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Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: Scientist, Entrepreneur And President

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The interview is at State House, the office of the President.

We drive past the armed guards and the imposing gate bearing Mauritius’ coat of arms emblem and enter a world far away from the azure waters and sandy beaches this African island-nation with a little over a million people is known for.

On the grounds of the State House or ‘Le Château du Réduit’, is the country’s most prized attraction that tourists don’t get to see – a lush roughly 100-acre tropical garden in every shade of green.

The State House itself is one of Mauritius’ most iconic buildings, conceived as an impregnable fortress surrounded by large expanses of landscape in the interior of the island, and built during the French colonial period. It has served as the official residence of governors, now Presidents and was even at one time used by the military.

Famed for its gardens with its old camphor trees, rose bushes, bamboo, fountains, ponds, even a peacock pen and turtle pen, it is an environmentalist’s dream, with an ecosystem reflective of rare flora and fauna found only on the island.

It’s the perfect setting for a President who has in her previous role as a biodiversity scientist spent all her time around plants, experimenting with them.

By the formidable fortress that is the State House, we are greeted by a swarm of men in black suits from her security team.

Back from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Durban, South Africa, only a week ago, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius – also the country’s first elected female President – is seated on a leather sofa in her stately office, a temporary one we are told as the main building is undergoing renovation.

It’s no surprise she has chosen a lime-green blazer and an emerald bracelet – green is an all-pervasive color in Mauritius.

The conversation revolves around “the three lives” she has led, the first as a scientist, then as an entrepreneur, and now as an African President for the last two years.

“I hope I have more lives,” she laughs in the end. “I think I would really like to keep on operating in that space where you can touch the lives of your people.”

Early years

The President grew up in a modest home in a small village in Mauritius located next to the airport. Except for the Roman Catholic school she and her brother attended, the village had few facilities or amenities.

“There was not that much in terms of leisure so the only thing we did was watch planes land and fly,” says Gurib-Fakim. Her father, a school teacher, and her mother, a housewife, insisted she read. A lot.

“They knew the power of education and were determined both my brother and I would have equal opportunities. It’s also worth pointing out at the time when they took that decision, education was not yet free.”

Education became free in Mauritius in 1976. Luckily, Gurib-Fakim had teachers who “demystified science”.

“When I was in secondary school, I had fantastic teachers and they in fact, infected me with the virus for science. As young kids, you would have all these silly questions as to ‘why plants are green, why are flowers this color, why is the sky blue?’ There was hardly any infrastructure for science [at school], so what the teacher used to do was to take us to the field.”

This was a time when knowledge about ecosystems and biodiversity was also just beginning to unravel.

By the time she finished secondary education, Gurib-Fakim’s father said to her: “What do you want to do? Do want to stay here in Mauritius and get a job?”

He gave her the option of either working or going abroad for higher studies, and despatched her to meet the career guidance officer.

“So the career guidance officer looked at me and said ‘what do you want to study’ and I said ‘chemistry’, and he said ‘why do you want to study science, because first of all, that’s a job for boys’. I listened politely and went home. My father said ‘so what are you going to do’? And I said ‘I am going to study chemistry, because that’s where my heart is’.”

She listened to her heart, and opted for a chemistry course at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom (UK). Her father, her “biggest cheerleader”, accompanied her on her first voyage outside of Mauritius.

Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim poses in front of the State House for FORBES WOMAN AFRICA; photos by Monnakgotla Motlabana

“It was one of the most daunting moments of my life. Because there I was growing up in a cocoon in a small village in Mauritius and was [now] left in the big white world with a completely new language, new food, new lifestyle… But I was determined that I will not sink, I will rather swim.”

She subsequently did industrial training with a big American organization, which is where she says she got “bitten with another virus – research”.

She signed up for a PhD in organic chemistry.

“Then I went to the University of Exeter and this is when I learned how important the link with industry was.”

Back home, she applied for a lecturer’s position at the University of Mauritius, and was appointed in 1987.

“You know the motto in academia is ‘publish or perish’. This is when I started thinking the only way I could survive in an academic environment was to try to carve out a niche in the world of chemistry which was my passion and still is. Then I started looking and got training in synthetic organic chemistry.

“I went into the chemistry of plants because I knew we were in a biodiversity hotspot – unique plants, and unique molecules not found anywhere else in the world,” says the scientist-President.

