Madagascar is a priority country for conservation and preserving Earth’s biodiversity riches threatened by a rampant rate of habitat destruction. Ninety percent of the natural habitat of Madagascar has been destroyed and 91% of the lemur species are critically endangered, endangered or threatened.
Since the political turmoil of 2009, coupled with security issues and illegal extraction activities, the conservation situation has worsened. The presidential election that took place in January offers hope that this new regime will make preservation of the unique wildlife of Madagascar a priority.
President Andry Rajoelina ran on a platform of eliminating poverty for his people.
Ecotourism is good for the economy, but there are doubts if it is enough. Our conservation teams in the Ranomafana region are hoping that we have a solution for improving local economies.
Centre ValBio (CVB), a 30-year-old research center, is nestled overlooking the Ranomafana National Park rainforest near Fianarantsoa, and is an eight-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo.
CVB is a hub of modern science with laboratory equipment to study genetics, infectious diseases and mapping from satellites.
Substantial efforts by scientists have led to an improved understanding about taxonomy, species distributions, the evolution, behavior and population size of the flora and fauna, and the impact of habitat loss on Madagascan biodiversity.
This knowledge has been successfully used to guide conservation planning and action, as well as new discoveries in medical science. Scientists investigate the impact of anthropogenic influence, edge effects, climate change, and fragmentation on ecosystems and communities in these lush rainforests.
The CVB campus has five buildings and a staff of 130 local scientists, technicians and administrators who work year-round on research, training and conservation.
This station conducts studies of cyanide-eating lemurs, climate change, new leech species, lemurs that have genes that might be related to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and genetics of an ecosystem.
All around, the parks, forests and the rare species within them are still disappearing. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the main threat to rainforests in Madagascar.
READ MORE | The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest
Forests are sacrificed to plant rice, the staple food for humans.
CVB has launched an alternative against this destruction of natural resources. First, the village elders are engaged to ensure a buy-in by the communities.
If the villagers are enthusiastic, workshops and training begin in the fields.
Next, using years of botanical knowledge, the reforestation team (technicians and scientists) helps villagers plant endemic saplings of tree species eaten by lemurs. We don’t plant a monoculture, but rather use natural dispersion as a guide.
We know from our pilot experience that it takes about 15 years for the endemic trees to fruit and flower, and for birds, bats and lemurs to return to these ‘new forests’ where they could help ‘plant’ more forests by dispersing their seeds.
We are hoping that this strategy will help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion and river silting, and expand the habitats for wildlife.
But what value do these trees have for the Malagasy farmer?
Using these trees as structure vines of high value crops such as vanilla, wild pepper and cinnamon that need shade to grow well are transplanted onto these trees.
With assistance in processing and marketing, the local farmers can harvest these high-value crops and earn great economic gain.
The prices of Malagasy spices are high in the world market and spice venders project that the high prices will continue into the future with new markets in China and India.
There is hope that not only will this strategy increase biodiversity, but it will also bring affluence to the farmers and merchants of Madagascar.
Rajoelina’s promise of prosperity is possible and the unforeseen benefits could be transformative.
– The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar
Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent
The New Wealth Creators is the first of its kind list by FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Herein is a collection of female entrepreneurs on the African continent running businesses and social enterprises that are new, offbeat and radical.
These 20 women have been selected because they have created significant impact in their respective sectors by transforming a market or company, or innovating a product or service, and are pioneering their organization(s) in generating new untapped streams of income.
These women come from across the continent, from the villages and the suburbs, and are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. They have all adopted sustainable development initiatives in one way or another to help solve Africa’s problems.
They may be wealth creators but their businesses, ironically, did not stem from a need to make money, but rather from the need to solve Africa’s persisting socio-economic challenges.
Economically empowering women has shown to boost productivity. It increases economic diversification and income equality, in addition to other positive developmental outcomes.
Simply put, when more women work, economies are likely to grow.
FORBES WOMAN AFRICA put in months of rigorous research, searching near and far for these inspirational entrepreneurs.
We took into account their business model, new ideas, potential, struggles, social impact, growth, influence, resilience and most importantly, their innovation.
Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA last year at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said: “Innovation [is] becoming the cornerstone for our economy going forward.”
As Africa’s population is reported to increase by 53% by 2100, according to the United Nations, new solutions must be created in order for us to keep up.
One question remains: can Africa translate its significant population growth into economic development, and invest this wealth to improve the quality of life?
Entrepreneurship could very well be the answer, or at least, one of the answers.
