 trillion in 2016. In 2018, the top 10 pharmaceutical companies alone are projected to generate over $355 billion in revenue.
The problem is, according to Sanei, it currently costs more than $2.5 billion, sometimes up to $12 billion, and takes over 10 years to bring a new drug to market.
“Nine out of 10 drugs entering phase one clinical trials will never reach patients. As the population ages, we don’t have time to rely on this slow costly production rate. Some 12 percent of the world population will be 65 or older by 2030, and diseases of aging like Alzheimer’s will pose increasingly greater challenges to society,” he says.
Although there are billions being poured into the longevity economy, many ventures have not made money.
“Very little revenue was made in the last few years…However, most life extension and longevity companies are not trying to get quick products to the market. They are searching for the holy grail of medicine: a pill or a therapy to overcome aging. This product, if successful, could generate hundreds of billions of dollars. A few billion people may end up using it eventually,” says Zoltan Istvan, a politician and former journalist who narrowly escaped death and is now trying to prove we can live longer.
While working as a journalist in Vietnam for the National Geographic channel, he almost stepped on a landmine in the jungle. It was such a nerve-racking experience he dedicated the rest of his life to overcoming death.
“It’s hard to pin down what the industry is actually worth, since so many new medicines and robotic parts are not for sale yet and are in development. But I would venture to say that some of the life extension founders and CEOs may eventually become some of the first trillionaires on the planet. If they are successful, they will be able to sell their products to virtually every person on the planet, since almost everybody wants to live longer,” Istvan tells FORBES AFRICA.
According to him, there are only a few reliable medical regenerative products on the market today.
“A few pills are coming in the one-two year pipelines that are FDA-approved and will help people live longer. But there’s an expectation that within five to seven years, an enormous amount of products will hit the market. The problem is which products are ‘snake oil’ products that aren’t FDA approved, and which are really useful for making people live longer. This will take a discerning consumer to know the difference,” he says.
Istvan loves life. His father died last year due to old age.
“Some life extensionists are afraid of death. Not me. I just love life, and since I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s imperative I make the life I have here on earth last as long as possible — hopefully forever. Death is terrible. It’s forever. I’m haunted by it. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m haunted by my life disappearing forever — of there being no more existence of me,” he says. Istvan predicts we will gain a free year for every year we live past 2020.
“That is how fast the technology of anti-aging is developing. But at some point of this J-curve chart of life extension and living longer, humans hit a point — probably in 25 years or so — when technology and radical science simply overcome all our biological issues, and then we will live indefinitely or at least hundreds of years.”
He says hospitals may have to shut their doors.
“Medical care will go the way of the dinosaurs. At some point in the next 25 years, humans will have such good medicine and science, that pharma companies, hospitals, and doctors will begin to realize they are no longer needed. It won’t happen overnight, but by the end of this century, there will be 90% less hospitals,” he says.
It would mean life extension would have arrived. Right now, we think of medicine in terms of managing disease and how old we are. But in the future, according to Istvan, we will think in terms of getting rid of all disease and physical discomfort forever.
De Grey disagrees.
He says the only difference from the hospitals now will be that most of what hospitals will give you will be preventative.
“All it will shift is the way we think about that fictitious concept that we currently call ‘aging’ itself. We will understand that there is no such thing …,” says De Grey.
What about Africa’s existing problems?
Some argue that in Africa, however, private healthcare is expensive and government hospitals are struggling to treat people, let alone fund aging research.
De Grey, however, says there is still far too much early-life mortality in Africa, more than in the rest of the world – but as of 2015, not a single country in the whole world, including Africa, had a life-expectancy below 50.
“Therefore, Africa is catching up, which, of course, means that it is on course to have the same age-related health crisis that the industrialized world already has. Thus, it is highly timely that African nations should start to pull their weight in this space.”
Baron says should the lifespan of people increase, we will have bigger problems such as the ever-increasing population, further decline in food and water sources, and large economic transformations that will need to happen.
“[These] problems are already of major concern today and should be addressed before we consider further burdening our already limited resources,” she says.
Istvan sees it another way.
He says if people think they will live hundreds of years, they may not have children or even get married in the first 100 years of their lives.
“This of course will help with the overpopulation issue, and have significant structural ramification for society and human culture.”
There is another challenge. Life extension is most likely to broaden inequality. We may have a world where the super-rich can cheat death while the poor continue to die.
“The problem, of course, is that only the rich Africans will benefit at first. And this will be a hard fact to swallow for those people that live in poverty in Africa,” says Istvan.
De Grey however argues that such treatments will be for free.
“Keeping people healthy pays for itself so spectacularly fast that it would be economically suicidal for any country not to make the necessary investment to ensure that access is not limited by ability to pay. Today’s high-tech medicine for the elderly is not an informative precedent at all, because it doesn’t work – it doesn’t keep people healthy,” he says.
Istvan however further argues that it’s unlikely that a single pill will make people immortal. He says it’s likely to come in a combination of treatments and bionic organ replacements.
“It’s likely to take years of genetic treatments, shots or IV drugs, and organ replacement surgeries. At first, when this starts happening in 10 or 20 years, it will probably cost hundreds of thousands of US dollars, if not millions,” he says.
Longevity would mean a world where the global economy will surge, as people will be able to work much longer and stay younger much longer. Permanent retirement may be a thing of the past and people may be able to do multiple careers over hundreds of years.
Longevity’s impact on savings
If you live into your 100s and are as strong as you were in your 30s or 40s, you will still be a part of the working population.
“Extending the human lifespan by 30 years and postponing the current retirement age would generate a massive global GDP boost,” predicts Sanei.
Currently, people retire at about 60 years old. If people continue to live far longer, this will be at the peak of their earning capability.
According to Alexander Forbes, a financial services group headquartered in Sandton, the richest square mile in Africa, retirement savings in South Africa currently amount to R4.4 trillion ($300 billion).
“[It’s] an accumulation of assets that could only have been reached because of policymakers’ insistence that if an employer does offer a retirement fund (or funds) to employees, it is mandatory for all employees to participate in the fund,” it says in its Benefits Barometer report in 2017.