As luck would have it, there was a project being funded by the European Development Fund in 1989 on the study of aromatic and medicinal plants in the Indian Ocean.

“So because I was dabbling with plants at the time and I had a background in chemistry, the government and the university had signed this MoU, so I got involved with that project.

Between 1990 and 1995, I documented and studied the medicinal and aromatic plants of Mauritius, and that was a fantastic journey.”

In 1992, Gurib-Fakim set up the very first laboratory to look into the anti-infective potential of plants. She traveled to villages, interviewed people on symptoms and the plants they were using, and developed the very first database, as there was no documentation of herbal medicine at the time.

“I thought the best way to add value to that piece of research was to bring in that component of validation… This is when we set up the laboratory for testing for anti-infectives because we are in the tropics and of course infectious disease is a very important component.”

By 1997, she had published the entire database of the traditional knowledge of plants. The four books are in the public domain and she also set up the very first publication of the medicinal plants of Rodrigues Island, part of Mauritius.

By 2001, she was promoted as professor of chemistry at the University of Mauritius, “the very first time a woman became a professor”. By 2004, she was appointed dean of faculty, and by 2006, deputy vice chancellor of the university.

In 2007, Gurib-Fakim received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.

“That was a very important moment because it added a lot of credibility, as people were still looking down on herbal knowledge; they called it witchcraft… so that was very important also in opening doors for more research grants. That really put the spotlight on Mauritius.”

But what was more important for Gurib-Fakim was a meeting before that with a French gentleman who had incorporated a company in Mauritius to do clinical trials.

“He said to me the area I was working in was very important for him because he was going to be able to use this or we could do it together to bring in innovative ingredients for these very important sectors, be it cosmetics, pharma, especially in the light of resistance to antibiotics and all that… That got me thinking that maybe there is something to do in that space as I didn’t know how to do it.”

Turning entrepreneur

Gurib-Fakim decided to take the plunge.

In 2010, with a consortium of colleagues, she had published the very first African Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which provides botanical, commercial and phytochemical information on important African medicinal plants.

She applied for a leave of absence at the University of Mauritius and by 2011, turned entrepreneur.

“I decided to put in my money, my ideas and my heart and joined the company. It was interesting as at the time people thought it was academic suicide because nobody had done it before. No project in fact had really crossed the valley of death, as we call it, to get to the other side. So I thought you know you live once; at least one day, I will know I tried and it didn’t work; so be it because I have tried,” says Gurib-Fakim.

The business started creating a buzz. Initially called CEPHYR, it pioneered cosmetic and pharma research and development, and in 2014, went in for rebranding when it moved into a bio-park, the very first in Mauritius.

It’s now called CIDP (Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutique), a state-of-the-art facility with sophisticated labs. Gurib-Fakim is not part of the business anymore, but Claire Blazy-Jauzac, Group Managing Director of CIDP, says about her: “I have known Ameenah closely for years. She has a vision for the country; she promotes research and she pushes for women and young people to innovate and believe in their potential.”

More on Mauritius

Life in politics

The next phase of Gurib-Fakim’s life was when the elections were coming up in 2014 in Mauritius. She received news of her Presidency from a reporter. With virtually no political experience on her CV, she was selected to be the Presidential candidate of the Alliance Lepep.

“I remember coming back from a global TED Talk in 2014 in Brazil and one journalist came up to me and said ‘you know ma’am, your name has been cited for Presidency in Mauritius’. I said ‘no ma’am, I think you must be mistaken, because I have no political ambition’. The very next day, I see my picture in the daily [and next to it] ‘Ameenah Gurib-Fakim for Presidency’ with a very small interrogation mark. I didn’t know. I was shocked,” she says.

“They came to me and said we need a neutral person with some credibility and we are going to run.

“So I said ok if I can serve my country at the highest level, why not?”

It was a “risk”, but she decided to take it.

“The one thing I have to say to young people is embrace the idea that you have to take risks because no business school will teach you to take personal risks.”

The party won with a landslide victory, and she had a week to prepare for the Presidential post. Gurib-Fakim was sworn in on June 5, 2015.

“This is when you realize you are in a position where you can make a difference. You can be the voice for so many things.”

She decided to push for sustainable development, women in science and the diversity of Mauritius.

“We are a country which is a microcosm of the world. We have shown to the world that we have diversity but we have managed to live with each other… we have again taken a pledge to advance the cause of science, because science, technology and innovation will be the tools we have to embrace to face climate change, to face job creation, to face the youth bulge, and women, because women feed Africa.”