Last year, the Founder and Chair of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma paid Africa a visit to discuss tangible investment and technology development.
He encouraged African entrepreneurs to take giant leaps in solving the challenges facing the continent and to take advantage of the digital economy.
He said that opportunities lie where people complain.
And these women, through their businesses, have identified just that.
Vijay Tirathrai, director of the Techstars Dubai Accelerator, shared the same sentiments with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“The new wealth creators, for me, are entrepreneurs who are very conscious about finding solutions in the market place, but from a lens of having social impact or having impacted the environment,” he says.
Tirathrai believes that while servicing consumers, new wealth creators are also “making a safer and a greener planet in the process, eliminating diseases, improving health conditions and advocating for equality for women”.
Women on the African continent have been making headway as drivers of change, and in many ways, they embody new wealth.
They are the true wealth.
As FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, we seek to celebrate such women.
Through this list, money is no longer the central indicator of new wealth creation.
It is about job creation, contributing to healthy societies, recycling waste, giving agency to those who are financially excluded and developing solutions for some of the socio-economic problems we grapple with.
These women may all come from different places but they are bound together by one common thread, and that is the thread of new wealth creation.
This compilation is innovative, exciting, inspiring and shows what businesses of the future may look like.
Meet the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA New Wealth Creators of 2019.
The list on the pages that follow is in no particular order.
-Curated by: Unathi Shologu
The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him
It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside, South Africa, but inside the photo studio where we are, the mood is festive as Madagascar-born Ylias Akbaraly transforms himself from a humble, down-to-earth entrepreneur in modest casual wear into a stately capitalist wearing a nifty-grey Italian designer suit, dark tie and light-blue shirt.
Madagascar’s wealthy businessman, who estimates his worth at just over a billion dollars, has come to share his story of how in under 30 years, he turned a small family business with a turnover of almost $34,000 and employing 20 people, to an empire with revenue expected to exceed $265 million in 2019 and employing 3,000 staff.
The multinational conglomerate that he created through discipline, hard work and seizing opportunities, now has tentacles beyond his island state extending to Mali, Ghana, Mauritius, France and soon the United States (US) and Canada, to name a few.
A phone-call to his parents was all it took for the silver fox to embark on this transformative journey.
The ebullient 59-year-old describes the moment: “It was a very special situation. I was doing very well in the US, I was living in California – can you imagine, beautiful state, beautiful weather, good friends. I could work there. I had some opportunities to work at the Bank of America at that time, so I called my parents and said I am going to stay in the US, it is better.”
His parents were saddened by his decision, they asked him to return and join the business.
In 1992, he did.
“I decided to come back and be with the family and thank God I decided to come back. I don’t regret it, I am very happy, and they were very happy,” the man who calls himself a spiritual person tells FORBES AFRICA.
On his return, Akbaraly worked for Sipromad, a small retail business focused on detergents that his father, Sermamod, the son of Indian immigrants, established in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in 1972 after a stint selling shoes, shirts and ties.
Warmly, Akbaraly says: “I came back, I saw a very small business, but my parents were happy, they had a very peaceful life, and things at home were very nice and joyful.
“I worked with my father, I assisted him, I wanted to change things but I was facing a generational conflict in business. But my father is very intelligent so step-by-step he let me change things.”
Full of fresh ideas from his time spent working and studying in both France and the US, Akbaraly began to give his personal touch to Sipromad. He created a team, and hired new people and professionals.
The company started doing a lot of research; it went to see some local suppliers who asked Sipromad to change the packaging, pricing and color of its products, which it did. It extended its product lines.
For example, instead of offering its products in big boxes, it offered them in medium and small, so that it could target different consumers, says the man known as one of Madagascar’s wealthiest.
“At the same time we had our ear to the ground, we went to see retailers and our customers to find out what they wanted, as the buyer is king,” Akbaraly adds.
From this exercise an important lesson was learned.
“You have to adapt your product to the market, this is the base of an entrepreneur, to adapt his way of doing things.”
Through these changes, the business started growing its market share and diversifying. It now operates in several sectors including broadcasting, agribusiness, real estate, technology, finance, renewable energy, tourism, aviation and industry.
Akbaraly, a staunch believer in ‘free leadership’, becomes animated when he explains how Sipromad was able to see opportunities in these sectors.
“It is a question of opportunities, it is a question of courage, I believe a lot in teamwork because with my colleagues, we talk, we debate, we change, we decide together.”
