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The beauty that tumbled from war

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It is a chilly Friday morning in New York and I am sitting in the back of a black SUV on its way to pick up supermodel Alek Wek from her brownstone Brooklyn home. It was meant to be a glamor photo shoot in the wide open spaces of upstate New York with the supermodel-turned-businesswoman-turned-activist. The temperamental weather in New York had other ideas and simply would not let us be great outdoor Africans. A weather advisory warning of a snow blizzard had been issued. New Yorkers are overly sensitive about the weather for good reason; Hurricane Sandy had torn at the city earlier in the year. I took the cue from my New York crew and booked a studio close-to-home in Brooklyn to minimize travel and exposure to inclement weather.

Wek is as much a supermodel as she is the girl-next-door. She commands the runways in the name of fashion designers such as: Chanel, Hermes, Donna Karan, Christian Lacroix and Zac Posen. Her career has thrived in Paris, New York, Milan and London and she has also appeared on the covers of high-end fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamor, Cosmopolitan and Essence. She has also been the face of campaigns for Benetton, Kenzo and Saks Fifth Avenue.

No small feat for an African girl born in Wau, Sudan, now South Sudan, in 1977 to a family of nine. Speaking softly in her British accent, Wek talks of her life, between sips from the coffee cup clasped between her hands.

“Our careers define us to an extent, but then there’s you as a person. You are not born with that career even though you have it already in you. For most of us, and especially us African women, we have to overcome a lot of obstacles to get there. And even when you get there, however you define there for yourself, there is still more to accomplish.”

Despite the fact that she is one of Africa’s global icons, she has a pleasant disposition and we chat like old friends as the driver deftly drives us through the snowy roads to the studio.

That Wek has defied all beauty standards is obvious. Dressed in skinny jeans, layered tops, winter jacket and her trademark head scarf, she stands at 180cm tall, with short hair. Wek is from the Dinka tribe of South Sudan, with piercing, oval-shaped brown eyes, high cheek bones and teeth whiter than white. It is an understatement to say Wek’s features are striking: very model material in a nouveau kind of way.

“I came into the industry at a time when some people would say: ‘she’s odd, she’s weird, she’s bizarre.’ But I never saw myself that way and the true people, the legends, the talented, saw me.”

As Wek slips into a gown made by fellow African David Tlale, of Johannesburg, she also assumes her professional power. In front of the camera, she epitomizes the confidence of the new generation of African leaders.

Her head wrap is more than a fashion statement. It is a reminder of the place she came from, where her fragile frame survived only through incredible strength and resilience.

“I have gone through the civil war where we were barricaded in our house for three days because of the shootings and bombings. The scariest thing for me was feeling like there is nobody to protect you and nobody’s life is accounted for. I used to have nightmares when we fled to England. It took me some years to get over that.”

Wek has never forgotten these desperate days. As her fame rose, she found her voice to speak for the millions of huddled and vulnerable refugees around the world.

“I know firsthand what it feels like to walk for weeks and weeks. I know what it feels like to eat whatever you can find in the bush. I know what it is like to be voiceless,” she declares as she describes the journey she undertook as her family fled from rebel and government forces, when civil war raged in her hometown in 1985.

Wek arrived in London, aged 14, and was discovered soon after by a Models 1 scout in a South London market and has been a model ever since.

“I model in moderation now. It is not the quantity, but the quality of my work. I also want to make time and space for the next phase of my life. I would love to settle down, get married and have children.”

So much so, that Wek has scaled back her work so she can live a more grounded life. This year, she ended a five-year relationship.

“For him, it was more like a three-year relationship since I traveled a lot. I then realized that I have to live in the same country as the man in order for this marriage thing to happen!” Not one to pine for long, she is back in the dating scene and also dotes on a fox terrier by the name of Lil Bit.

Wek says her mother is a true African mother.

“Whenever I visit mom in England, and we sit down to have supper, the first question is always: ‘The babies?’ So, I get to practice with my Lil Bit,” laughs Wek.

At 36, she is a grown woman—an African woman with a strong sense of self and purpose in life.

“If anything, fashion and modeling has not only given me trips to the most exotic locations around the world, fantastic perks, stays in five-star hotels and expensive gifts. Most importantly, it has given me a platform with which to make a difference on important issues that matter to me.”

This stance earned Wek a position as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in which she travels to war-torn nations.

In 2011, South Sudan split from the Sudan, as part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of protracted war in the continent’s largest country.

“Freedom is so special and so precious,” she speaks cautiously, as if she were reliving her traumatic childhood.

For the first time, since she fled from the region with her family, the Sudanese refugee-turned-supermodel went back to South Sudan.

“Going back after South Sudan became independent was very emotional for me. I never really thought that we would attain independence. It was a very surreal moment for me,” she says fighting back tears.

She is guarded when I ask her to rate the new president of South Sudan, Salva Kii.

“It would be unfair to try to rate him so soon and I will tell you why. When someone has been in the bush for decades fighting a war and now has to make a considerable switch to lead the country, you have to cut him or her some slack.”

Wek is mindful that South Sudan is a collective effort—a collaboration among stakeholders including the government and citizens.

“I truly believe that it is our generation. Us. You and I and the rest of the continent and diaspora. We are the ones we have been waiting for.”   FL

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Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing

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As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed. 

Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.

 Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.

 Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.

 A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.

 We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.

 As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”

 With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.

 Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.

 In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.

For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.

 Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.

– Unathi Shologu

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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