Gurib-Fakim has reiterated the issues of climate change, global warming and innovation on global forums, and says building collaborations and partnerships is the way forward.

“At WEF in Davos in January, we launched the Coalition for African Research and Innovation [CARI] and this has been done with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with the Wellcome Trust, NEPAD, so all these agencies are coming together recognizing the potential that the youth has, and more importantly, the need to create the ecosystem to leverage diaspora as well.”

Speaking of diaspora, Gurib-Fakim says her family goes back four generations to a village called Mirzapur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She travels to India often, and says is currently in talks to get India’s biotech pioneer Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw to Mauritius in July for a forum connecting art and science.

“There is plenty to do,” says Gurib-Fakim, who is also working towards promoting sustainable conservation of germplasm for food, especially in light of climate change.

She is also pushing for Africa’s scientific independence.

“Africa should own her agenda in terms of generating Africa-centric data, Africa-centric projects but we need to leverage collaborations and partnerships with institutions where these things are already happening,” she says, adding that the youth needs to be empowered through education in science-technology-innovation.

“The youth is our biggest asset and the sooner we add value to that asset the better it is going to be for the continent… This is something I keep saying all the time. If you index your dollar to raw material it will go down. If you index your dollar to knowledge, the growth will be exponential…

“My biggest success will be if I have touched the lives of so many youth to make them successful,” says Gurib-Fakim, a mother of two. Her son, 25, and daughter, 19, are both at university in the UK. Her husband Anwar is a surgeon, who specializes in general surgery and urology.

“I say he’s a plumber,” laughs Gurib-Fakim, who says he supports her in her work by “being indifferent”.

“He doesn’t meddle with what I do and by being busy himself, he’s left me plenty of space to do what I want to do.”

One of only two female African presidents on the continent (the other being Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is retiring later this year), in 2016, FORBES listed Gurib-Fakim one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

You can tell her staff enjoy working with her. Her head of security says she has “an infectious positive disposition”.

Rachna Seenauth, the State House’s Assistant Maintenance Officer, who has worked with Gurib-Fakim long enough to know her well, says: “She is a great mentor and most helpful. She makes you dream and brings out the best in people. Being a person of science, she does things differently. She is putting the country on the international map.” But praise apart, like any African President, Gurib-Fakim has had her share of ups and downs and political trouble and controversies at home. More excerpts from the interview with her:

Gurib-Fakim On Being A Scientist, Entrepreneur And President

Mauritius has a 3.8% growth rate, which is fairly good…? 

Growth matters but the quality of the growth matters more. Because we can have jobless growth as well, this is where developing the medium for entrepreneurship is very important.

What are the new pillars of growth?

Now, we are going into the high end of the financial services… We are looking at the high end of education; we are starting to build an education hub. And then go into the ocean economy, which should not be perceived as fisheries alone even though it is an important component.

For me, the ocean economy is renewable energy; it’s exploration of the fauna and flora of the marine environment.

And then, bio-tech. Again, the pilot we did with the bio-park is proving to be very interesting, capitalizing on our diversity because we have a diverse population.

There is the perceived threat of rising sea-level in Mauritius…

We are number 13 on the world’s risk report, but we are working quite a bit. If you look at the hotel sector, we have to be ISO-certified, it gives a lot of plus… When we try and build for example, we are now mindful of the fact that the sea or ocean might rise. In fact, it’s already happening in the Pacific; if you look at some of the countries, they are already under water. And you are talking about climate refugees, and that is already happening on land.

Most people think Mauritius is not Africa… why?

Some people have called us ‘outliers’ (laughs). We are very much a part of the community, we belong to the Indian Ocean Commission, we belong to SADC, we belong to COMESA, we are very active in the African Union.

But you know we are very important as well. We straddle two continents. This is where we are also using our strategic positioning to build the infrastructure, for example, for financial services, because we would really like to see Mauritius being the bridge between Asia and Africa. And if Asia can go through Mauritius to Africa and vice versa, it is going to be very important for us and for both continents.

Do you aspire to be a Singapore?

We aspire to be a small country of high earners and improve the lives of our people. And I still think we have a good quality of life here in Mauritius. Everything to me is work in progress; we can’t afford to sit down on our laurels because the day you sit still is the day you’re going back.