“I believe that business is a creation,” he adds. To explain his point, he draws an analogy to an artist with his palette, who mixes his paint as he sees the potential beauty it can create.
Like the artist who mixes his colors, business is a creation of the opportunities you take, reckons Akbaraly.
“This is why understanding the market, understanding what is going to happen in five years, is important so that you can take decisions when you have opportunities in front of you, we are very proactive, very fast in taking decisions and we are not scared, we are not afraid because we work very hard,” Akbaraly says.
The rationale for diversification
What is striking about the clusters Sipromad operates in is that they are vastly different.
Akbaraly claims the rationale for this is that it comes down to the businessperson you are: “There are two types of businessmen. Some prefer to stay in the same sector, to invest in the same sector and develop in the same sector, to integrate. Our strategy was diversification. We thought about it and the outcome of our discussions and debates was to diversify the business as it protects you if you are facing problems in one sector.”
The architect of this multi-sector business also suggests the market demanded it: “Today, when we see how we became big and how we became so strong in business, it is because we diversified our business for different markets.
“Now things are changing because of this diversification, now we can synergize because sometimes our customers are interested in detergents, tobacco, soap, so we can synergize and propose many products to one customer because of our diversification. This is a big advantage because one customer is able to buy products from different sectors of our company.”
The growth was funded by reinvesting a 100% of the company’s profits back into the family empire, explains the mogul with an international outlook.
“When you don’t distribute your profit it means your profit becomes a strength for your company… when you show the bankers that your money is reinvesting and you don’t distribute your dividends and you tell them, ‘ok we have this type of investment, we can bring 30%, we can raise 70% from you’, it gives our financial partners very big security and they follow us. this is how we raised money to reinvest, diversify and buy equipment, buy raw materials and increase our business.”
‘Reputation very important’
But it wasn’t just Sipromad’s shrewdness in capital raising that allowed it to expand but its reputation.
Candidly, Akbaraly says: “We are very careful about our management. Reputation is very important, because of our serious work, our engagement, our products, our customers, our suppliers, we created a name and when you do that, you create your brand, and because of that, when foreigners come to invest in Madagascar, they come to Sipromad.
Those that have partnered with the company include Orange Money in mobile banking, Italy’s Tozzi Green in hydropower, Brink’s for the transport of money, and Apple, to name a few.
Last year, the global company did a joint venture with one of Morocco’s largest banks, Banque Centrale Populaire, to buy Mauritius-based Banque des Mascareignes and its subsidiary Banque des Mascareignes – Madagascar.
Analogue to digital
Akbaraly says the company’s reputation led to its partnership with Rohde & Schwarz based in Munich, Germany, and its purchase of Thomson Broadcast. These deals catapulted it to another level.
Akbaraly, with fervor, explains further: “As we have a very strong IT department, we set up Broadcasting Media Solutions (BMS), which specializes in broadcast, because of our reputation, we were approached by electronics group Rohde & Schwarz.
“They came to us and told us ‘we know you have a very serious business, you have a very good maintenance team, do you want to work with us in Madagascar to sell our products in broadcast and maintain them?’ Of course we did!”
From Madagascar, Sipromad partnered with Rohde & Schwarz in Mauritius and Morocco and subcontracted for the electronics group after it won a tender in Zimbabwe and Ghana.
In the process, Sipromad became a player in the broadcasting space. In 2018, BMS bid for a contract in Mali for the deployment of a nationwide, end-to-end digital terrestrial television (DTT) turnkey roll out, it lost to France’s Thomson Broadcast. Refusing to give up, Akbaraly discovered Thomson had financial problems and decided to buy it.
Thomson not only allowed Sipromad to expand into Mali but transformed it to a truly global business with operations in France, Israel, Cape Verde, Bangladesh, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
Akbaraly says it is looking to expand to Pennsylvania in the US, to Canada, Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In Africa, it plans to migrate countries from analogue to digital broadcasting.
The visionary says Sipromad’s dream is for a pan-African company to become a leader in broadcast.
But Madagascar will always remain his core. Full of love for his homeland, he speaks highly of it: “It is my center of energy, we call it plasma, I am here because of Madagascar, it was the source, the beginning, the start and my grandfather taught me, my mother’s father [who said] ‘don’t forget Madagascar because you have been protected by the flag of Madagascar, Madagascar was your protector, do the best, develop your business all around the world’, but the source, the energy, the key, the chi is Madagascar.”
The father of four believes his success comes from living a balanced life, surrounding himself with the right people, being spiritual and positive.