This number is expected to grow as people continue to live longer. South Africa has 4.4 million people over 60 and 2.9 million over 65. According to the report, by 2050, the total population over 60 is projected to be over 6.4 million.
Sanlam, a financial services group based in South Africa, says longevity is a blessing and burden. For its centenary celebrations, the group is focusing on answering longevity questions. Through its advert, the company uses a 10-year-old ambassador to ask questions like, ‘if the person who will live to 200 has already been born, would they stay younger for longer or get older later? How long will they study for? At what age will they retire? How many jobs will they have? Will they choose the same partner for life? How many kids will they have? Will anything come with a lifetime guarantee? How would you plan for a financial future?’
“As a future thinking organization, we wanted to look into the future. We believe in long-term planning. Already, South Africans can’t retire comfortably. Only 6% South Africans retire comfortably so we had to make sure people think about the future,” says Sanlam’s marketing chief, Mariska Oosthuizen, to FORBES AFRICA.
Mikel Moyo, co-founder of Mphato & Associates, a tax consultancy firm in South Africa, says traditional financial planning speaks to retiring at age 65. Living longer means longer working lives.
“It’s is a scary thought,” says Moyo.
“Try speaking to a 30-year-old about retirement planning. The typical response is ‘65 years is 35 years away, why do I need to save now’. What people do not understand is they only have 12 pay cheques per year. This means they only have 12 opportunities to live the life they want to live, to pay for all their obligations and save for retirement. They do not have that perspective. So the rational prediction is that if people currently think 30 years after retirement is long, what happens when it’s an extra 100 years?” According to Moyo, we don’t communicate well about finances as Africans.
“We need to be able to talk about money and speak out against every bad behavior if we are to survive. If we are to live longer, we have to understand ourselves.”
Anne Cabot-Alletzhauser, Head of the Research Institute at Alexander Forbes, says longevity means the financial industry has to break away from the notion that you have to retire at a certain age.
“One of the biggest mistakes we have made in South Africa is that we would retire people at the age of 60 or 62 to make way for youth to rise up to senior positions much faster. But in fact, research shows you that you will get better productivity by having people with more experience…You can get transformation without retiring people with experience,” she says.
According to the Alexander Forbes report, there has been a rise in the number of elderly who are bread winners. Between 1996 and 2011, this number increased from 1.7 million to about 2.9 million households.
“Elderly people also appear to be continuing to work later in life. This could be because of economic pressure to continue generating an income, or it may be a reflection of a global trend: educated individuals are beginning to see that they still have value to offer professionally, even if they have hit some arbitrary cut-off date.”
She adds that people make assumptions that as you get older, you become an economic burden to the country.
“We need to change our attitude towards healthcare because the healthcare you give to someone past the age of 60 is completely different to the one you give to someone younger…If you get it right, you significantly reduce the cost of healthcare which is one of the biggest fears of what is going to happen if longevity increases.”
She says the biggest challenge for financial planning is post retirement because you have no idea of what is going to happen to your health.
According to her, quality-care of the elderly exists in the communities, not retirement homes.
“We have had a nice situation whereby adults take care of their children and the children grow up and take care of the elderly,” she says.
The problem is, according to Cabot-Alletzhauser, the financial services industry uses first-world solutions to try solving third-world problems.
“I have a real problem with the financial services industry. It is touted to be first-world quality, and indeed it is, but it solves first-world problems…The insights it has applies maybe to the top 5% of the population.”
She says retirement savings is not a priority for South Africans.
“Most South Africans work, take their income home and take care of their siblings and even grandparents. That’s our modern reality…We don’t have a stable middle class in South Africa. People enter the middle class by virtue of what their income is but they don’t stay there because they immediately get into credit problems…We aren’t focusing on how we create stability during the journey and jumped to retirement,” she says.
Instead of saving for retirement, Cabot-Alletzhauser, says she would support investing in property.
“If they have a house, when they retire, they can rent some of the rooms and make an income…There is a mistaken notion that you are going to retire at 60 and then live to 120. People will keep working if they are to live to 120. I am 69 and I am still capable of working and will continue working.”
Preserving and reviving dead people?
Finland-based entrepreneur Filip Poutintsev first heard about the concept of aging when he was three years old.
“I was playing with my grandfather and suddenly asked him ‘why are you so old?’. His reply was very straight forward: ‘we all get old’. After hearing that, I started crying hysterically, as at that point I realized for the first time that I too will get old,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
At about age 12, his teacher told him about cryonics – deep-freezing the bodies of people who have just died, in the hope that scientific advances may allow them to be revived in the future.
“For me, that was like a light at the end of the tunnel. There was finally hope that I may not have to die.”
His curiosity about life and aging grew. He decided he wanted to be frozen after death but was appalled by the limited research in the industry. It compelled him to actively engage.
“I remember reading a few years ago an article about immortality that stated that if we spent as much money on life extension research as we spend on whitening our teeth, we would already be immortal. This was kind of a wakeup call for me. I realized deep inside that if I do nothing and just wait I might not make it to the time biological immortality is possible,” he says.
He founded the Immortality Foundation, which tries to create visibility and attention for anti-aging, longevity and life extension research.
“You see aging is a physical process, and the aging of humans is not different than the aging of a car, it’s just more difficult to fix.”
Breakthrough doesn’t mean everyone with access will live long. Poutintsev says once we eliminate death caused by aging and age-related diseases such as cancer, the biggest cause of death will be accidents, as our bodies will still be vulnerable to physical damage.
“If you want to live to 1,000 years, you need to be very careful not to die in traffic accidents for example. Actually, if we look at modern day statistics on death, we can calculate that even if we will become biologically immortal, our chance to live for 1,000 years is only 60%, due to all sorts of accidents,” he says.
The study of cryonics is growing rapidly.
“The process of cryopreservation involves cooling a legally-dead person to liquid nitrogen temperature where all physical decay essentially stops – with the goal of preserving tissues, organs and especially the brain with its associated memories and personality as perfectly as possible,” says the Cryonics Institute on its website.