You have said before you have never worked a day in your life…

I thought I was being original and realized it was Confucius who said it before me. But I will say it until my last breath – always be passionate about what you do. There is nothing worse than coming to a job you don’t like. In fact, this has been the way I have run my life. People say to me ‘how do you manage your time being a mother, being a career woman’… You have to have priorities and I decided from a very young age that I will have a career and a family.

How did you do it?

Just stay focused; being a woman is not easy in that space, that’s for sure. As women, we like to do everything, but in one day, there is only 24 hours, so you have to make choices. You can’t do it all.

And in politics, as President…?

Stay focused, and know what you want to do. I identified a few pillars I would like to do at the beginning of my mandate and I will do it; I will keep on doing it even after I finish my mandate as President. That’s in three years. I think it’s still long enough to be able to do many things. But again, it’s a question of staying focused and knowing what you want.

Can you apply for a second term?

Constitutionally, you can get renewed one more time, but we’ll see. Right now, I am enjoying the ride of doing things.

Do you think it’s difficult for a woman in politics?

It’s not easy for women; there is a lot of misogyny.

In politics, you have had a lot of trouble coming your way… do you think it is because you are a woman?

It can be attributed to being a woman.

How have you handled it?

You just stay focused and have to look at yourself and your conscience and say to yourself, ‘have I done anything that is wrong, which is not proper?’ And if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.

Mauritius is a conservative country, but has a female President, and this is unprecedented…

Again, this is a paradox, because when people voted, I was the only President whose name was flagged before the elections. Because usually, it’s a parliamentary election, and after the elections, they propose a name. But when they voted, the people voted for a package, they voted for a woman President and that’s maturity.

What do you envisage doing once your term ends?

To be honest, I have no idea. Just like I came into this post having no idea at all what to expect, here I am. My life has changed but I think it’s a very powerful position to make a difference and that’s what I want to do.

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Cover Story

‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya

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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.

“Get set!”

“Bang!”

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.

Caster Semenya crosses the line to win the gold medal in the women’s 800 meters final during day five of the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium.

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.

Caster Semenya.
Picture:
Motlabana Monnakgotla

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.

“Bang!”

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 and Caster Semenya. Picture: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty images

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.

Caster Semenya reacts after winning gold in the women’s 800 meter final on Day 15 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium.
Picture: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty images

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

stepping down’

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’

Caster Semenya’s manager, Becky Motumo. Picture: Supplied
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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2018 African Of The Year – President of Rwanda Paul Kagame

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In an exclusive interview, Paul Kagame, Rwandan President and Chair of the African Union, speaks to Methil Renuka about intra-Africa trade, how governments can drive entrepreneurial growth and why he will always find time to play sports.


The appointment is at 11AM on a November morning in Kigali, and past the tight security at the presidential offices located on KG7 Avenue, the views are of manicured lawns and a verdant paradise with hulking trees, chirping birds and cobbled pathways fringed by hibiscus and frangipani flowers. Kigali is a clean city with rolling hills and green valleys, but the foliage within Village Urugwiro, where we are meeting President Paul Kagame, is a botanist’s dream. A few minutes in the airy waiting lounge – accentuated by cream, olive green colors and a touch of wood – and the president walks in, tall and in an immaculate blue suit. He greets us warmly and is relaxed, joking about how much he dislikes posing for photographs. Yet, he obliges, against the greenery.

Kagame, who is also head of the African Union (AU), has been adjudged the ‘2018 African of the Year’ at the eighth All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).

Who is he dedicating it to, we ask? “The people of Rwanda,” he says. He shares more with FORBES AFRICA:   

Q. You are completing a year as chair of the African Union. Africa is such a diverse heterogeneous continent, with each country having its own interests. How challenging is your job in bringing a balance?

A. It’s absolutely challenging, and as you rightly said, you have to deal with diverse interests, cultures and backgrounds. Yet, Africa needs to be together in handling continental matters because there are more things that similarly affect Africans than are different. There are also different mentalities. You find some people are used to doing things a certain way, even if they are shown – or they see for themselves – that doing things differently might bring better results, they still stick to the old ways.