“If you want to be successful in life, you have to create positive energy, how you create it is according to your behavior, according to what you do, how you behave with others.” He reckons the energy was passed on from his family through education, their good attitude and transparency.
The martial arts veteran follows a very strict routine. It’s the reason he has been called the monk of business.
“My life is very well-organized, because I wake up in the morning between 4AM and 4.30AM and pray; spirituality first, then meditation, yoga, and take some water, fruit and then I go for my sports, usually I start at 6 o’ clock, for a minimum of one hour a day and then I go to the office.
“When you’re at a certain level of business, you have to be very well-organized, you cannot afford to go outside in the night to clubs, to sleep late. This is not possible, otherwise in the morning, you cannot wake up early, your day starts badly… that is why one day, one of my very close uncles told me ‘your life is like a Buddhist life, it is like a monk’. I think at a certain level you need to have this type of life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat meat.”
Philanthropy, education and inclusion
It is Akbaraly’s deep spirituality, love for his country and sense of justice that led him to use his wealth for the greater good of humanity. In 2008, he and his Italian wife, Cinzia, who shares and developed his spirituality, founded the Akbaraly Foundation.
The idea was conceptualized while Cinzia was in hospital for cancer. She wanted to do something for Madagascan women because they are the foundation of life, the center of energy, the plasma of the world, says Akbaraly.
In Madagascar, they set up prevention centers to assist women with breast and gynaecological cancer.
The country is among the poorest in the world, it saddens the philanthropist when he reflects on it:
“We are not happy because when you see people you know that are not in a good situation, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have enough food… you need justice, life needs to be fair. My dream, and I hope it will materialize, is to fight against poverty, to give a better life to our population so that they can go to school and have hospitals.”
It is for this reason that the foundation’s aim is to fight against extreme poverty. Its projects extend to health, education and sustainable development.
“Right now, we are in discussions in the US with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We would like to sign an agreement between MIT and Thomson, and one university of IT in Madagascar, to offer our young generation of Madagascans IT and maybe send them abroad,” says Akbaraly, who is a firm believer in the power of education.
In countries where Sipromad operates, it prioritizes corporate social investment. In Mali, for example, together with the government, it is investing in radio to transfer education to parts of Mali, Akbaraly says.
The foundation also makes contributions. In Rwanda, for example, it is contributing $100,000 to the launch of new hospitals, says the businessman.
His sense of justice doesn’t just extend to the foundation’s projects but also to his own organization.
Women and men are paid equally for the same work. More and more women are being placed in executive positions because they are very good, Akbaraly says.
His fight against poverty lives out in the projects his company chooses to focus on.
“That is why we are investing a lot in the industry sector; we just built the [Orange Telecommunication] Tower,” a 33-storey headquarter building, the tallest in the world’s fourth largest island, and known as the “pride of the nation”.
“We are doing so many investments, we hire people, we give them jobs. We are, right now, in another project for real estate, what we can do is to invest, to hire people, to fight against unemployment, to give them a chance to buy things, to go to the restaurant, to have good food and at the same time with the profit to share in the project of CSI, this is the positive energy, this is the karma, this is important in life because in life you have to be fair, you cannot accept that some people are in this situation while others are in a better situation,” Akbaraly reflects. Throughout his career, he has received accolades. The one he is most proud of is the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from India in 2009.
Akbaraly is under no illusion he will hold on to power forever. He is hard at work preparing the next generation to take over Sipromad, because in a few years’ time, he wants to do something else, he tells FORBES AFRICA. “I want to do more for others. Really to share with others,” the monk of business says with a smile.
“Ylias Akbaraly’s reputation precedes him,” says Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Goulet says the work Akbaraly does “has crossed oceans and France admires him. He knows how to share his knowledge and is a special kind of businessman”.
Goulet lauds Akbaraly’s altruistic approach to business, in particular his relationship to the youth and refers to him as “socially responsible and someone who loves his country very much”.
“He is someone who is open to the world. The personal touch he brings to his approach makes him unique. You can tell he loves his family, and society,” she says.
Akbaraly and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations, have forged a friendship over the years. “Ylias is a self-made millionaire who started from humble beginnings,” Douste-Blazy says. “We’ve had many interesting conversations about geopolitics and other trends around the world.”
Douste-Blazy talks about Akbaraly’s humility and how he lets his work speak for itself. “He is very discreet. When you see him walk down the street, he is not loud about his wealth. He walks freely without guards or expensive cars.”