A person held in this state is called a cryopreserved patient.
“We do not consider the legal definition of ‘death’ as a permanently irreversible state. We believe that the incredible advances being made today in biology, medicine, computers, nanotechnology and much more, inevitably point to a future where advanced science will be able to revive these patients and restore them to health and even renewed youth.”
There are more than hundreds of cryopreserved patients across the world, says the institute. And it’s costly.
A minimum whole-body suspension costs $28,000 at the Cryonics Institute. Other companies charge more.
For example, the same procedure reportedly costs $200,000 at Alcor4, $155,000 at the American Cryonics Society, $36,000 at KrioRus and $150,000 at Trans Time.
Just as vaccines, surgeries, sterilization and antibiotics ushered in a new age of longevity, new technologies like robotics will expand it further.
“Humans are slowly becoming cyborgs with artificial hips, dentures, and soon will replace all their organs with better performing bionic ones. So it’s quite possible that overpopulation won’t really affect the world, as humans will be machines, and can do things like interplanetary travel as well as only use sunlight to run their bodies, and not food or water or oxygen,” says the futurist Istvan.
There is also an impact for the geriatrics industry.
“I hope that in geriatrics, we will still maintain the ‘human’ part of interacting with patients, instead of everyone just ‘plugging in’ like a robot, says Coetzer.
Sanei agrees. He says most people he speaks to say they never want to become a cyborg but we will naturally become robot-like.
“Let’s go back to the beginning when humans developed the earliest technologies – fire and stone tools. These tools gave people new capabilities, and became extensions of our physical bodies. As we move into the future, we are not even going to notice becoming part-machine, because it’s going to be a sensible thing to do at each point in the journey,” says Sanei.
Tech billionaires like Google co-founder Sergey Brin are already working on combating aging in the longevity labs of the west. African entrepreneurs have begun to see the merit of such research. One of them is 41-year-old Dr Danny Meyersfeld.
“I love research and being in the lab but there comes a point where you need a clean break from academia otherwise you will be there for the rest of your life,” he says.
We meet him at his offices in Illovo in Sandton. He has invited us to see the DNA-testing in his lab. Meyersfeld is the founder of DNAlysis Biotechnology.
Here, his team conducts different tests – for weight management, disease management, sports performance, skin health, skin-aging and cognitive health.
Dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt, he tells us how he started the business in 2008.
“I had a PhD in Molecular Biology and I didn’t know what to do with it…At the time, we wanted to bring biotech advancement to the South African healthcare environment and to bridge the knowledge gap that exists between academia and the consumer. There is a wealth of knowledge and research that sits in publications and academia that never gets to the people. If research is not done to make a difference to the average human, then what’s the point,” says Meyersfeld.
His idea wasn’t easy to sell.
“For the South African market, I think we were about five years too early for these types of tests. We were this lone voice trying to sell a product but also trying to educate and create a market for something that hadn’t existed before,” he says.
The advantage was having examples from the US and European market. They were able to learn from the mistakes of those companies to find the right model.
“But the challenge was still a lack of awareness of these types of technologies especially with healthcare practitioners because that’s where our market was. We didn’t want to go straight to the consumer; we wanted to work with dieticians and doctors so genetics can be a daily part of their work.”
According to Meyersfeld, longevity is possible but it’s more about being healthy and understanding your DNA.
“I would rather live to 90 and maintain my health than live to 120 and suffer for the last 20 years,” he says.
Anti-aging in the beauty business
Dr Reza Mia is the Chief Operating Officer at Anti-Aging Art, a medical aesthetic and wellness center focusing on minimally invasive anti-aging and cosmetic treatments.
“People kept coming to me and saying, ‘aren’t you a doctor, don’t you do botox, don’t you do fillers and I went and did the courses to satisfy that need. Slowly, they kept coming and bringing their brothers, sisters, friends until it became a full-time job,” says Mia.
According to Mia, the industry is growing.
“In South Africa, because it started a bit late, it’s growing faster than the rest of the world. We are normally fully-booked but we try to add doctors to take care of that demand.”
The company says it serves 500 to 600 clients every month. They are 60% women and 40% men, ranging from teenagers to people over 80. Patients pay R3,000 ($205) on average per visit.
“Mostly, people want to fix tiny problems like frown lines and sagging faces. A lot of the time, it’s small things that make them self-conscious, like sweating too much on the face and underarms. Sometimes, they just want maintenance work all over the body,” says Mia.
She says one of the challenges is a lack of the right regulations.
“We see a lot of practices opening up not owned by doctors and they obviously don’t know about the ethics…It’s hurting the industry because people are seeing other people looking unnatural and they think that’s what fillers do.”
Mia wants to expand the business, through franchising, to Tanzania and Dubai in the near future.
The quest for immortality may be very much in the future, but these futurists, doctors and scientists believe that with technology, we are irresistibly closer to finding a cure for aging than we have ever been before.
Never say die.
‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya, the Olympian, on never quitting, come what may.
It is August 2009 in Berlin, Germany, at the finals of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.
It’s the 800 meters race; among the eight female runners is 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya, in a yellow track top and green shorts.
Thousands watch from the pavilion, loudly cheering as they await the gun to go off.
In the fourth line, Semenya waits too, blocking out all the noise in her head.
She takes in a long, deep breath and says a prayer.
“On your marks!” shouts the referee.
The women crouch.
And the race is on.
The young Semenya from Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, runs alongside some of the world’s most famous athletes such as Mariya Savinova from Russia.
In two minutes, a winner will be crowned.
In an impressive show of might and mettle on the track, Semenya sprints ahead of the others.
With long strides, she is the clear lead.
A competitor from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, then manages to run ahead of Semenya. It’s a tight race as they lead neck-to-neck.
At the sound of a bell signaling they have reached the 400-meter mark, Semenya bolts ahead of the group leaving a wide gap between her and the others.
At 1:55:45, Semenya is officially the champion.
It is a big win for the village girl from Limpopo.
“Things just went from zero to hero, so boom! Zero to hundred. It was just great,” beams Semenya when we meet her for the interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
At the end of the race, she does her signature move – the cobra – hands facing inwards and then outwards.
