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Farmer. Marathon Man. Businessman.

Ethiopia’s most famous man, Haile Gebrselassie, widely regarded as the world’s greatest distance runner, has invested the millions he has made from sport into his country.

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Once upon a time, there was a poor little boy named Haile Gebrselassie in Asella, a village in Ethiopia’s dusty south. One of 10 children, he watched his father farm wheat and maize and tend to his cows and sheep. Poverty was the only constant in their life. School was 10 kilometers away, and every day, the young boy would run to his classes and back, covering the distance in minutes. Those were baby steps to global fame.

Years later, he would become Ethiopia’s most famous man entering record books as the world’s greatest distance runner.

It all began when one day, on his father’s radio, a seven-year-old Gebrselassie heard of Miruts Yifter, the Ethiopian runner who won two golds at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. That made him decide his own course in life – he too would become a runner. The green countryside and rugged mountains of his hometown became his inimitable training ground.

While in high school, a 14-year-old Gebrselassie pleaded with his teachers to compete in the local marathon. He was the youngest in the competition, but was at least 60 meters ahead of the rest when he eventually won. The prize was a dollar – a princely sum. Overnight, he became school hero.

And in time, Ethiopia’s hero, winning two Olympic golds and eight World Championships, and setting 27 world records. The golds were for Atlanta in 1996 and for Sydney in 2000, when he competed with Kenyan Paul Tergat in an epic finish.

Many still remember the rapturous reception when he landed in Addis Ababa from Sydney; thousands thronged the streets all the way from the airport, hailing him like a king. To this day, he is known as the ‘Emperor of Long Distance’.

It’s March 2015, two months before announcing his retirement from competitive running, when FORBES AFRICA meets him for the first time.

Gebrselassie is seated on a pale leather sofa in a dapper suit, sporting a winning smile that people say is his greatest asset. He is undeniably affable. His office is on the eighth floor of the Haile & Alem International building on the arterial Bole Road in Addis Ababa. There is raucous traffic below and the city is a giant construction site – new buildings coming up on either side of the road, and with them, swirling columns of dust.

The building we are in was constructed by Gebrselassie, all nine floors of it, now let out to other offices. Every business he owns has his indelible stamp: the Haile Gabrselassie Avenue in Addis Ababa (he has a road in his name) has another one of his iconic office buildings, so designed as to inconspicuously bear the letters H&A on its face (A for Alem, his wife and business partner). He owns resorts in and en route to Awasa, about four hours by road from Addis Ababa, all of them five-star and named Haile.

It’s hot and Gebrselassie rues Ethiopia is not getting enough rain.

“I am the son of a farmer, I know this is not good,” he says.

He has a 1,500-hectare organic coffee farm in Ethiopia’s south, and he fears the land will be too dry.

Talk of his farm and village evokes memories of his childhood, and that first overseas trip to Belgium from there.

“In 1991, there was a cross-country race here in Addis and I finished fifth. That year, the top six finalists were taken to Belgium for the international competition. I finished eighth but I can never forget my first international trip,” smiles Gebrselassie.

The following year, he flew again, this time to Seoul in South Korea, where he won the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter championships. The prize was a C180 Mercedes-Benz. He also won another C180 Mercedes-Benz in 1995. He says they are both proudly displayed at his resort in Awasa.

In the 2013 book Haile Gebrselassie: Emperor of Long Distance, he recounts that emotional moment when he won gold for the first time at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“…I had no worries about the sprint. I kicked with 200 meters and crossed the line with a new Olympic record of 27:07.34. My dream came true. Many things crossed my mind when I stood on top of the podium – pressure from Ethiopians, my promise to Alem, the hopes of the family… As soon as the national anthem started, I began to cry. It’s the only time I’ve cried on the podium.”

“I have run for more than 300 competitions so far. I have run for 27 years. But now, it is a different kind of running,” smiles Gebrselassie, referring to his multiple business interests in real estate, hospitality, imported cars, coffee and cineplexes.

