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.
The Two Faces That Mean Business
A complete irony that just as the words ‘women power’ are mentioned in the room, the power goes off.
It’s a cold winter’s day in Johannesburg and the Greenside suburb that we are in for this interview is encountering unscheduled load-shedding.
The word power was in describing Phuti Mahanyele’s and Stacey Brewer’s ascent to corporate celebrity.
On this day, just before the photoshoot, they are quivering in the cold, dark studio, defiantly relating separate stories about their successes, but united in their quest for excellence in a renewed South Africa. They are resolute about gender dynamics and what it has meant to stave off stereotypes and rise to being leaders in their individual spheres.
Sipping hot coffee out of a styrofoam cup, Mahanyele talks about success born of years of hard work.
It was not just blood, sweat and tears that defined her growth, but also sacrifice and illness.
Today, she is one of the richest self-made entrepreneurs in South Africa, a mentor and businesswoman commanding the boardroom.
This is a world away from apartheid South Africa into which she was born.
She was born in the urban township of Soweto, home to icons like Nelson Mandela, Richard Maponya and Trevor Noah. Here, she first learned about struggle, power and resilience.
In the 1970s, it was a place of defiance and resistance. She credits her parents’ hard work, in the face of a racist South Africa, for her success. Her father, Mohale Mahanyele, one of the country’s pioneers of black business, taught her that limitations are actually opportunities.
Mohale knew hardship. He grew up in a four-room house in the township with 12 siblings.
“He once told us how he told his friends he wanted to have a degree and they would all laugh. I remember him telling us that one of his friends said to him, ‘you know, if you work hard at this job, one day, you won’t have to catch a bus because you would be able to catch a taxi. That’s how good life can be’. But my father had other plans for his life and worked hard to make it happen,” says Mahanyele.
At the time of his death in 2012, Mohale was one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen who served on many boards. He left a wealth of knowledge and a legacy.
“My father used to include us in everything and travel with us. I remember going to events with him as his partner. He was not afraid to expose us to things he wanted us to achieve. We would go with him to gala events and meetings here in South Africa and oversees,” she recalls.
It steeled her for a future in the cold, dark world of business.
“I remember at one gala event, my father was sitting next to the CEO of a large mining business. The CEO was a very big personality in South Africa but for some reason, they didn’t get on well. At this event, they sat next to each other and I was in the middle. I was so confident that I took it to myself that since he won’t talk to my dad, I would speak to him. I remember speaking to this man and he would look at me awkwardly and respond to me very briefly and I would ask him another question,” chuckles Mahanyele.
She says her father spoke to her like she was an adult business woman. He also had a career plan for her. He wanted her to study economics, but she wanted to be a ballerina. Like an obedient daughter, she followed his instructions and went on to study for a bachelor of economics in the United States (US).
“Even after finishing the economics degree, I still wanted to be a dancer but my dad had a whole plan for me. He had even worked out which companies I should work for,” she says.
It was only when she was working on her thesis for her MBA in the United Kingdom (UK) that she fell in love with business.
“I was looking at how black economic empowerment would impact black business. I then had an interest in mergers and acquisitions because I saw this as an area where one could create opportunities for black-owned businesses in South Africa.”
After graduation in the US, she returned home to work for her father. She says it was interesting but she quickly discovered that working in an environment where her father was the boss was not ideal.
“You could never really achieve anything without it being attributed to your father,” she says.
In 1995, just a year after South Africa became a democracy, she moved to Cape Town to work at a company where her father had no influence.
“I remember going to interviews and they didn’t know anyone with my surname which was wonderful.
I knew I was getting that job because of my own merit.”
It wasn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She was employed as a brand manager but had little to do.
“I had a title, a lovely office and everything but there was no work. I essentially could show up, do nothing all day and nobody would care. I wasn’t expected to do anything. I think it was a time when people were just trying to fill the numbers to say they have a black female employee except I had zero to do. Everyone was busy and the person who had worked in that position before had work but I didn’t,” says Mahanyele.