Douste-Blazy expends that Akbaraly’s business strategies have captured the attention of many. “Akbaraly is respected in France, his acquisition of Thomson [Broadcast] was very important….The assets that he has acquired show him to be a smart businessman.”
“I have much respect for my friend and peer Ylias Akbaraly. He is the textbook definition of a visionary entrepreneur. The transformation of his group of companies was single-handedly spearheaded by him.
“From their international expansion to endeavors in tourism, manufacturing, energy, real estate, they were all strategically invested by him. There’s much to take note of in this story.
“What many may not know is in addition to his many accolades, I must say his piety seeps through all his endeavors, both professionally and personally. His strong faith has propelled him to be even more grounded and thus become the successful businessman he is today.” – Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL Group, and Africa’s youngest billionaire
-With inputs from Unathi Shologu
‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya, the Olympian, on never quitting, come what may.
It is August 2009 in Berlin, Germany, at the finals of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.
It’s the 800 meters race; among the eight female runners is 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya, in a yellow track top and green shorts.
Thousands watch from the pavilion, loudly cheering as they await the gun to go off.
In the fourth line, Semenya waits too, blocking out all the noise in her head.
She takes in a long, deep breath and says a prayer.
“On your marks!” shouts the referee.
The women crouch.
And the race is on.
The young Semenya from Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, runs alongside some of the world’s most famous athletes such as Mariya Savinova from Russia.
In two minutes, a winner will be crowned.
In an impressive show of might and mettle on the track, Semenya sprints ahead of the others.
With long strides, she is the clear lead.
A competitor from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, then manages to run ahead of Semenya. It’s a tight race as they lead neck-to-neck.
At the sound of a bell signaling they have reached the 400-meter mark, Semenya bolts ahead of the group leaving a wide gap between her and the others.
At 1:55:45, Semenya is officially the champion.
It is a big win for the village girl from Limpopo.
“Things just went from zero to hero, so boom! Zero to hundred. It was just great,” beams Semenya when we meet her for the interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
At the end of the race, she does her signature move – the cobra – hands facing inwards and then outwards.
Holding the South African flag, she runs a few meters in a lap of honor.
Her country is proud, super-proud of its millennial daughter.
This match was the unforgettable milestone that launched the career of a simple girl from Limpopo on to the world stage.
Her name was soon going to be etched in gold.
Caster Mokgadi Semenya is the reigning Olympics and world champion in the women’s 800-meter race.
On a hot Monday morning in October, we meet Semenya in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She arrives ahead of the appointed time with her wife Violet and her manager Becky Motumo. Her vehicle is number-plated ‘CASVIO’, an amalgamation of Semenya’s and Violet’s names.
That weekend, she had just returned from New York City, in the United States (US), where she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation and from tennis icon Billie Jean King.
The ceremony was to award women who have extraordinary achievements in sport, and Semenya was one of the recipients.
As she enters the studio for our interview dressed in all-blue Nike apparel and sneakers, she greets everyone warmly.
First on the agenda for the day is makeup, something the sports star says she can never get used to.
“I like to be myself, I am true to myself. I just like myself the way I am and I don’t want anything to change in me,” says Semenya.
“With makeup, it’s the part I hate the most because I don’t like it. That’s not me, so it’s just something else. I don’t like it at all, I just do it because it is business,” she says, laughing.
Semenya opts for the natural look.
She says she loves the simple life, and has always been this way since her early years growing up in the small village of Ga-Masehlong.
As she readies, she reminisces those years.
“Growing up in Limpopo was special to me, I’m a village girl,” she says.
“When you grow up in a big family, obviously, they appreciate you for who you are and everything you do. They support you. They don’t criticize your work, they just go with the flow and they want what makes you happy.”
Her family was extremely supportive of her love for sports.
Semenya started playing soccer at the age of four, on the street with her friends, and in the bush, where they would bet on matches.
“Actually, I was the best striker in the village [when it came to] street football,” she laughs.
“Everytime I got on to the pitch, everyone wanted me, so I was that kind of a kid.”
In a few years, the young Semenya traded in the football boots for running shoes.
“Before you can kick a ball, you have to run first. Football is all about speed, it is more about agility and how you can move.”
In grade one, Semenya was introduced to athletics and immediately found her feet as a sprinter.
But due to a lack of facilities and proper coaching at the school, she decided to opt for middle-distance running, instead of sprinting.