“But I don’t think I am an entrepreneur, I am trying,” he says modestly.

He never expected his businesses to grow the way they have.

“I have built office blocks, shops, resorts, cinemas, gyms and schools,” he says.

Since 2014, he has also tried his luck at gold mining, working on exploration in Ethiopia’s southeast.

“Our geologists are working very hard. And we are investing a lot, a lot of money. We have found gold, but production will not be [now],” he says.

He has enough of the gleaming metal in his trophy cabinet too. How many gold medals, we ask.

“That is a good question. I didn’t count them, but could be more than 200. From 1992, until 2008, I have run an average of 15 competitions a year. That is a lot, [enough] to have run at least two times around the world,” laughs Gebrselassie.

The marathon man appears pensive before he speaks again.

“Because I travel a lot, I always think of how to improve my country. For example, if I walk in London, I would look around and wish we had those buildings in Ethiopia. And when I [have] the money, I would come back, and want to build. One building would lead to another.”

His drawing board includes a five-star hotel in Addis Ababa, named Haile, of course. Gebrselassie introduced local cinema to the city. His cineplexes currently showcase Ethiopian films to packed houses. He has even tried his hand at acting. In 1999, he starred as himself in the film Endurance, screened at his cinema house.

The film didn’t do well.

“It was not appreciated,” smiles Gebrselassie. “But the next film we screened was a love story [he was not in it], and that’s when the people came.”

Every November, Gebrselassie organizes the Great Ethiopian Run, commencing from Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square. The turnout in 2014 was 40,000 and growing each year; it’s a resounding success on the continent’s marathon map. In addition, in 2015, he was also part of the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town.

“Actually, my business [philosophy] is like this: there is business for money and business for satisfaction. I opened a school in the village I was born in and another school in west Ethiopia. The fees are minimal and I didn’t open them for profit… If you ask me how much my businesses are worth, it’s not only the property, it’s the people too. I work hard and I don’t see how much I have. I am happy,” says Gebrselassie.

He wants to make sure he’s setting the right example for the upcoming generation of athletes.

“Most runners or sportspeople; how many of them invest in business?” he asks. “I haven’t seen anyone invest money this way. And I know many sportsmen around the world. For me, the chances I have given my people, is worth more than a billion dollars. Most of the younger athletes [now] invest here. They say ‘Haile has inspired us’. To copy is not difficult, but to create something is hard. My farms, hotels and buildings give job opportunities for others. All the money has been from athletics. If you want to see a true billionaire, in terms of money, come back in five years. Don’t ask me how much money I have in currency, but the goodwill [I enjoy] is priceless.”

And who did he look up to for inspiration? “If you ask me who the world’s best long-distance runner is, I would say it is Nelson Mandela. If you have to be a runner, you have to be patient. After 27 years in prison, he forgave [his captors].” Gebrselassie met Mandela in South Africa in 1996 at a world cross-country event and they shook hands.

Addis Ababa being a small city, word, good or bad, gets around. It’s easy to see Gebrselassie is well-respected in the business community.

“He is not just an athlete, he is a smart businessman. What I like about him is he developed himself, is self-made,” says Tihitina Tutu Legesse, one of Addis Ababa’s top entrepreneurs in the furniture business.

On May 10 last year, the two-time 10,000-meter Olympic champion announced his retirement from competitive running. He ran his way to fortune, and there are now rumors that his next turn will be in politics, and that he will be running for parliament in Ethiopia in 2020. He told the BBC in an interview in February this year that he would like to be a politician.

“I think he is very brave. I really admire his strategy,” says Saba Kahsay, the Managing Director of REVO Construction in Addis Ababa. “He knows which fights to pick in terms of business. He has a very strong advisory committee. He does not do everything by himself. He has people doing it for him. He is not just a businessman but also a community man.”

Gebrselassie is expected to be at the Olympic Games in Rio in August where he will be television commentator.

But he is not packing away his running shorts, even though he has changed track to the boardroom. His sprawling hilltop home, where the 43-year-old lives with his wife and four children, overlooks the city. He wakes up before dawn every day to run on the hills of Entoto and their verdant paths. He cannot do without it; he says running is his life.