She quickly realized it was time to move on. To properly arm herself with enough tools to disrupt the world of business, she swapped her high-paying job for a less-paying position in advertising.
“They were launching SABC 1, 2 and 3 and I was recruited as an account manager back in Johannesburg. It was very busy and I worked unbelievable hours but I loved it because I needed to grow.”
As she was working, she realized there wasn’t going to be any longevity on the job. This was when she left to study for her MBA in the UK. She then applied for a job at Fieldstone, an investment banking advisory service firm in New York.
“They were not looking for anyone and they had never had a black person from the African continent apply for a job so it was a bit weird. I heard ‘no’ several times but I kept applying.”
When they realized she wasn’t going to stop, they offered her an internship. It came with a small stipend, long hours and no benefits. Even though it was less than she was used to, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“It was very difficult at first because I was from the African continent and I had never been to an Ivy League university. People I worked with were from Ivy League and it was difficult competing with them…I made the most of it. At home, it had not made sense that I would go from a corporate job to having an MBA and then an internship. It seemed as if I was going backwards but I knew I wasn’t going backwards because I was getting experience in an industry I had zero experience in.”
With hard work, at the end of the internship, she was offered a job.
“I didn’t expect it at all because I remember one of the difficult times during that internship was when I tried to speak to a black female partner so I could introduce myself. She was shocked I was there and assumed I was lost. She quickly showed me the way to where the interns sat.”
Mahanyele dedicated seven years to the firm. She went from intern to associate, then associated director and finally the vice president of the company.
“I worked long hours and one more thing I used was what I learned from my father. He taught me to always have good relationships with people. It doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with everyone but it means whenever you engage with people you are positive and it’s meaningful. That’s how I managed to climb the ladder fast,” she says.
After seven years, it was time to move back home. With her skill and experience, she was immediately snapped up by a big organization.
“I was used to working long hours to get the work done but here, I had a team and at 5PM, they would all leave to go home. I remember the first time it happened, I thought there was a meeting somewhere and my PA had forgotten to tell me about it. I remember calling one of them and he told me he was home. I said ‘what time are you coming back?’ and he said ‘why?’ and I’m like ‘the sun is still up’. I was shocked but quickly realized everyone came at 8AM and left at 5PM.”
She says it was a difficult time for her as a leader. She assumed that her team was demotivated and had many of them in disciplinary hearings.
“I realized I had to understand my new environment. People here had a different way of doing things. Because you go home early, it doesn’t mean you are not productive,” says Mahanyele.
“What I didn’t realize was that the problem was with me because I hadn’t looked at the environment to realize the culture here was that people did what they needed to do at the time.”
It wasn’t long before she was recruited by South Africa’s current President Cyril Ramaphosa as the head of the energy division of his then business, Shanduka Group. She was soon chosen as the CEO of the group.
“The boardroom was very interesting. We weren’t seeing a lot of young black women. I remember one of my colleagues telling me that they walked into a boardroom and one of the board members assumed she was one of the tea ladies and immediately placed an order…I remember even being on a flight and sitting next to a person I had only read about and he started flirting with me telling me what apartment he could buy me even though I was married,” she recounts.
She didn’t let these gender setbacks deter her.
At the helm of Shanduka, she managed the group’s multi-million dollar investments in South Africa and on the rest of the continent including in energy in Mozambique, and telecom in Nigeria. Shanduka had big investments in companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, SEACOM, Aggreko in Mozambique and in other sectors.
“What I loved about Shanduka is that it was business that wasn’t just focused on returns but focused on impacting the lives of people. When we launched the business, we also launched a foundation.”
In 2015, after a decade of service, she left the company after making bold moves boosting the company’s profits. During her time at Shanduka, Mahanyele was responsible for securing important transactions such as the China Investment Corporation (CIC) – which was the corporation’s first direct investment in South Africa – which owned 25% equity in the Shanduka Group at the time. She also sealed a partnership with Aggreko that increased Shanduka’s skills in the temporary power sector. This translated into the company becoming one of Eskom’s private power suppliers.