“With middle-distance, you can run anywhere you want and you can still perform. You don’t really need to be surrounded by mentors and stuff like that,” she says.
Semenya came to realize that she enjoyed running more than football and so traveled a lot to take part in competitions.
At the age of 12, she moved from living with her mother to taking care of her grandmother who was getting older.
“She’s a great human being. I am truly blessed to walk in her footsteps,” she says about her.
“She taught me more responsibility, how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She also taught me respect, how to appreciate and how to accept others.”
Her grandmother supported her dreams to run, unaware then of how far it would take Semenya.
In 2007, at the age of 16, Semenya ran her first international race in Botswana.
Unfortunately, she was placed fifth and returned to South Africa defeated, but hopeful.
“From there, I discovered that there are a lot of things to learn and I need to focus more and concentrate.”
Semenya worked harder and pushed herself to become better than her competitors.
It was the beginning of her international career in sports.
From ‘zero to hero’
The year 2008 was her final year in high school.
Semenya continued to compete whilst pursuing her studies.
She had qualified for the 2008 World Junior Championships held in Bydgoszcz in Poland in July that year.
She was one of two Africans competing in the 800m-race.
Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.
Three months later, her luck changed.
She competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.
Semenya won her first international title with a record of 2:04, which was not bad for a 17-year-old.
It was a defining moment in Semenya’s career.
“From there, that’s when I knew this is my field. I need to be in command and I need to train hard. I need to be strong physically and mentally, and everything needs to be ready,” she says.
Since then, gold has become her color.
After the win and back to reality, Semenya went back to high school to complete her matric examinations – these were two fulfilling accomplishments for the young athlete.
2009 was a year of monumental change for Semenya.
The village girl moved to the big city.
She traveled 317km from Limpopo to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and enrolled at the University of Pretoria studying athletics science.
While there, she trained under Micheal Seme, preparing for more career-defining races.
Semenya dedicated her time to intense training, working on improving her running time.
She ran the 800 meters in two minutes and qualified for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but due to lack of experience, she didn’t know much about her competitors who had been running for years.
“I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was all about running good times and back then, good times take you to winning big championships,” she says.
In July that year, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, Semenya won both the 800m and 1,500m races with the times of 1:56:72 and 4:08:01 respectively.
She had improved her 800m running time by eight seconds since winning the Commonwealth Games nine months earlier.
She was the fastest runner worldwide for the 800m races that year. She had bested the senior and junior South African records held by South African female athletes Zelda Pretorius and Zola Pieterse, popularly known as Zola Budd.
But there was no time to lose.
Semenya continued to press on training to compete in the IAAF World Championship 2009 in August in Berlin.
She went on to win as a newcomer among some of the world’s best runners.
The long run to freedom
Back home, she brought more glory to the nation.
But as South Africa cheered and celebrated her, others had different plans for the teenage athlete.
At the time, news reports surfaced about the IAAF looking into the young athlete.
The reports suggested that they were conducting gender tests on her.
In a statement published by the IAAF in September that year, they declined to comment on the medical testing of Semenya but confirmed that it was indeed gender-testing.
“We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts,” they said.
At the time, they were in discussion with the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Semenya’s representatives, with the view to resolve the issues surrounding Semenya’s participation in athletics.
It was a dampening end to her year.
In November, the results came back.
They found Semenya to have high testosterone levels.
As a result, she was suspended from running and forced to sit on the sidelines.
Semenya’s response was released in a statement by her lawyers.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said.
“Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”
Reminiscing on the events that took place, Semenya tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that she wasn’t and still isn’t worried about the IAAF.
She will continue to run the race she started.
“Actually, I never thought anything about them. It was just all about me. What is it that I can control? Of course, if someone is or wants to do whatever they want to do, there is nothing you can do,” she says.
“So, I never think about such people. I always think about myself and what will benefit me… There’s nothing I can do about what organizations think and there’s nothing they can do about what I think.”
The case was complex.
Media reports and critics questioned the ethics of their testing and their methods.
But Semenya was not the first.
News items and academic reports suggest that sex verification tests at the IAAF started as early as the 1950s.
Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema was reportedly banned in July 1950 after undergoing gender-testing by the IAAF.
In more recent times, Dutee Chand, Pratima Gaonkar and Pinki Pramanik, all from India, have reportedly had to undergo gender-testing too.
But Semenya stood strong.
After her experience, she calls on all women to unite.
“I think we as women need to come together and support each other,” she says.