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A Statement On The Skyline

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South Africa is on its way to another record with Africa’s tallest building.


A new superstructure is making its mark in Sandton in the heart of Africa’s richest square mile.

The $3 billion project is expected to be completed by the end of 2019 and beat Carlton Centre’s reign as the tallest building in Africa since 1973.

The 223-meter, 50-storey Carlton Centre in Johannesburg has for 46 years stood the test of time as a skyscraper dominating the skyline in South Africa and the continent.

The new building coming up in Sandton will be a 55-storey, 234-meter classical Italian eponym paying homage to Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian artist of the Renaissance era.

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It adds to the luxurious portfolio of hotels by the Legacy Living property group.

As The Leonardo rising from the bedrock and gradually etches its presence on the skyline, Gijs Foden, Director of Retail Management in Legacy Living, says it is a beacon that represents economic growth far beyond the surface.

“From a development perspective, everyone knows about the crisis in construction. There is light at the end of the tunnel, through a tough economy. It is a tough market and we are working our way out of it. We are going up. We are part of the beacon of hope through tough times,” he says.

South Africa has nine out of 20 of the continent’s tallest buildings, amounting to 1,277 meters in total and 5,000 steps up a staircase.

While most of these buildings were erected in the 1900s and early 2000s, records have stayed the same.

Johannesburg’s Ponte City Tower standing as the third tallest building in Africa, coming in after Kenya’s Britam Tower at 200 meters.

The Leonardo was initially set out to be a mixed-use building with 33 floors but has since escalated to dominating the South African skyscraper inventory.

Foden says the development will not only provide investment opportunities for South Africa, but it will celebrate African authenticity.

Set to be completed in the year of Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500th death anniversary, African art will be the center-piece of the tower.

You look out of the window and that is your canvas. Internally, the art in the building is African art.

“We are supporting the African artist, it is what it is. The art defines the building. Keeping the essence of the building and at the same time the warmth and lifestyle will be an attraction, irrespective of the Italian name,” Foden says.

By following due processes in getting the height approved, overtaking Carlton Centre’s record, Foden says: “It [Carlton Centre] is still an icon and no one has been able to beat it. It is different times and it is also different generations. This is our generation which is going to be a timeless building for many years to come. It is an urban flight.”

However, the record by The Leonardo may be short-lived as yet another African skyscraper may overshadow it by the end of 2021.

 The Pinnacle, currently being built in Nairobi’s financial hub, is set to be a 70-storey mixed-use development.

According to a yearly study published by The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), Beijing’s China Zun 528-meter skyscraper was the tallest building completed in 2018, making it the eighth-tallest building in the world.

 The study reports that 16 new buildings entered the 100 tallest lists in 2018; up from 14 in 2017, 76% of these were in Asia.

Co-Arc Director, Francois Pienaar, says the influx of skyscrapers in Africa is a way for property investors and developers to exploit the options of sites.

“Sites can become very valuable. There are a lot of things to do with money – [for] better returns for the investment of the land, and that is why people go up. It takes quite a lot of courage, to go 55 floors.

You need to have a client who is inspired to do it. Especially, with the volatility of Africa,” Pienaar says. 

Despite the competition for a piece of the sky, none of the 2019 projected top 30 tallest buildings will supersede the world’s tallest building in Dubai at a towering 829.8 meters with 163 floors above the ground.

The Burj Khalifa has boasted this record since its completion in 2010.

According to Pienaar, the opportunity to build a structure of this magnitude does not come by every day in Africa.

Breaking his 30-storey skyscraping record, Pienaar, who is currently working on The Leonardo, adds:  “It takes a lot more when it comes to delivering services and the kinds of aesthetics that take place.

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“The building has a skin outside which is imported from Spain. It is a new invention from Spain that reduces the heat load on the glass. We have produced a building that is responsible for the climate. We are trying to keep the building energy-efficient,” he says.