Soon after her departure, she founded Sigma Capital Group, a privately-held, majority black-owned investment group. It has interests in power and infrastructure, real estate, technology, media and telecommunications, consumer goods businesses and financial services.
It was a tough journey here. A few years before this venture, the long hours almost cost her her life.
“Sometimes, we can overlook ourselves. I focused a lot on what was going on at the time. My father had passed away, we were finalizing the closing of Shanduka and I had a lot of stress. I remember I was in a board meeting and I had a massive headache. I took it that maybe if I went shopping, the headache would go away but instead I collapsed in a shopping center in London…”
She felt better, returned to South Africa and collapsed again on her way to a meeting. She lost her short-term memory at the time and struggled for a long time.
“Fortunately, I had a great neurologist who I don’t see any more, thankfully.”
She had to redesign her life.
“It’s about looking after our health and managing stress. My schedule has changed significantly. I don’t manage as many things at the same time and I don’t put as much pressure on myself because I realize you can die young,” says Mahanyele.
One of the things she still does though is mentoring young people. One of her lucky mentees is Emmanuel Bonoko, a public relations entrepreneur and part of the 2016 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list.
“I am blessed to have mentors like Phuti Mahanyele…She taught me that small things count a lot, she taught me to keep putting in more effort and learning from others, never to be ashamed of struggle, humility, start small, to arm myself with education and to adapt with trends,” says Bonoko, crediting Mahanyele for his success.
According to Mahanyele, mentorship is an important part of the growth of an economy. She says a lot of young people lack confidence.
“It’s something I often see missing in young people. Just having the confidence to approach someone that you don’t know and try to build a relationship towards something you want to achieve,” she says.
With all the work, there has been recognition too.
In 2007, she was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. The Wall Street Journal counted her among the Top 50 Women in the World to watch in 2008. In 2011, Forbes named her one of the 20 youngest power women in Africa, and in 2014, she was named FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Business Woman of the Year.
It’s clear that this bright star is still adding to her net worth, rising, inspiring and disrupting business.
The Futurist In Education
Equally adamant about disruption is Stacey Brewer, swimming with the big fish in South Africa’s booming education sector.
According to Berkery Noyes, an independent mid-market investment bank in the US, in 2015, there were 415 mergers and acquisitions in the education industry valued at a whopping $17.75 billion.
In Africa too, there has been a spike in demand for quality.
Caerus Capital LLC, an investment and advisory firm that focuses on healthcare and education businesses in emerging markets, says 25 million children are expected to join private institutions in the next five years. In its Business of Education in Africa report, it predicts that one in four children will be enrolled in private schools by 2021. If this prediction is true, it means investors could pocket between $16 billion to $18 billion over the next five years.
Those with money – and ideas – are taking advantage of the opportunity.
In South Africa, last year, the country’s first education impact fund, Schools Investment Fund, announced an investment of nearly R200 million ($15 million) to build four new schools.
Although she wasn’t inspired by the high-profit margins, through her venture, SPARKS Schools, Brewer is making her mark. She is an unlikely candidate for education entrepreneurship but like Mahanyele, she relentlessly pushes for success.
“I think my first word was ‘no’. I don’t like rules and regulations, so I’m naturally a person who loves to create her own space… I really like to figure things out and especially when people say it’s impossible to do, it makes me want to do it even more,” says Brewer.
Also similar to Mahanyele, her life changed while she was doing her MBA.
“I was actually shocked; I didn’t even realize the state of education is so bad in the country. The professor was showing us how much we spend on education and the fact that we prioritize education but we are ranked at the bottom of the world. I just thought that it’s completely unacceptable and it just makes no sense and that’s when I did my thesis on it,” she says.