Holding the South African flag, she runs a few meters in a lap of honor.
Her country is proud, super-proud of its millennial daughter.
This match was the unforgettable milestone that launched the career of a simple girl from Limpopo on to the world stage.
Her name was soon going to be etched in gold.
Caster Mokgadi Semenya is the reigning Olympics and world champion in the women’s 800-meter race.
On a hot Monday morning in October, we meet Semenya in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She arrives ahead of the appointed time with her wife Violet and her manager Becky Motumo. Her vehicle is number-plated ‘CASVIO’, an amalgamation of Semenya’s and Violet’s names.
That weekend, she had just returned from New York City, in the United States (US), where she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation and from tennis icon Billie Jean King.
The ceremony was to award women who have extraordinary achievements in sport, and Semenya was one of the recipients.
As she enters the studio for our interview dressed in all-blue Nike apparel and sneakers, she greets everyone warmly.
First on the agenda for the day is makeup, something the sports star says she can never get used to.
“I like to be myself, I am true to myself. I just like myself the way I am and I don’t want anything to change in me,” says Semenya.
“With makeup, it’s the part I hate the most because I don’t like it. That’s not me, so it’s just something else. I don’t like it at all, I just do it because it is business,” she says, laughing.
Semenya opts for the natural look.
She says she loves the simple life, and has always been this way since her early years growing up in the small village of Ga-Masehlong.
As she readies, she reminisces those years.
“Growing up in Limpopo was special to me, I’m a village girl,” she says.
“When you grow up in a big family, obviously, they appreciate you for who you are and everything you do. They support you. They don’t criticize your work, they just go with the flow and they want what makes you happy.”
Her family was extremely supportive of her love for sports.
Semenya started playing soccer at the age of four, on the street with her friends, and in the bush, where they would bet on matches.
“Actually, I was the best striker in the village [when it came to] street football,” she laughs.
“Everytime I got on to the pitch, everyone wanted me, so I was that kind of a kid.”
In a few years, the young Semenya traded in the football boots for running shoes.
“Before you can kick a ball, you have to run first. Football is all about speed, it is more about agility and how you can move.”
In grade one, Semenya was introduced to athletics and immediately found her feet as a sprinter.
But due to a lack of facilities and proper coaching at the school, she decided to opt for middle-distance running, instead of sprinting.
“With middle-distance, you can run anywhere you want and you can still perform. You don’t really need to be surrounded by mentors and stuff like that,” she says.
Semenya came to realize that she enjoyed running more than football and so traveled a lot to take part in competitions.
At the age of 12, she moved from living with her mother to taking care of her grandmother who was getting older.
“She’s a great human being. I am truly blessed to walk in her footsteps,” she says about her.
“She taught me more responsibility, how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She also taught me respect, how to appreciate and how to accept others.”
Her grandmother supported her dreams to run, unaware then of how far it would take Semenya.
In 2007, at the age of 16, Semenya ran her first international race in Botswana.
Unfortunately, she was placed fifth and returned to South Africa defeated, but hopeful.
“From there, I discovered that there are a lot of things to learn and I need to focus more and concentrate.”
Semenya worked harder and pushed herself to become better than her competitors.
It was the beginning of her international career in sports.
From ‘zero to hero’
The year 2008 was her final year in high school.
Semenya continued to compete whilst pursuing her studies.
She had qualified for the 2008 World Junior Championships held in Bydgoszcz in Poland in July that year.
She was one of two Africans competing in the 800m-race.
Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.
Three months later, her luck changed.
She competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.
Semenya won her first international title with a record of 2:04, which was not bad for a 17-year-old.
It was a defining moment in Semenya’s career.
“From there, that’s when I knew this is my field. I need to be in command and I need to train hard. I need to be strong physically and mentally, and everything needs to be ready,” she says.
Since then, gold has become her color.
After the win and back to reality, Semenya went back to high school to complete her matric examinations – these were two fulfilling accomplishments for the young athlete.
2009 was a year of monumental change for Semenya.
The village girl moved to the big city.
She traveled 317km from Limpopo to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and enrolled at the University of Pretoria studying athletics science.
While there, she trained under Micheal Seme, preparing for more career-defining races.
Semenya dedicated her time to intense training, working on improving her running time.
She ran the 800 meters in two minutes and qualified for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but due to lack of experience, she didn’t know much about her competitors who had been running for years.
“I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was all about running good times and back then, good times take you to winning big championships,” she says.
In July that year, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, Semenya won both the 800m and 1,500m races with the times of 1:56:72 and 4:08:01 respectively.
She had improved her 800m running time by eight seconds since winning the Commonwealth Games nine months earlier.
She was the fastest runner worldwide for the 800m races that year. She had bested the senior and junior South African records held by South African female athletes Zelda Pretorius and Zola Pieterse, popularly known as Zola Budd.
But there was no time to lose.
Semenya continued to press on training to compete in the IAAF World Championship 2009 in August in Berlin.
She went on to win as a newcomer among some of the world’s best runners.
The long run to freedom
Back home, she brought more glory to the nation.
But as South Africa cheered and celebrated her, others had different plans for the teenage athlete.
At the time, news reports surfaced about the IAAF looking into the young athlete.
The reports suggested that they were conducting gender tests on her.
In a statement published by the IAAF in September that year, they declined to comment on the medical testing of Semenya but confirmed that it was indeed gender-testing.
“We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts,” they said.
At the time, they were in discussion with the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Semenya’s representatives, with the view to resolve the issues surrounding Semenya’s participation in athletics.
It was a dampening end to her year.
In November, the results came back.
They found Semenya to have high testosterone levels.
As a result, she was suspended from running and forced to sit on the sidelines.
Semenya’s response was released in a statement by her lawyers.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said.
“Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”
Reminiscing on the events that took place, Semenya tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that she wasn’t and still isn’t worried about the IAAF.
She will continue to run the race she started.
“Actually, I never thought anything about them. It was just all about me. What is it that I can control? Of course, if someone is or wants to do whatever they want to do, there is nothing you can do,” she says.