“Without that, you will still feel discriminated, you still feel oppressed, you still feel criticized in everything that you do and you will still feel like you are not recognized,” she says.
During this trying period for Semenya, back home in Limpopo, a 15-year-old girl from the small town of Westenburg was acting as Semenya in a high school play.
Sevenah Adonis was finishing her grade eight at Hoërskool Pietersburg when she played Semenya for the year-end school concert.
It was also the same period Adonis first heard about the track star.
Semenya’s trial had inspired the young girl.
“My general perception of Caster Semenya when I had just heard of her is that she’s a very fantastic athlete,” Adonis tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“Limpopo is a very isolated place. There’s not a lot of exposure or anything, so for her to actually make it over the parameters of Limpopo is remarkable. I do look up to her and I aspire to go beyond my borders and accomplish things that she has accomplished,” she says.
Adonis is currently pursuing a degree in economics at the University of Limpopo.
The 22-year-old hopes to meet Semenya one day, but for now, she watches and cheers on her fellow Limpopo native making a global mark.
Back in Semenya’s world, July 2010 (after six months of being suspended) was when she received the news she had been waiting to hear.
The IAAF announced that she would be able to compete again.
“The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect,’’ they said in a statement.
The medical details and findings are confidential.
Despite the controversy with the IAAF, Semenya had been dubbed a hero by many for the way she handled the situation.
During the interview with us, she remembers what former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once told her when they met.
“Be the best that you can be,” he said to her.
“He just told me, ‘people can talk, people can do whatever they want to do, but it’s up to you to live for yourself first before others. So, the only thing that you can do is to be the best that you can be’,” she says.
It was the best advice she had ever been given.
Semenya returned stronger, winning every race and championship she entered.
“My goal is to be the greatest and there is nothing that anyone can do about it,” she says.
“I’m an athlete, I train and I perform. That’s me and that’s what keeps me going. I believe in myself and I trust myself and I’m always motivated. I’m a very positive person. So even if something comes in a negative way, I always find a way to put in more positive,” she says.
Semenya went on to win a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011.
But it was in the year 2012 when she showed the world her true prowess on the track.
Leading the charge in London
Semenya was only 21 years old when she participated in her first Olympic Games.
“I was more mature then I think, but I didn’t have that knowledge of understanding my body; how to train myself, you know, to calm down,” she says.
But the prestige of the Olympic games excited Semenya.
It was the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and Semenya carried the South African flag proudly in front of thousands at the London Stadium (formerly known as the Olympic Stadium), while leading the South African Olympic team.
It was a proud moment for South Africans across the world.
Thousands and thousands cheered her on.
“It shows a great quality, especially more in leadership. So, I lead the team in and then, of course, I still have to go deliver because people look up to you. Your family, your friends, the entire nation. They expect you to perform,” she says.
One of the challenges she faced was not knowing whether all her training had been good enough for that moment.
She didn’t know what to expect.
“What’s going to happen in this championship? Am I going to win? Am I going to even win a medal?” she asked herself at the time.
“It was kind of the most stressful championship I have had in my life…” she says today.
It all came down to how prepared she was.
“When I walk onto that track, I perform. So, when I perform, I expect people to recognize my work but not just because I am me, but for the work that I do,” she says.
But once it was time for the race to take place, Semenya put all her worries aside and stayed focused.
“It is no longer about what happened last week. It’s about what’s going to go down now. We are more focused about it. It’s do or die,” she says. The pressure was on. Semenya was determined to win. Crowds in the stadium cheered waiting for the gun to go off.
The runners started off.
Semenya began to pick up pace.
As she did, she looked back and saw the other runners catching up.
It was do or die.
“The main thing was to think ‘I have to keep going’. But my other mind was like ‘you have lost the race, there is nothing you can do’… But when you believe that ‘ok, I still have a chance for a medal’, you will just keep on pushing until you get the momentum.”
In the end, Semenya was placed second, behind Russia’s Savinova.
Semenya brought home silver.
It was a proud moment and South Africa celebrated with her as the whole world watched the new face of 800m.
Francine Niyonsaba, an 800m Burundian gold and silver medallist, was a competitor alongside Semenya at the same race.
After meeting a few months earlier in Monaco, they had become friends.
“Caster Semenya is a good runner. She loves everybody and I think she is a very talented girl and an inspiration to all, especially African youth,” Niyonsaba tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Twentyfive-year-old Niyonsaba draws inspiration from her friend.
She says that the challenge women face in Burundi is that they feel they can’t achieve anything, elsewhere in the world.