Armed with research, a co-founder, Ryan Harrison, who understands technology, and people who believed in her, in 2011, she took a bold move and founded SPARKS Schools to help improve the state of education in South Africa.
“I literally spoke to everyone I met about my idea and asked for referrals. If I hadn’t done an MBA, I don’t even think I would’ve had the idea, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage and support to go out and launch by any means…I honestly don’t believe in the fact that someone else could steal your idea if you share too much. I mean most ideas are out there anyway and the difference between that is actually the execution process and the passion and believing in it completely because that’s the only thing that keeps you going when times are tough,” she says.
She finally received R60,000 ($4,500) in seed capital to travel overseas to explore the idea.
“We took a lot of inspiration from the US so we had to go see if it was viable. We looked at Rocketship, a school in the US which pioneered blended learning there. We went there to see if it’s possible to take inspiration that would work in South Africa.”
Brewer was impressed.
“The results the kids were achieving were unbelievable. They were competing against affluent schools in the area, they were working with second language English speakers, they were working with families from a complete mixture of backgrounds, and a lot of them were from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet they were competing with affluent schools. It was very impressive in terms of what was possible and from there, we said we absolutely can do it and then two of their staff members came to join us,” she says.
It wasn’t going to be easy. They needed to raise R4.5 million ($340,000) to start a school. They tried to raise funds but doors were being shut everywhere they went.
It was dark times because they had no track-record. All they had was a dream to open a network of schools which would disrupt South Africa’s education economy.
“You lose confidence at some point because you’re not sure if it’s ever going to kick-off. But luckily, Ryan and I could pick each other up when one was down and times were tough. We had to find another way, as we really had nothing to lose. If it didn’t get off the ground then it didn’t, and we would have to find a job in that case.”
Luckily, through a contact at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), where she did her MBA, they got a lucky break.
“The entire experience was really tough. It was only when the first person said yes, and put in money that we felt better. At first, we were like ‘are you sure?’ It came as a surprise because everyone else was just saying ‘no’.”
It was a start to a multi-million dollar company. Their initial investor introduced them to a group of other people who also invested.
They opened the first school in a house in Randburg. It had six big rooms, a kitchen, lounge and a pool. They used a lot of PR to get publicity and build credibility.
“We recruited our first family while seated in a coffee shop. I take my hat off for families who started with us because it is high risk,” says Brewer.
Their model of education won many parents over. The vision was to build a network of schools that offer better education at the same price as government. Here, they mixed traditional classroom learning with computer learning.
This kind of teaching was a hit. They enrolled 160 children within the first year. They then opened another school in Cresta, also in Johannesburg.
“We opened it up in 2014, but we had originally planned to open it up in 2015. We then realized that the model was working, the demand was high and we went for it. In fact, by 2015, we had four schools in total.”
Today, there are 15 SPARKS schools around the country. Brewer plans to open another six next year, including their first high school.
“Our high school model is going to be different. We haven’t formally announced the model yet but we will offer a whole lot of different subjects…It’s going to be an evolution,” she says.
The way they teach has already evolved. The school has two blended learning modules. In the foundation phase, which is Grade R to 3, they have lab rotation and Grade 4 to 7 is the flex model where the high-level children get introduced to a concept in the classroom, and then they leave the classroom and go to the lab where they get to interact with the data software to allow for extended reinforcement of what happened in the classroom. Right from Grade R, the children are rotating like in a high school and go to their special subject teachers for particular subjects.
“In our flex model, each child is on a different rotation, moving from different modalities of learning from online, to group work, to getting into practice, to direct instruction with the teacher. In the lab rotation for the foundation phase, there’s actual software that the kids use for a maths program and a literacy program. It’s all about mastering, as they will go on the different levels. We have no text books and it’s all about doing different projects.”
Here, teachers go through extensive training to be able to handle this type of system.
“It gets tough for other teachers who have experience from other traditional schools. It takes about six months for them to fully get used to the teaching system. It’s just so different from the other schools,” says Brewer.