“So, I never think about such people. I always think about myself and what will benefit me… There’s nothing I can do about what organizations think and there’s nothing they can do about what I think.”
The case was complex.
Media reports and critics questioned the ethics of their testing and their methods.
But Semenya was not the first.
News items and academic reports suggest that sex verification tests at the IAAF started as early as the 1950s.
Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema was reportedly banned in July 1950 after undergoing gender-testing by the IAAF.
In more recent times, Dutee Chand, Pratima Gaonkar and Pinki Pramanik, all from India, have reportedly had to undergo gender-testing too.
But Semenya stood strong.
After her experience, she calls on all women to unite.
“I think we as women need to come together and support each other,” she says.
“Without that, you will still feel discriminated, you still feel oppressed, you still feel criticized in everything that you do and you will still feel like you are not recognized,” she says.
During this trying period for Semenya, back home in Limpopo, a 15-year-old girl from the small town of Westenburg was acting as Semenya in a high school play.
Sevenah Adonis was finishing her grade eight at Hoërskool Pietersburg when she played Semenya for the year-end school concert.
It was also the same period Adonis first heard about the track star.
Semenya’s trial had inspired the young girl.
“My general perception of Caster Semenya when I had just heard of her is that she’s a very fantastic athlete,” Adonis tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“Limpopo is a very isolated place. There’s not a lot of exposure or anything, so for her to actually make it over the parameters of Limpopo is remarkable. I do look up to her and I aspire to go beyond my borders and accomplish things that she has accomplished,” she says.
Adonis is currently pursuing a degree in economics at the University of Limpopo.
The 22-year-old hopes to meet Semenya one day, but for now, she watches and cheers on her fellow Limpopo native making a global mark.
Back in Semenya’s world, July 2010 (after six months of being suspended) was when she received the news she had been waiting to hear.
The IAAF announced that she would be able to compete again.
“The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect,’’ they said in a statement.
The medical details and findings are confidential.
Despite the controversy with the IAAF, Semenya had been dubbed a hero by many for the way she handled the situation.
During the interview with us, she remembers what former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once told her when they met.
“Be the best that you can be,” he said to her.
“He just told me, ‘people can talk, people can do whatever they want to do, but it’s up to you to live for yourself first before others. So, the only thing that you can do is to be the best that you can be’,” she says.
It was the best advice she had ever been given.
Semenya returned stronger, winning every race and championship she entered.
“My goal is to be the greatest and there is nothing that anyone can do about it,” she says.
“I’m an athlete, I train and I perform. That’s me and that’s what keeps me going. I believe in myself and I trust myself and I’m always motivated. I’m a very positive person. So even if something comes in a negative way, I always find a way to put in more positive,” she says.
Semenya went on to win a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011.
But it was in the year 2012 when she showed the world her true prowess on the track.
Leading the charge in London
Semenya was only 21 years old when she participated in her first Olympic Games.
“I was more mature then I think, but I didn’t have that knowledge of understanding my body; how to train myself, you know, to calm down,” she says.
But the prestige of the Olympic games excited Semenya.
It was the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and Semenya carried the South African flag proudly in front of thousands at the London Stadium (formerly known as the Olympic Stadium), while leading the South African Olympic team.
It was a proud moment for South Africans across the world.
Thousands and thousands cheered her on.
“It shows a great quality, especially more in leadership. So, I lead the team in and then, of course, I still have to go deliver because people look up to you. Your family, your friends, the entire nation. They expect you to perform,” she says.
One of the challenges she faced was not knowing whether all her training had been good enough for that moment.
She didn’t know what to expect.
“What’s going to happen in this championship? Am I going to win? Am I going to even win a medal?” she asked herself at the time.
“It was kind of the most stressful championship I have had in my life…” she says today.
It all came down to how prepared she was.
“When I walk onto that track, I perform. So, when I perform, I expect people to recognize my work but not just because I am me, but for the work that I do,” she says.
But once it was time for the race to take place, Semenya put all her worries aside and stayed focused.
“It is no longer about what happened last week. It’s about what’s going to go down now. We are more focused about it. It’s do or die,” she says. The pressure was on. Semenya was determined to win. Crowds in the stadium cheered waiting for the gun to go off.
The runners started off.
Semenya began to pick up pace.
As she did, she looked back and saw the other runners catching up.
It was do or die.
“The main thing was to think ‘I have to keep going’. But my other mind was like ‘you have lost the race, there is nothing you can do’… But when you believe that ‘ok, I still have a chance for a medal’, you will just keep on pushing until you get the momentum.”
In the end, Semenya was placed second, behind Russia’s Savinova.
Semenya brought home silver.
It was a proud moment and South Africa celebrated with her as the whole world watched the new face of 800m.
Francine Niyonsaba, an 800m Burundian gold and silver medallist, was a competitor alongside Semenya at the same race.
After meeting a few months earlier in Monaco, they had become friends.
“Caster Semenya is a good runner. She loves everybody and I think she is a very talented girl and an inspiration to all, especially African youth,” Niyonsaba tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Twentyfive-year-old Niyonsaba draws inspiration from her friend.
She says that the challenge women face in Burundi is that they feel they can’t achieve anything, elsewhere in the world.
“In Burundi, in our culture, women believe they cannot do something special in the world but it is just a mentality,” she says.
“A woman can do everything!”
Both Niyonsaba and Semenya are passionate about inspiring other women in sport and putting Africa on the map.
At the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, the two competed again.
This time, Niyonsaba won silver and Semenya won gold.
They met again at the 2017 World Championships in London and it was the same win again; Niyonsaba silver, and Semenya gold.
Despite the two always running against each other, Niyonsaba says on the track, Semenya has been very encouraging towards her and the others.
“As an African, she is trying to do something special. She is an exceptional girl, because you know as women in Africa we are afraid to do some things. So, Caster Semenya is trying to show everyone that women can do everything,” says Niyonsaba.
‘I don’t see myself
After bagging world titles and beating records, what else is on the cards for the sports star?