As the global economic outlook develops, there is fierce competition for a piece of the sky.

The taller the building, the more money it pulls in.

As the South African economy picks itself up, the lingering shadow of the Leonardo will represent a symbol of growth and a new dawn.

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Lab-grown Diamonds: Never Mined, It’s Man-Made

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Turns out there is literally no difference between lab-grown diamonds and natural diamonds, well, apart from the price.


Ever wondered what the difference between lab-produced diamonds and natural diamonds was? Well, nothing. They are exactly the same.

As with most things of value, a great deal of information has been produced over the years about the price of diamonds. In short, many believe the real price of diamonds is far lower than what ‘big business’ would have us believe and that it is driven up by our insatiable hunger and the social importance we place on the stones.

In line with this, there is a widely-held belief that they are not rare and the market is being deliberately controlled to create the façade that they are difficult to produce. Therefore, their price is dictated by the fact that they symbolize the most enduring of all human emotions – love.

 With that out of the way, in recent times, society has developed a pragmatic relationship with diamonds, rather than a romantic one that has long sustained the industry.

It might be that we live in the era of instant gratification or that we have stopped romanticising the idea of waiting millions of years for the precious stone, but more people have embraced the idea of purchasing lab-grown diamonds.

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Unlike an imitation gem like cubic zirconia, it has the same physical characteristics and chemical components as a natural diamond but production time is much shorter, enabling producers to create it in a matter of weeks.

Lab-grown diamonds producer Ross Reid offers FORBES AFRICA a very sobering perspective with the following analogy to describe man-made diamonds.

“If a couple can’t fall pregnant using conventional methods, they do IVF where the baby’s origin of life is manmade. Is that not a real baby when it’s born?”

The room falls silent as all contemplate this question.

“So by that logic, it is a real diamond,” Reid states emphatically.

Reid is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Inception Diamonds, One of South Africa’s first Diamond companies to offer lab-grown diamonds and fine jewelry.

The world’s leading diamond producer, De Beers, however, has a different perspective.

“We view natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds as very different products as they have completely different production processes. Natural diamonds are created in the earth, under intense heat and pressure over billions of years. Each diamond is rare, finite and unique,” says Bianca Ruakere, a De Beers Group spokesperson.


De Beers Lightbox range. Picture: De Beers

Reid says he recognizes the market potential for global growth in being able to offer conflict-free, environmentally-friendly lab-grown diamonds, especially to the millennial market.

“With the creation of laboratory-grown diamonds, it allows you to offer the consumer the same thing optically, physically, and chemically at a big discount. So you can have the same beauty, the same hardness, the same look and the same feel for less money,” Reid says.

Large diamond producers have also recognized the same potential.

De Beers Group has been producing synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes for more than 50 years. “Last year, we launched Lightbox in the United States to market a range of fun, fashion jewelry using lab-grown diamonds. They are accessibly priced, and a distinct product offering compared with natural diamonds,” Ruakere says.

 Price is not the only reason that encourages the market to opt for lab-grown diamonds. They are also other ethical factors such as having a guarantee that the rock on your finger is conflict-free.

 Shogan Naidoo, who proposed to his fiancé, Preba Iyavoo, on Valentine’s Day at the popular independent cinema house, The Bioscope, did so with a healthy bank balance and clean conscience.

They were traditionally engaged in July last year, so by the time the ring engagement happened, Iyavoo was caught completely off-guard and was pleasantly surprised.

“Shogan is the most endearing person, but he’s not romantic in the slightest,” says a giddy Iyavoo, who recalls the proposal that happened in a filled theater, with a movie Naidoo had created just for her.

The couple are besotted with their lab-grown diamond. Naidoo says after doing exhaustive research to find the perfect ring to propose with, all conventional options had failed him.

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 He says his final ring choice far exceeded his expectations in price and design. Naidoo explains that Iyavoo has a very specific preference and that he was not willing to compromise in getting her the perfect ring but the one he initially wanted was in the range of R80,000 ($5,500).