Although aligned with the national program, Brewer says their learners should be way ahead, as they are constantly benchmarking international standards.
“What I love about this model in particular, is that its personalized learning. It doesn’t matter when the learners come to us; we are able to get them up to speed…We don’t screen any of our children, it’s a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning any child from any community can achieve and grow…An example would be that in the country you’re only expected to know how to read when you are in Grade 2, whereas our learners can do that in Grade 1.”
SPARKS Schools have over 7,000 children and they employ over 750 staff. She is now focusing on growing the school network with hopes to double the number of schools they currently have in the next five years.
“When I did my MBA at GIBS, I was always worried because people see entrepreneurs as calculated and that they only worry about making money. But I was like, there’s got to be another side to it, there has to be social good,” she says.
This success has earned Brewer much praise. Many call her an innovator.
“I don’t necessarily think of myself as an innovator, but it’s something we definitely want to do as an organization, to completely disrupt the education sector and not just locally, but internationally as well. We deliver education on a high note and get our kids ready for what the future may hold,” she says.
Although Brewer grew up watching her father build businesses, she says she never ever thought she would end up becoming an entrepreneur.
“Even now, I’m still not sure if I am an entrepreneur. It’s just so funny – it’s just this title. I’ve always been someone who wants to create change and I don’t wait on other people. If social entrepreneurship is about someone who is adamant to create a social change, and move the human race, then I’m absolutely that person.”
According to Brewer, success doesn’t mean the end of fear. She says, even after opening the school, she was paranoid that something might go wrong or things would fall apart. Even today, she says worries about absolutely everything.
“Now I have just built up a huge amount of resilience over time. I don’t take things as personally as I used to,” she says.
One thing she is afraid of though is the future of education in Africa. According to Brewer, Africa’s classrooms, as we know them, are changing. She says the classroom of the future will be ushered in by high demand for futurist classrooms such as what they offer at SPARKS Schools.
In the words of poet W B Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Brewer is just the spark that was needed in the dark.
The Tall Lawyer, Investor And Philanthropist In A Power Suit
Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.
It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.
The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.
As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.
Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.
For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.
Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.
He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.
Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.
Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.
“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”
The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.
“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.
And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.
If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.
“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.
At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.
Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.
Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.
The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.
According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.
That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.
After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).
“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.
His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.
“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.
“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.
Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.
Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.
Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.
“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.
“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”
In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.
“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.
That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.
He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.
Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.
He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.
“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.
His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”
It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.
“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.
Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.
“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.
Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.
The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.
“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.
Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.
“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”
But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.
“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.
It was dark times for Oyebode.
“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”
He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.
On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.
“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”
But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.
His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.
“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”
The Future In Her Hands
If Naledi Pandor has her way, an overhaul of South Africa’s higher learning system is on the cards, transforming its institutions into enterprise creators and the vanguard of the country’s march into the fourth industrial revolution.
Two months into her second tenure in education which now includes skills training, Pandor has become a student again as she seeks to understand the forces leaving many of the country’s children unemployable. In her austere office in the Central Business District of South Africa’s capital Tshwane, Pandor, 64, speaks with the enthusiasm of a pioneer.
“We tend to be one-dimensional in our thinking that a qualification will lead to a job and so in speaking to young people, I have been saying more and more that I want to hear about the people that you are going to employ. I want to hear about the enterprise you want to create. I am less interested in hearing about who is going to employ you,’’ she says.
Conversations have already started with the colleges, sector authorities, universities and private sector associations on improving the higher education curriculum and coordinating the country’s drive to be more competitive as the fourth industrial revolution transforms industries and economies, threatening to widen the gap between developing and developed nations.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), very few developing countries are paying attention to the impact of technological advances associated with the fourth industrial revolution, which have the potential to widen the divide between rich and poor nations by worsening unemployment, increasing the concentration of economic power and wealth and spreading biases in influential algorithms.