For Semenya, there’s no stopping her and she plans to stay on in the sports industry.
“I don’t see myself stepping down; until I’m 40, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”
Semenya plans to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world and she plans to break more records.
Back home, in Pretoria, she has been running the Caster Semenya Foundation aimed at coaching and equipping children who are active in sports.
The foundation currently trains 20 children aged 12 years and older.
She plans to expand it to other parts of the country.
“My main goal is to empower women and help other young men to be better in future,” she says.
“You have to show them first that education is important and we balance it with sports. If we can perform both sides, I think we will be fulfilled,” she says.
“Education never stops, you keep on learning every single day.
“Without education, your decision-making will be weak… when you are educated, it becomes very easy to make decisions and decide what is the next step.”
In 2018, she received her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University.
But she hasn’t stopped.
She is currently pursuing a degree in Sport Management at the Tshwane University of Technology.
It has been a big year for the athlete.
In September, she joined the Nike ‘Just do it’ campaign for its 30th birthday.
It featured some of the greatest athletes, the likes of tennis icon Serena Williams and former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with each bringing social issues to the fore.
In October, she became the ambassador of Discovery Vitality.
In November, she won big at the South African Sport Awards. She took home the People’s Choice Sports Star Of The Year; Sports Woman Of The Year, and the Sports Star Of The Year.
She was also nominated for the 2018 Female World Athlete of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December.
With all her accolades and achievements, as her star continues to rise, what about her finances?
During the interview, when asked how much she is worth, the village girl from Limpopo simply smiles and says, “I’m just priceless, to be honest.”
‘She Is So Humble; Does Not Sweat The Small Stuff’
Becky Motumo describes what it’s like managing Caster Semenya’s busy diary.
What is it like working with Caster Semenya?
I love how driven she is… Every single day is absolutely dynamic, ever-changing. It is always a rush. When I talk about a rush, I mean in a good way, because it is a very busy period for us.
I think that having a boss like her, is unique in the sense that she is very direct. So she knows what she wants. She is very assertive. I think for me it’s those little experiences that really make it special.
What are some of the qualities that make her who she is?
People are always quite taken aback by the kind of person she is, her humility. They will try to deck it out, you know roll out the red carpet.
They want to offer her the world and she is so humble. She wants to walk in and get the job done and be professional. She will deliver everything that needs to be delivered. And she respects your time as well. She gets it done and she is out, and you know you have to appreciate someone with a work ethic like that.
What is your favorite memory of her?
Every day! I think especially the times when we are traveling, when we are brainstorming and when we are talking about future plans. She is a very animated individual.
She has an incredible sense of humour and I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t enjoy being around that. It makes working with her an absolute pleasure.
Yes, we are serious, yes, we are professional, yes, we are about the business, but it does help to have those moments of humour when she is talking like Michael Jackson, or dancing, or doing something completely out of the ordinary. And that’s a side of her people wouldn’t know about unless you are close to her.
But I enjoy that, and I enjoy the relationship that I have with her wife Violet.
What kind of a leader is Semenya?
Her time is very important to her. She likes to show up on time, she is extremely professional in terms of that.
I try to arrive at a venue 30 minutes before she gets there. But, if you are late and you are messing with her time because she has such a tight schedule, then definitely she will let you know about that. She will try and be kind about it but she is very stern, so you know that’s one of the examples.
But, as soon as she has told you how she feels, we quickly move on and it’s about the work. And I think that’s the one thing I love about her. She does not sweat the small stuff.
She does not sit and harbor any ill feelings, or spend too much time worrying about anything in the past, so we move on very swiftly.
At the end of the day, it is about getting the work done and that is what we are about.
2018 African Of The Year – President of Rwanda Paul Kagame
In an exclusive interview, Paul Kagame, Rwandan President and Chair of the African Union, speaks to Methil Renuka about intra-Africa trade, how governments can drive entrepreneurial growth and why he will always find time to play sports.
The appointment is at 11AM on a November morning in Kigali, and past the tight security at the presidential offices located on KG7 Avenue, the views are of manicured lawns and a verdant paradise with hulking trees, chirping birds and cobbled pathways fringed by hibiscus and frangipani flowers. Kigali is a clean city with rolling hills and green valleys, but the foliage within Village Urugwiro, where we are meeting President Paul Kagame, is a botanist’s dream. A few minutes in the airy waiting lounge – accentuated by cream, olive green colors and a touch of wood – and the president walks in, tall and in an immaculate blue suit. He greets us warmly and is relaxed, joking about how much he dislikes posing for photographs. Yet, he obliges, against the greenery.
Kagame, who is also head of the African Union (AU), has been adjudged the ‘2018 African of the Year’ at the eighth All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).
Who is he dedicating it to, we ask? “The people of Rwanda,” he says. He shares more with FORBES AFRICA:
Q. You are completing a year as chair of the African Union. Africa is such a diverse heterogeneous continent, with each country having its own interests. How challenging is your job in bringing a balance?
A. It’s absolutely challenging, and as you rightly said, you have to deal with diverse interests, cultures and backgrounds. Yet, Africa needs to be together in handling continental matters because there are more things that similarly affect Africans than are different. There are also different mentalities. You find some people are used to doing things a certain way, even if they are shown – or they see for themselves – that doing things differently might bring better results, they still stick to the old ways.
Talking about my task… The first thing is to pay attention to people’s concerns, to people’s ways of looking at things and take all that into account, as you also create space for people to discuss openly and show how we are all together in a different time than we have been used to… The moment you create that space for discussion, which we have done, the moment you increase consultation and also allow people to participate in challenging the points of views out there that tend to shape directions, we all have to follow, especially when you are able to identify things with certain success stories that exist. For example, in a country not making good progress or that is not ready to change, you can still point to their own situation and say ‘no, but you actually made good progress in this area because these were the contributing factors’. This can always be explained even in the wider context of where we want to go as a continent by coming together. So unity and regional integration have been emphasized.