Talking about my task… The first thing is to pay attention to people’s concerns, to people’s ways of looking at things and take all that into account, as you also create space for people to discuss openly and show how we are all together in a different time than we have been used to… The moment you create that space for discussion, which we have done, the moment you increase consultation and also allow people to participate in challenging the points of views out there that tend to shape directions, we all have to follow, especially when you are able to identify things with certain success stories that exist. For example, in a country not making good progress or that is not ready to change, you can still point to their own situation and say ‘no, but you actually made good progress in this area because these were the contributing factors’. This can always be explained even in the wider context of where we want to go as a continent by coming together. So unity and regional integration have been emphasized.

We have been able to show that entrepreneurship, business and intra-Africa trade that have been lacking are actually more important than focusing solely on the market outside of the continent… That conversation helps people understand more, it helps people come together and we keep reminding them your neighbor is more important than someone far away from you. We are all neighbors one way or the other. My country has four neighbors and then one of the other countries we are neighbors with has nine neighbors. So it cuts across. We find we are actually very closely-linked and therefore, as we look at ourselves as individual countries, we need to recognize that if it’s sub-regional blocs or the continent, we become bigger, we are actually better off for it if we work together. Businesses and economies grow multiple times when we work together.

What I discovered from the beginning was there is no magic here other than just working with what there is and being realistic about it and allowing that conversation, and challenging one another, and being real in pointing out real things that matter, and we take it from there. And I think it has been good progress. We have put a lot of effort into it and every African country, every African leader, has played their part. So we just keep encouraging and keep going. Later, we can show everyone the benefit coming out of this very short period’s effort of working together.

Q. One of the aspirations of Agenda 2063 of the AU is a united Africa. How important is it for the rest of the world to see Africa as a single powerhouse?

A. We need it. We need that backdrop from which we should see things and remind ourselves how this continent is actually great, a continent projected to be 2.5 billion by 2050. That’s huge, bigger than any other continent. Africa is endowed with all kinds of resources, and natural resources, so how do you not think it’s important? Therefore, we have to create a clear context in which we operate and understand all aspects of this value of being in a position where we have huge assets in terms of people and natural resources and everything that anyone would wish for. So what remains is, how do we harness this? How do we leverage this? So we had to create long-term, medium-term pathways and say we should develop human capital and infrastructure. This huge workforce that keeps coming… 29 million supposed to be [pouring] into the labor market every year [until] 2030; you’ve got to think about this and ask what it means. It’s a huge asset if we make correct investments. It’s also a huge risk if you just keep [pouring] 29 million people in the labor market when they have nothing to do. The framework of 2063 provides sufficient room for us to think, reflect and therefore make the right investments for us to fulfill continental aspirations.

Q. The concept of a single African market. How far are we from realizing that?

A. I was pleasantly surprised when we had the summit here for the African Continental Free Trade Area. Initially, scepticism was expressed by some people, saying ‘but this can’t work, it can’t happen, Africa is divided, it never gets things right together’. So when the leaders came to Kigali for this extraordinary summit, we expected only a few countries to sign up, but we got 44 countries signing up on the first day. But we have also seen how it has been increasing, with countries ratifying the free trade area and free movement of people, goods and services. Therefore, that is a signal Africans understood the importance of this, and it is important indeed if we want to transform our economies and allow opportunities for prosperity to our people… I think [the single African market] is making very good progress even with that background of scepticism. We have already left that behind us and are moving forward.

Q. You are a leader who looks to the future not forgetting a painful past. How hard were the last two decades for you?

A. Very hard (laughs), which is an understatement, but that is the spirit, about learning lessons of the difficulties you have gone through but not allowing that to hold you back, to make you a hostage of that tragic experience, but rather learn lessons as quickly as you can and focus on where we are going in the future and doing our best to even keep making references to that past if you will. And therefore helping you to decide which choices to make at any given time in the future. So, 20 years has been a journey of difficulties but I think of the good stories too, and that is what encourages all of us.

We have had tragedies, and at the same time, the efforts of bringing people together through reconciliation, through deciding which direction we take for our future… the people have responded with energy, with positivity, and that has not come to nothing, it has actually borne fruit. We’ve seen progress.

Even the people, when you look at their faces and you look at how they go about things, it as if nothing ever happened here, yet history is loaded with terrible experiences. And apart from those tragic experiences, we have had other external pressures – people who are quick to forget. Sometimes, the demands [are] even from the outside about how we should deal with things, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, as if our lives are to be decided from the outside and as if we have nothing to do with determining our own course in the future.