Pandor takes over a department with huge demands such as reform of the curriculum and its decolonization, and a skills-set that needs to be aligned to the real economy, says Mzoxolo Mpolase, Managing Director of Political Analysis, a political consultancy in South Africa. But she has the intellectual strength and forthrightness required to tackle the task, he adds.
“She is one of those people in cabinet who has a message-driven approach which is quite unlike some that like to talk big game. She understands the multifacetedness of things and she will be able to address things at that level. She has the policy understanding that will enable her to address the issues and she can listen to experts as well. For a politician, that is a huge compliment,’’ says Mpolase.
Pandor, appointed Minister of Higher Education and Training in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first cabinet this year, is setting up a multi-sectoral task team to assess fourth industrial revolution-related work in research and teaching in the country’s universities, colleges and community education.
“It includes certainly skilling and upskilling but for me, what it really would be focused on is where our universities are in terms of research in this area, what we are doing with respect to technology transfer and what we are doing in the areas of innovation. Because this fourth industrial revolution has so many components to it; it’s much more than that. It’s bioinformatics, it’s the bioeconomy, it’s technology in education,’’ she says.
“We are active and are also working with the CEOs. You’d be surprised how far down the road we are but the scale is small because we’re not investing sufficiently.’’
South Africa’s education system has been faulted for the country’s high unemployment rate of 26.7%, ranking 75th out of 76, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study in 2015, and is 114th out of 137 countries in the 2017-2018 WEF education quality survey.
This despite one of the highest spending rates on education in the world. The country spends more on education than either the United States, United Kingdom or Germany, according to United Nations statistics and yet has one of the lowest returns on investment because of poor teacher training, financial mismanagement and underspending on black education during the apartheid years.
In the last national budget, the entire sector, including basic education, again took the lion’s share of state resources, comprising 21% of all spending, or $28 billion. Over the next three years, the government plans to up that to about $89 billion, covering teacher and learner support and free education for the indigent.
While preparing Africa’s most industrialised for a digital future, Pandor is adamant that, that future includes changing the mindset of South Africans on education and the jobs market. Her in-tray, she says, a flicker of a smile breaking out on her face, is huge. Aside from the universities, it also includes work on skills training in the workplace as well as training in the formal education systems.
“So this tray is massive and the priority really is to ensure our young people have opportunities in South Africa and that we also pay attention to the skills needed in South Africa. It would not make much sense for example to have many young people entering our institutions but we still lack electricians, plumbers and bricklayers. So, I think my department should be attuned to the skills needed in South Africa and it should be able to link the opportunities we provide to the skill demand out there.’’
Pandor is as unassuming as she is forthright. She takes a dig at herself and other parents for outdated thinking when it comes to young people, recalling how her son Haroon, recoiled in horror when she asked who he was going to work for when he finished school.
“I was a bit surprised when he turned to me and said ‘Mummy! Me work for somebody? I’m going to start my own business!’ You know my initial thought was of horror, because I thought ‘oh no. he’s going to be at home for ever’. And he’s actually looking after himself. He’s running his own small business. He’s happily doing what he enjoys and he’s an entrepreneur. So I’m also at fault here as well.’’
Pandor isn’t your typical feminist. Does she believe women should be given more opportunity to make up for years of exclusion from mainstream economics under apartheid and the impact of patriarchy? Of course. But she says it’s everybody’s fight and interventions should be strategic.
She is withering in her assessment of women’s advances in higher education: four women vice chancellors out of the country’s 26 universities? “That’s not good enough,’’ she says, while condemning the prevalence of sexual violence in universities.
But it’s not just about numbers, she adds. While girls were beginning to outnumber boys at institutions of higher learning, also important was the representation of women in key fields such as engineering, science and further study.
“We will make a difference if we ensure we are a majority in non-traditional disciplines so what I’m learning is that you can be a majority but that majority may have no effect if you’re not being strategic about ensuring that actually that presence is in areas that make a real difference and that’s where I think we need to become better. We need to move beyond the notion that it’s a game of numbers.’’