We have been able to show that entrepreneurship, business and intra-Africa trade that have been lacking are actually more important than focusing solely on the market outside of the continent… That conversation helps people understand more, it helps people come together and we keep reminding them your neighbor is more important than someone far away from you. We are all neighbors one way or the other. My country has four neighbors and then one of the other countries we are neighbors with has nine neighbors. So it cuts across. We find we are actually very closely-linked and therefore, as we look at ourselves as individual countries, we need to recognize that if it’s sub-regional blocs or the continent, we become bigger, we are actually better off for it if we work together. Businesses and economies grow multiple times when we work together.
What I discovered from the beginning was there is no magic here other than just working with what there is and being realistic about it and allowing that conversation, and challenging one another, and being real in pointing out real things that matter, and we take it from there. And I think it has been good progress. We have put a lot of effort into it and every African country, every African leader, has played their part. So we just keep encouraging and keep going. Later, we can show everyone the benefit coming out of this very short period’s effort of working together.
Q. One of the aspirations of Agenda 2063 of the AU is a united Africa. How important is it for the rest of the world to see Africa as a single powerhouse?
A. We need it. We need that backdrop from which we should see things and remind ourselves how this continent is actually great, a continent projected to be 2.5 billion by 2050. That’s huge, bigger than any other continent. Africa is endowed with all kinds of resources, and natural resources, so how do you not think it’s important? Therefore, we have to create a clear context in which we operate and understand all aspects of this value of being in a position where we have huge assets in terms of people and natural resources and everything that anyone would wish for. So what remains is, how do we harness this? How do we leverage this? So we had to create long-term, medium-term pathways and say we should develop human capital and infrastructure. This huge workforce that keeps coming… 29 million supposed to be [pouring] into the labor market every year [until] 2030; you’ve got to think about this and ask what it means. It’s a huge asset if we make correct investments. It’s also a huge risk if you just keep [pouring] 29 million people in the labor market when they have nothing to do. The framework of 2063 provides sufficient room for us to think, reflect and therefore make the right investments for us to fulfill continental aspirations.
Q. The concept of a single African market. How far are we from realizing that?
A. I was pleasantly surprised when we had the summit here for the African Continental Free Trade Area. Initially, scepticism was expressed by some people, saying ‘but this can’t work, it can’t happen, Africa is divided, it never gets things right together’. So when the leaders came to Kigali for this extraordinary summit, we expected only a few countries to sign up, but we got 44 countries signing up on the first day. But we have also seen how it has been increasing, with countries ratifying the free trade area and free movement of people, goods and services. Therefore, that is a signal Africans understood the importance of this, and it is important indeed if we want to transform our economies and allow opportunities for prosperity to our people… I think [the single African market] is making very good progress even with that background of scepticism. We have already left that behind us and are moving forward.
Q. You are a leader who looks to the future not forgetting a painful past. How hard were the last two decades for you?
A. Very hard (laughs), which is an understatement, but that is the spirit, about learning lessons of the difficulties you have gone through but not allowing that to hold you back, to make you a hostage of that tragic experience, but rather learn lessons as quickly as you can and focus on where we are going in the future and doing our best to even keep making references to that past if you will. And therefore helping you to decide which choices to make at any given time in the future. So, 20 years has been a journey of difficulties but I think of the good stories too, and that is what encourages all of us.
We have had tragedies, and at the same time, the efforts of bringing people together through reconciliation, through deciding which direction we take for our future… the people have responded with energy, with positivity, and that has not come to nothing, it has actually borne fruit. We’ve seen progress.
Even the people, when you look at their faces and you look at how they go about things, it as if nothing ever happened here, yet history is loaded with terrible experiences. And apart from those tragic experiences, we have had other external pressures – people who are quick to forget. Sometimes, the demands [are] even from the outside about how we should deal with things, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, as if our lives are to be decided from the outside and as if we have nothing to do with determining our own course in the future.
But we have calmly had dialogue with such people behind those pressures. We have also focused and really concentrated on what we understand, even the hard choices we have to make, but the good thing is, every three or five years down the road, we were able to measure and say, ‘well, what have we gained from the different choices and efforts we made’. Could we have done things differently or even better? Even putting into account all these unnecessary external lessons, and pressures, we still listen. We don’t fall short on that. We always listen, but at the same time, we fully understand we are the ones for ourselves.
Q. Speaking about the future, Rwanda has been a pioneer in private sector-led economic transformation. What to you are the new industries and wealth creators of the future?
A. From the outset, we understood we have to deal with people. How do you invest in them, how do you prepare them for their role? As a government, we have to improve their lives but also allow this broad national transformation to take place. Then it comes to skills. You give them more opportunities to access things that cut across what they have to do, whether it is the agriculture sector and the agri-businesses around that and the whole value chain, and remembering that agriculture, for example, is very important.
The other part is we have seen, in terms of technology, infrastructure, digitalization, the internet; we have to prepare people to use that, as they have a multiplying effect in many ways, even if it is in public service, and delivery of that in the population that plays that part… Different sectors are impacted by this, therefore, provide the infrastructure to do that, and then the innovation that will come along with it… So these are things we think about – how to create wealth for our own people, how to allow people to thrive…
But then, around that are rules of the game. How do you create an environment to allow disruption and innovation? For example, if you look at how we have been preparing the ground and allowing these activities to take place, in terms of even globally in the ease of doing business – the World Bank report where Rwanda is 29th in the world and second in Africa. All these are to answer that question: how do we create this wealth? It’s the environment, it is specific things to invest in, it’s how we leverage the resources we have.
Q. How do you promote entrepreneurial capitalism, how are you looking at youth-led startups?
A. The question you raise is important. For example, we have an initiative called YouthConnekt, where we try to encourage young people to be innovative. We give them cash prizes, but this is to excite them and make them think innovatively. It also creates healthy competition among young people, but above all, it stimulates them to think [about] what they need to do that fits in with the times we are in. We also have formed business development funds that cut across districts and the country that help people understand what entrepreneurship holds for them and that they can participate and therefore, we give them seed money, if they specifically come up with these ideas but some of the ideas may come through this support by educating them. We have created an Innovation Fund, and help thousands of our young people by combining both innovation and entrepreneurship, we hope to keep exciting our young people to be able to do a number of things. We have national entrepreneurship programs.