  “We were planning a wedding and we’d just bought a house,” he says. The exorbitant cost of retail rings led him to search out of the box, and eventually the box returned with the perfect gem.

 The couple who lead a very environmentally-conscious lifestyle, say they are especially proud to be the custodians of this ring because they are guaranteed it’s conflict-free and no miners were exploited.

 Reid says he has to grapple with a great deal of scepticism because many are not ready to fully embrace the idea of lab-grown diamonds despite their advantages.

“The Federal Trade Commission has changed the definition of a diamond. It does not need to come from the ground.

“We have opened up the market for people to be able to afford beautiful pieces without compromising on quality,” Reid says.

Change is inevitable and with that, there will always be those resistant to it. But one thing is for sure, society’s relationship with diamonds are changing.

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A New Language Doesn’t Hamper Kids Learning. Other Things Do

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South Africa is a linguistically and culturally diverse country. There are 11 official languages and several other minority languages. But English continues to be preferred as the language of learning and teaching.

Many South African children are still in the process of learning English by the time they first start going to school. In a single English-medium classroom, one can find children with various levels of English proficiency; from children with English as their mother tongue to children who have never learnt English before.

This situation poses a range of challenges for both the teacher and the children. One of the biggest challenges is that a certain level of proficiency in English is required for the children to be able to perform well academically in an English-medium school. It’s a widely known factthat academic success is very much dependent on language competence and proficiency.

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This means that there’s a great need to understand how language develops in children’s early school careers. It is also important to understand the cognitive mechanisms that underlie language learning. To further explore how this happens in the early years of schooling I did a study involving pre-primary children in an English-medium school in Cape Town.

The group consisted of children who were still learning English as well as children whose mother tongue was English. The children were very diverse – there was a total of nine different home languages in the group of children who were still learning English.

The findings showed that the ability of children to develop their language skills didn’t depend on whether they were proficient when they started out. Their ability to learn and advance – or not – was in fact dependent on a range of other factors, none of which had to do with English language proficiency.

The findings

The research aimed to understand the link between language and working memory development. I did this by tracking how working memory developed for the children chosen to take part in the study.

Working memory is the ability to store and use information in the short-term and is important for our everyday lives. For example, we use working memory when we need to remember an address that we just heard while we are looking for a pen to write it down. Working memory also underlies many important academic competencies, like reading and mathematics.

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The children were broken into two groups: those with English as their primary language, and those still learning English. They were given the same tasks; these were an English language assessment and working memory tasks. They were assessed three times over the course of the year – at the beginning, middle and end.

The results showed that both groups improved over the year on the assessment of English language abilities. The results also revealed that great improvements were made in language development during the first year of formal schooling.

Results from the working memory tasks indicated that children who were still learning English, as well as the children who have English as their mother tongue, performed the same on these tasks and achieved comparable scores. Children in both groups saw their language abilities and working memory abilities improve over the year.

The most interesting finding is that the route, or trajectory, the children’s cognitive and language development followed was the same for both groups, regardless of the English abilities they had at the beginning.

Importantly, the result that working memory scores between groups were comparable also indicated that the amount of knowledge of English that a child had didn’t affect their working memory abilities.

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What this points to is that, if a child’s working memory scores are low and the trajectory of the development is not the same as their peers, there may be cause for concern. In this case, the children should be referred to an occupational or speech therapist for further assessment. Our research shows the fact that they’re struggling can’t simply be explained away as a “symptom” of the child not knowing English well enough.

Falling through the cracks

Studies like these are important for giving professionals better ways of seeing if a child has a disorder or is only struggling because they have not acquired a sufficient level of English yet.

In the context of a classroom with various languages and proficiencies of English, it is easy for a child with a disorder to be overlooked.

Along with the under-resourced schools and over-burdened teachers, heterogeneity among learners results in them not receiving the support that they need, be it academic or linguistic. Those whose primary language is English as well as those learning English suffer alike. The upshot is clearly seen in the worsening educational crisis in South Africa.

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