And it’s also about how women conduct themselves, she says. It’s not enough to ask for the advancement of women when role models are misbehaving, she cautions.
“As women leaders, we need to set the tone on values and ethics and articulate this tone not by making speeches of rhetoric but in the way we conduct our lives.’’
But shouting slogans and making political speeches was never part of the original plan, says Pandor even though she grew up in exile, the daughter of political stalwart, Joe Matthews, one of the 156 African National Congress (ANC) members charged in the 1956 Treason Trial that eventually sent Nelson Mandela to prison for 27 years. Her grandfather, ZK Matthews, was a global anti-apartheid fighter.
“I actually hated politics because I blamed it for the experiences we went through. My parents would always talk about the movement, the ANC and the ANC. So we had to go to London or we needed to go to Zambia, and I thought; ‘this ANC is stopping me from having friends and changing schools’,’’ says Pandor.
Education changed all that, she says with a laugh. “I became a teacher in other young people’s education and education led me into politics.’’
Grace Naledi Mandisa was born in 1953 in Durban and ended up going to school in Botswana where she matriculated at Gaborone Secondary School. She attained the first of her three degrees at the University of Botswana, majoring in English and History in 1977. Next was the University of London where she graduated with a Masters of Arts and then back home in South Africa in 1997, Stellenbosch University awarded her an MA in Linguistics.
Pandor taught English in Botswana, the UK and at the University of Cape Town. She entered parliament in 1994 with the dawn of democracy, rising to Deputy Chief Whip of the ANC the following year. She has also served as Deputy Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, the second of South Africa’s bicameral system whose members are selected by the provinces.
She first served as Education Minister from 2004 to 2009 in the second cabinet of former President Thabo Mbeki where she inherited the widely criticised Outcome-Based Education system introduced in 1998 by the late Kader Asmal. The system was scrapped in 2009 as she exited cabinet. She would return in 2012 as Home Affairs Minister in former president Jacob Zuma’s first administration.
Growing up in exile also meant she was never able to develop friendships amongst her own people.
“Sometimes, that makes me sad because I feel that I missed out on developing long-term relationships in my country because the relationships that I have are family primarily because I didn’t go to school here. So I don’t have friends I can say went to school together with.’’
Could that have cost her the chance to be deputy to Ramaphosa at last year’s elective conference? Pandor doesn’t believe so, pointing out she declined a nomination.
“I was fairly happy to be a member of the national executive committee and made my name available for that and I think I know my limitations and I know my temperament as well and some people have a temperament for certain things and others don’t. I don’t have the temperament for the blue light convoy. It would drive me nuts.’’
It’s the same down-to-earth temperament that frames her approach to her religion. Few know, for instance, that the mother of four is a Muslim who converted from Christianity when she married Sharif Joseph Pandor who she met in Botswana.
“I do practise it openly in the way that I dress I hope. But I believe that religion is part of one’s life and that we derive our values from the principles we acquire at home or from what we learn in our spiritual domain so there are many shared principles in the world religions and so I found that my embracing of Islam was rendered easier by having been a practising Christian. So I don’t see our world religions as being incompatible and so, no, it wasn’t difficult for me.’’
Does she see a better future for South Africa under President Ramaphosa after the economic stagnation of the Zuma years?
“I’m certainly hopeful that it will but it’s early days but looking at the character of the man and the bold initiatives that have been undertaken and the courageous stance he has taken, I think we have good reason to be very optimistic.’’
Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist, has set a target of attracting $100 billion to South Africa in five years, creating a million jobs.
Pandor has been less successful in trying to pass on her political activism to her children and she says it’s no bad thing even though she has encouraged them to play a role in the branches. Politics isn’t easy and besides, she adds deadpan: the country needs more professionals and entrepreneurs.
“It’s a whole of set of interventions we need to work on to get South Africa thriving,’’ she says, determination etched on her face.