Every five years, we see what this has done, what impact it has had, and also make improvements. So it keeps going. It has had a huge impact. We see it has been working and draw lessons from these experiences of young people feeding back to us as government institutions and then we respond as much as we can. Of course, governments have limitations. It doesn’t have everything it requires or wishes to deploy, to reach the goals we want. We’ve been trying to be thoughtful in involving the young people. We have also provided them educational programs that include vocational training and technical programs that help them to not just study in schools and sometimes come up with no skills, but to also acquire knowledge. The skills that are required for employment are lacking so we have also tried to cover that gap and are making good progress.
Q. What really drives entrepreneurship? How do we make sure young people stay on the continent?
A. It is a combination of many things. Some of it may even be political, meaning, the political environment must be that of reassurance to the citizens in general, but to the young people as well, and reassurance in a sense that it not something you just deliver to them, but something you deliver by allowing them to participate or [by conveying that] they have a place in their own country, and politically, they can participate, which again relates to the socioeconomic part of it.
Therefore, if politically, they understand they are participants and not just observers – they need to even participate in addressing some of the problems – then the next demand is ‘what about these bread-and-butter issues, how do I take care of myself, take care of my family; every effort is being done by the government to allow us young people to really play our part; and it means I start with my own environment, in my country, but how about if we connect across borders’?
So to a great extent, it speaks to politics. How do African countries and leaders allow this cross-border economic activity that interests these young people and holds them here so they don’t reach a point where they become desperate in which [case] they go to other places? Sometimes, they reach these [other places] and actually find the situation is even worse, so we have to find a way of talking directly to the young people, but above all, create new things on the ground they can experience and participate in.
It’s not one side that is going to deliver it and put on the table, it’s everybody. It has to be everyone, leaders of countries, and leaders of different kinds who have to play a bigger role.
Q. How do you think capitalists, billionaires and African business can help this process and work collaboratively with the government?
A. We want the private sector to be in the lead of our countries’ or continental transformation; that is for sure, but again, collaboration is important and this is the big burden that lies with governments and we must address how we allow not only the private sector to thrive, to freely do what it is meant to do, but how do we work with them. For example, many times that there have been discussions about private-public partnerships, some people are uncomfortable about them. You don’t understand why. There is no question that if the government played its part in allowing the private sector to thrive and the private sector also understands that if they do their part with the government, that’s very important in the thriving of the citizens of the country, which again constitute the market in which we operate.
So if the people of Rwanda are thriving, the citizens are well, then the business person should be happy because this is the market in which they play. But you can’t be rich and continue sustainably as a businessman in a very impoverished market. It’s just common sense. So if the market, the people are thriving, it feeds back to the private sector but then the private sector should respond in the same way… I mean if you’re a government person, a political leader, you also want to see a country that is registering economic growth, registering development. I think the private sector-mind is going to respond positively to these good signals originating from the political environment, from the leadership. It’s in their interest as well. So we really should be happy with the private-public partnership. There is no question about it, it’s a win-win sort of relationship.
Q. A leader, military leader and father to four children. What is the role you cherish most and how do you find the time to do justice to each?
A. I consider myself lucky, in this sense, I don’t even have to make a lot of effort in being myself; that is the starting point. I try to be myself, I try to be a family person, a person that relates with relatives, friends, and not only here, but outside the country. So I am first and foremost comfortable with that. The rest that comes along with that is the responsibility I now hold. I need no reminder that many people look up to me to say ‘what is he thinking [about] us, what are we going to be able to achieve with his leadership’. It doesn’t matter how the leadership role I play came about, whether it was accidental or planned, but I am there, so I have to play this role effectively.
It’s really trying to be comfortable with myself, comfortable as a family person, as a person who has friends, and who relates to even those who are not my friends directly (laughs). I have the responsibility to them and I must do as much as I can fairly without fear or favor. The balance has been happening without much effort.
Q. How do you unwind? Do you get the time to play sport?
A. I do a lot of sport. I have to create time, there is no doubt. In fact, at times, I have to do things at strange hours, sometimes when others are sleeping… I even do my exercises very late in the night when I should be resting, but again, I always find ways of compensating for what I have missed because I also have to find time to rest, to sleep, above all.
I never lack sleep. Whenever I have a few hours to put my head on the pillow, without much effort, I go to sleep.
I do follow sport. I have been a good fan of Arsenal football club for about three decades now. Whenever they are playing, whatever game, whenever I have the time, I always want to watch.
I do follow other sports as well. I watch tennis, basketball – I follow the National Basketball Association (NBA).
I used to play basketball for fun, but am not a professional, and I never came anywhere near that. But I play tennis, I work out and enjoy watching games if I am not able to play.
Q. Your favorite sportsmen…?
A. They are many. For basketball, for many years, my favorite team for NBA has been the Golden State Warriors. I enjoy watching Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, but of course I also enjoy watching LeBron James, and then there are young upcoming players I have now started following.
‘2018 African of the Year’
‘African of the Year’ is one of the categories at the eighth All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).
The annual event (held this year on November 29) honors business excellence and leaders who have had a considerable impact on their industry and community. The nominees for the ‘African of the Year’ category, including several African statesmen, were judged based on the following criteria: their international profile, positive impact, their ability to build equality, develop society, champion inclusiveness, deal with corruption, transform society, enforce governance, alleviate poverty, lead economic development and be an African leader who is a role model.
Paul Kagame: The Rwandan president and head of the African Union (AU) has spent this year improving the economic conditions of his country, and talking continental trade. He made headlines for the partnership with Alibaba, and for improving the ease of doing business in Rwanda as attested by the World Bank. Rwanda has inked a three-year deal as the tourism partner of English football club Arsenal. As a tribute to growing regional cooperation, three months after assuming the chairmanship of the AU, Kagame hosted, in Kigali, over 50 African heads of state, for the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which envisions a single market expected to generate a combined GDP of more than $3.4 trillion and benefiting 1.2 billion people. So far, 49 countries have come on board.
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