But we have calmly had dialogue with such people behind those pressures. We have also focused and really concentrated on what we understand, even the hard choices we have to make, but the good thing is, every three or five years down the road, we were able to measure and say, ‘well, what have we gained from the different choices and efforts we made’. Could we have done things differently or even better? Even putting into account all these unnecessary external lessons, and pressures, we still listen. We don’t fall short on that. We always listen, but at the same time, we fully understand we are the ones for ourselves.

Q. Speaking about the future, Rwanda has been a pioneer in private sector-led economic transformation. What to you are the new industries and wealth creators of the future? 

A. From the outset, we understood we have to deal with people. How do you invest in them, how do you prepare them for their role? As a government, we have to improve their lives but also allow this broad national transformation to take place. Then it comes to skills. You give them more opportunities to access things that cut across what they have to do, whether it is the agriculture sector and the agri-businesses around that and the whole value chain, and remembering that agriculture, for example, is very important.

The other part is we have seen, in terms of technology, infrastructure, digitalization, the internet; we have to prepare people to use that, as they have a multiplying effect in many ways, even if it is in public service, and delivery of that in the population that plays that part… Different sectors are impacted by this, therefore, provide the infrastructure to do that, and then the innovation that will come along with it… So these are things we think about – how to create wealth for our own people, how to allow people to thrive…

But then, around that are rules of the game. How do you create an environment to allow disruption and innovation? For example, if you look at how we have been preparing the ground and allowing these activities to take place, in terms of even globally in the ease of doing business – the World Bank report where Rwanda is 29th in the world and second in Africa. All these are to answer that question: how do we create this wealth? It’s the environment, it is specific things to invest in, it’s how we leverage the resources we have.  

Q. How do you promote entrepreneurial capitalism, how are you looking at youth-led startups?

A. The question you raise is important. For example, we have an initiative called YouthConnekt, where we try to encourage young people to be innovative. We give them cash prizes, but this is to excite them and make them think innovatively. It also creates healthy competition among young people, but above all, it stimulates them to think [about] what they need to do that fits in with the times we are in. We also have formed business development funds that cut across districts and the country that help people understand what entrepreneurship holds for them and that they can participate and therefore, we give them seed money, if they specifically come up with these ideas but some of the ideas may come through this support by educating them. We have created an Innovation Fund, and help thousands of our young people by combining both innovation and entrepreneurship, we hope to keep exciting our young people to be able to do a number of things. We have national entrepreneurship programs.

Every five years, we see what this has done, what impact it has had, and also make improvements. So it keeps going. It has had a huge impact. We see it has been working and draw lessons from these experiences of young people feeding back to us as government institutions and then we respond as much as we can. Of course, governments have limitations. It doesn’t have everything it requires or wishes to deploy, to reach the goals we want. We’ve been trying to be thoughtful in involving the young people. We have also provided them educational programs that include vocational training and technical programs that help them to not just study in schools and sometimes come up with no skills, but to also acquire knowledge. The skills that are required for employment are lacking so we have also tried to cover that gap and are making good progress.

Q. What really drives entrepreneurship? How do we make sure young people stay on the continent?

A. It is a combination of many things. Some of it may even be political, meaning, the political environment must be that of reassurance to the citizens in general, but to the young people as well, and reassurance in a sense that it not something you just deliver to them, but something you deliver by allowing them to participate or [by conveying that] they have a place in their own country, and politically, they can participate, which again relates to the socioeconomic part of it.

Therefore, if politically, they understand they are participants and not just observers – they need to even participate in addressing some of the problems – then the next demand is ‘what about these bread-and-butter issues, how do I take care of myself, take care of my family; every effort is being done by the government to allow us young people to really play our part; and it means I start with my own environment, in my country, but how about if we connect across borders’?

So to a great extent, it speaks to politics. How do African countries and leaders allow this cross-border economic activity that interests these young people and holds them here so they don’t reach a point where they become desperate in which [case] they go to other places? Sometimes, they reach these [other places] and actually find the situation is even worse, so we have to find a way of talking directly to the young people, but above all, create new things on the ground they can experience and participate in.

It’s not one side that is going to deliver it and put on the table, it’s everybody. It has to be everyone, leaders of countries, and leaders of different kinds who have to play a bigger role.

Q. How do you think capitalists, billionaires and African business can help this process and work collaboratively with the government?