And if that were achieved, South Africa’s future would certainly be secure in an increasingly complex, economics-driven and globalized world.
– Story by Godfrey Mutizwa
‘She Is Unfailingly Ethical’ – Aisha Pandor
Naledi Pandor’s daughter, Aisha Pandor, is a Cape Town-based entrepreneur. She runs SweepSouth, an online platform for booking, managing and paying for regular and ad hoc home cleaning. Via app and website, it connects homeowners with ‘SweepStars’ (home cleaners). Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a breakthrough African Female Innovation, and backed by South African and Silicon Valley venture capital, SweepSouth employs sophisticated algorithms to match its customers and cleaners, creating work opportunities for domestic workers, many of whom are single mothers. Aisha was a FORBES WOMAN AFRICA cover star as part of The Millennials in the February/March 2016 issue of the magazine. Here, she speaks about her greatest influence:
A few words on your mother’s work ethic…
My mom is honestly the most hardworking person I know, leaving the house just before 8AM each morning (usually having done some calls to her staff or radio interviews prior), and then only arriving back home in the evening with a 3kg-thick file she then immediately gets to work on before going to bed very late at night. It’s been the same way for as long as I can remember. My mom has instilled in us the idea of service. She has a simplistic, logical and moral approach to life. Despite all of the hard work, she somehow also manages to be an attentive, caring and available mom who knows exactly what is going on in the lives of each of her four children, even as we’ve become adults. She is also unfailingly ethical, and I remember being extremely frustrated as a child when she would refuse us complimentary concert tickets or plane rides from voyager miles that she’d earned traveling, because ‘we hadn’t earned them’. She is also a master debater who reads voraciously and is extremely knowledgeable across a range of fields, meaning if you challenge her on something you’d better come prepared. There were many a time myself or my siblings would get a savage cut-down after trying to challenge our mom (unprepared) over the dinner table on some current event. We often attend her debates in parliament or listen to her on the radio and have a bit of a laugh seeing her do the same to the opposition, as we know exactly how it feels.
Memorable anecdotes on her when you were growing up…
My mother and father were apartheid activists living in Botswana, which is where two of my three siblings and I were born. We returned back to Cape Town in late 1989, when it was confirmed safe for us to return and that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison, my mom received a post as a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and we lived along with my sister in a little flat near the university. My brother and dad lived apart from us for a year, waiting to be allowed into the country, and each morning my mom would walk my sister and myself up the very steep hill towards the university, which sits on the foot of Table Mountain. Driving past that tiny flat, or up that road towards Table Mountain, always feels like a reminder of the difficult start we had coming back into the country and that uphill walk feels symbolic of the progress my mom made.
Also, my mom was very strict as we grew up and although we were never punished physically there were times when we’d get a pinch for particularly bad behaviour. Corporal punishment was still allowed in schools, though, and we were the first black children to be accepted into previously white-only model C schools. As a result, my brother would get into lots of fights due to racism and in some cases when he retaliated would be caned by the head master of the school. Eventually, my parents had enough and my mom marched into the school and told the old headmaster very sternly that he was never to lay a hand on any of her children. He looked very embarrassed after the scolding and true to my mom’s warning my brother was never caned again.
Despite what must have been an incredibly difficult time for my young parents coming back into the country and facing open hostility and racism, I have really fond memories growing up and we were a close family unit, with strong parents who sheltered us a lot from the more unpleasant aspects of pre- and post-apartheid South Africa.
What you think of her now as an entrepreneur yourself?
I’m struck by how many sacrifices my mom must have made to be a working mother who still kept a happy family and marriage, and also by the courage she must have had as a working woman ascending to powerful positions within government. As an entrepreneur in a male-dominated space (technology), I understand how she had to sometimes come across as unfriendly to get things done and overcome being undermined. On another note though, as an entrepreneur and somewhat more of a risk-taker, I also wish my mom would put herself out there more and take more career and life risks.
– Interviewed by Methil Renuka
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