“In Burundi, in our culture, women believe they cannot do something special in the world but it is just a mentality,” she says.
“A woman can do everything!”
Both Niyonsaba and Semenya are passionate about inspiring other women in sport and putting Africa on the map.
At the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, the two competed again.
This time, Niyonsaba won silver and Semenya won gold.
They met again at the 2017 World Championships in London and it was the same win again; Niyonsaba silver, and Semenya gold.
Despite the two always running against each other, Niyonsaba says on the track, Semenya has been very encouraging towards her and the others.
“As an African, she is trying to do something special. She is an exceptional girl, because you know as women in Africa we are afraid to do some things. So, Caster Semenya is trying to show everyone that women can do everything,” says Niyonsaba.
‘I don’t see myself
After bagging world titles and beating records, what else is on the cards for the sports star?
For Semenya, there’s no stopping her and she plans to stay on in the sports industry.
“I don’t see myself stepping down; until I’m 40, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”
Semenya plans to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world and she plans to break more records.
Back home, in Pretoria, she has been running the Caster Semenya Foundation aimed at coaching and equipping children who are active in sports.
The foundation currently trains 20 children aged 12 years and older.
She plans to expand it to other parts of the country.
“My main goal is to empower women and help other young men to be better in future,” she says.
“You have to show them first that education is important and we balance it with sports. If we can perform both sides, I think we will be fulfilled,” she says.
“Education never stops, you keep on learning every single day.
“Without education, your decision-making will be weak… when you are educated, it becomes very easy to make decisions and decide what is the next step.”
In 2018, she received her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University.
But she hasn’t stopped.
She is currently pursuing a degree in Sport Management at the Tshwane University of Technology.
It has been a big year for the athlete.
In September, she joined the Nike ‘Just do it’ campaign for its 30th birthday.
It featured some of the greatest athletes, the likes of tennis icon Serena Williams and former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with each bringing social issues to the fore.
In October, she became the ambassador of Discovery Vitality.
In November, she won big at the South African Sport Awards. She took home the People’s Choice Sports Star Of The Year; Sports Woman Of The Year, and the Sports Star Of The Year.
She was also nominated for the 2018 Female World Athlete of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December.
With all her accolades and achievements, as her star continues to rise, what about her finances?
During the interview, when asked how much she is worth, the village girl from Limpopo simply smiles and says, “I’m just priceless, to be honest.”
‘She Is So Humble; Does Not Sweat The Small Stuff’
Becky Motumo describes what it’s like managing Caster Semenya’s busy diary.
What is it like working with Caster Semenya?
I love how driven she is… Every single day is absolutely dynamic, ever-changing. It is always a rush. When I talk about a rush, I mean in a good way, because it is a very busy period for us.
I think that having a boss like her, is unique in the sense that she is very direct. So she knows what she wants. She is very assertive. I think for me it’s those little experiences that really make it special.
What are some of the qualities that make her who she is?
People are always quite taken aback by the kind of person she is, her humility. They will try to deck it out, you know roll out the red carpet.
They want to offer her the world and she is so humble. She wants to walk in and get the job done and be professional. She will deliver everything that needs to be delivered. And she respects your time as well. She gets it done and she is out, and you know you have to appreciate someone with a work ethic like that.
What is your favorite memory of her?
Every day! I think especially the times when we are traveling, when we are brainstorming and when we are talking about future plans. She is a very animated individual.
She has an incredible sense of humour and I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t enjoy being around that. It makes working with her an absolute pleasure.
Yes, we are serious, yes, we are professional, yes, we are about the business, but it does help to have those moments of humour when she is talking like Michael Jackson, or dancing, or doing something completely out of the ordinary. And that’s a side of her people wouldn’t know about unless you are close to her.
But I enjoy that, and I enjoy the relationship that I have with her wife Violet.
What kind of a leader is Semenya?
Her time is very important to her. She likes to show up on time, she is extremely professional in terms of that.
I try to arrive at a venue 30 minutes before she gets there. But, if you are late and you are messing with her time because she has such a tight schedule, then definitely she will let you know about that. She will try and be kind about it but she is very stern, so you know that’s one of the examples.
But, as soon as she has told you how she feels, we quickly move on and it’s about the work. And I think that’s the one thing I love about her. She does not sweat the small stuff.
She does not sit and harbor any ill feelings, or spend too much time worrying about anything in the past, so we move on very swiftly.
At the end of the day, it is about getting the work done and that is what we are about.
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