A. We want the private sector to be in the lead of our countries’ or continental transformation; that is for sure, but again, collaboration is important and this is the big burden that lies with governments and we must address how we allow not only the private sector to thrive, to freely do what it is meant to do, but how do we work with them. For example, many times that there have been discussions about private-public partnerships, some people are uncomfortable about them. You don’t understand why. There is no question that if the government played its part in allowing the private sector to thrive and the private sector also understands that if they do their part with the government, that’s very important in the thriving of the citizens of the country, which again constitute the market in which we operate.

So if the people of Rwanda are thriving, the citizens are well, then the business person should be happy because this is the market in which they play. But you can’t be rich and continue sustainably as a businessman in a very impoverished market. It’s just common sense. So if the market, the people are thriving, it feeds back to the private sector but then the private sector should respond in the same way… I mean if you’re a government person, a political leader, you also want to see a country that is registering economic growth, registering development. I think the private sector-mind is going to respond positively to these good signals originating from the political environment, from the leadership. It’s in their interest as well. So we really should be happy with the private-public partnership. There is no question about it, it’s a win-win sort of relationship.

Q. A leader, military leader and father to four children. What is the role you cherish most and how do you find the time to do justice to each?

A. I consider myself lucky, in this sense, I don’t even have to make a lot of effort in being myself; that is the starting point. I try to be myself, I try to be a family person, a person that relates with relatives, friends, and not only here, but outside the country. So I am first and foremost comfortable with that. The rest that comes along with that is the responsibility I now hold. I need no reminder that many people look up to me to say ‘what is he thinking [about] us, what are we going to be able to achieve with his leadership’. It doesn’t matter how the leadership role I play came about, whether it was accidental or planned, but I am there, so I have to play this role effectively.

It’s really trying to be comfortable with myself, comfortable as a family person, as a person who has friends, and who relates to even those who are not my friends directly (laughs). I have the responsibility to them and I must do as much as I can fairly without fear or favor. The balance has been happening without much effort.

Q.  How do you unwind? Do you get the time to play sport?

A. I do a lot of sport. I have to create time, there is no doubt. In fact, at times, I have to do things at strange hours, sometimes when others are sleeping… I even do my exercises very late in the night when I should be resting, but again, I always find ways of compensating for what I have missed because I also have to find time to rest, to sleep, above all.

I never lack sleep. Whenever I have a few hours to put my head on the pillow, without much effort, I go to sleep.

I do follow sport. I have been a good fan of Arsenal football club for about three decades now. Whenever they are playing, whatever game, whenever I have the time, I always want to watch.

I do follow other sports as well. I watch tennis, basketball – I follow the National Basketball Association (NBA).

I used to play basketball for fun, but am not a professional, and I never came anywhere near that. But I play tennis, I work out and enjoy watching games if I am not able to play.

Q. Your favorite sportsmen…?

A. They are many. For basketball, for many years, my favorite team for NBA has been the Golden State Warriors. I enjoy watching Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, but of course I also enjoy watching LeBron James, and then there are young upcoming players I have now started following.

‘2018 African of the Year’

‘African of the Year’ is one of the categories at the eighth All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).

The annual event (held this year on November 29) honors business excellence and leaders who have had a considerable impact on their industry and community. The nominees for the ‘African of the Year’ category, including several African statesmen, were judged based on the following criteria: their international profile, positive impact, their ability to build equality, develop society, champion inclusiveness, deal with corruption, transform society, enforce governance, alleviate poverty, lead economic development and be an African leader who is a role model. 

Paul Kagame: The Rwandan president and head of the African Union (AU) has spent this year improving the economic conditions of his country, and talking continental trade. He made headlines for the partnership with Alibaba, and for improving the ease of doing business in Rwanda as attested by the World Bank. Rwanda has inked a three-year deal as the tourism partner of English football club Arsenal. As a tribute to growing regional cooperation, three months after assuming the chairmanship of the AU, Kagame hosted, in Kigali, over 50 African heads of state, for the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which envisions a single market expected to generate a combined GDP of more than $3.4 trillion and benefiting 1.2 billion people. So far, 49 countries have come on board.

-Renuka Methil

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WATCH | Father-Son Duo Pascal & Uzoma Dozie on Cover of Forbes Africa November Issue

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Key contributors to the growth of the Nigerian economy, they have redefined banking by leveraging technology and connecting people to market. From just £100 in his bank account, Pascal Dozie has built a business empire his son Uzoma is taking to the future.

READ: The Money Men Of Nigeria’s Banking Industry

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