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Reinventing The Wheel

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It’s scorching hot in Vanderbijlpark, in the south of the Gauteng province in South Africa. The streets are quiet, apart from the odd car that drives past us. We take refuge from the heat under a jacaranda tree as we wait for Lebohang Monyatsi.

Monyatsi was adjudged First Princess at the Miss Wheelchair World pageant on October 7 in Warsaw, Poland. She is Africa’s first-ever runway model in a wheelchair.

Monyatsi drives around the corner in a red car, windows wide open, smiles and waves, signaling us to follow her. She will lead us to her home.

Monyatsi’s cousin escorts her out of the car and on to her wheelchair, its wheels a gaudy pink, branded Ms Wheelchair World. While Monyatsi is greeted by stairs at the entrance of her home, we’re greeted by gospel music; its base causes the windows to vibrate. She cautiously negotiates her way up the stairs with her cousin’s help.

Monyatsi, 31, has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of three when diagnosed with polio.

“This is all I have ever known and in a sense I thank God because I am not burdened with a longing to walk, it’s something I have never been able to do.”

Born in Mahikeng, the capital city of the North West province of South Africa, and best known internationally for the Second Boer War, Monyatsi remembers little about life before polio.

“My grandmother told me I was a sweet child, shy, but I was always smiling and warm,” she says.

But something was amiss every time she would try to walk, unlike other toddlers her age.

Polio (poliomyelitis), a highly infectious disease caused by a virus, invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.

According to the World Health Organization, “Polio mainly affects children under five years of age. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.”

And, while the number of polio cases has fallen worldwide from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to 407 in 2013 — a decline of more than 99% in reported cases, some parts of West and North Africa are still grappling to contain the virus.

READ MORE: Landing An Airbus And The Best Modeling Assignments in Africa

Monyatsi was raised by her grandmother after the passing of her mother when she was only nine years old.

“When my mom passed on, my granny became my rock, I don’t know where I would be without her.”

Monyatsi manages to seat herself on the brown couch. It’s L-shaped and takes up most of the living room of her apartment, which is not designed for wheelchairs. Its countertops are high, the passages to the various rooms narrow; black marks line the walls, mapping the areas she has had to negotiate her way through.

“I guess I had a good upbringing, except that I grew up with able-bodied people at home and in my community, there was no one else like me. Sometimes I would get teased. They would call me sekgoele (handicapped),” she remembers.

“But my biggest challenge when I came of school-going age was that I was not able to attend a mainstream school. The schools were not accessible to people in wheelchairs, I actually started primary school when I was 11 years old.”

In South Africa, law recommends or requires children to start school at the age of six or seven. Her grandmother had searched for years. She found a special needs school next to Gelukspan, not far from Mahikeng.

“Everything was good there because all the children in that school were like me in some way or another – special – so I could relate. Everyone had different disabilities, some were limping while others were on crutches and some, like me, were in wheelchairs. I matriculated in 2008 at the same school, I was 23 or 24.”

Again, in South Africa, education at a secondary level is completed at the age of 18.

“I was very old,” Monyatsi giggles.

Currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, she has already obtained a degree in Social Psychology at North-West University in South Africa.

“I have realized that in South Africa, we don’t have many people capturing the good things disabled people all around the country do and most of the time and when they do, they create stories as though it’s something extraordinary and it’s not, it’s normal, all these people have done is do it in a different way.”

Her motivation for returning to school and studying communications is reminiscent of South Africa’s Olympian and fallen hero Oscar Pistorius. Like Monyatsi, he was unable to walk as a young boy, born without lower limbs. Pistorius’ limbs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old.

“With my commutations degree, I’m hoping to capture the activities people with disabilities participate in everyday like everyone else,” says Monyatsi.

But her ambition surpassed academics.

“From a young age, I always wanted to be a model.”

READ MORE: Karlie Kloss – Coding’s Supermodel

Like any young girl with aspirations, she would see models on television or glossy magazines and dreamed that one day she would be like them, perhaps even better.

“But sadly, I could not pursue this career because in Africa, actually I think in the world, there’s really no inclusion for people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. But then, when I saw the opportunity to enter the Miss Wheelchair World pageant, I was very excited because finally I could just do what I have always wanted to do – model.”

Before the pageant, she participated in other contests that were not easy to come by.

Monyatsi was at the Soweto Fashion Week, Maboneng, and D-Junction Fashion week showcasing the work of various designers.

“I once won Miss Confidence for the North West province,” she beams. “That was great.”

For Miss Wheelchair World, she had been selected from a bevy of hopefuls from around the world. She was one of 24 finalists.

“I was the only one from South Africa; from the rest of the continent, it was just the two of us, myself and Miss Angola. I was really excited. I received a call from one of the sponsors and she told me that this is a monumental achievement and that I would need to start looking for sponsorship.”

Monyatsi was the first South African woman in a wheelchair to be a runway model and the first to represent South Africa at the pageant.

A Polish organization had held the first international edition of a beauty pageant for women in wheelchairs in an effort to change people’s perceptions about people with disabilities. The event was organized by the Only One Foundation, founded by two disabled women seeking to break down barriers limiting disabled people. After four editions of Miss Poland Wheelchair, the pageant marked an effort to go global.

Monyatsi would come to realize just how difficult it was to be a person living with a disability in South Africa. She looked for sponsorship everywhere. She poured her excitement into a letter to the Presidency of South Africa and then to the country’s department of social development.

In it she wrote how she had become a finalist for Miss Wheelchair World that was a first for South Africa. But nobody came forward to sponsor her trip.

“I was rejected by all of them… I had to get a loan for R25,000 ($1,800) for my flight to Poland.”

The organizers paid for the accommodation.

“Looking back, I’m still so angry and hurt by the government because I feel like I was not taken seriously. I just didn’t understand why because I was going there to represent South Africa, not myself.”

Monyatsi goes on to offer an example of former South African beauty queen and business woman, Basetsana Kumalo, who after winning the Miss South Africa title in 1994, went on to become the 1st runner up for Miss World Africa. She received major praise and support from South Africa for elevating the country on an international stage.

“I was the first runner up in this competition but nobody knows or cares,” she says as she looks at her hands folded over her limp knees.

“I don’t know if it’s because I am disabled.”

But she is grateful for the support from her family, her community as well as South African citizens. A fashion designer from Cape Town who was inspired by Monyatsi’s story sponsored two of her dresses for the competition.

Poland, unlike South Africa, according to Monyatsi, is very wheelchair-friendly.

“They are really able to accommodate people with disabilities, even the transportation system is great, very wheelchair-friendly. It was really easy for me to make my way around without assistance. People also don’t stare, I never felt like I was a side-show parading for people’s bewilderment and pity everyday like here in South Africa.”

Monyatsi explains that each day when she wakes up, she is forced to mentally brace herself for the stares she knows she’ll get as she goes about her day.

“Every day, it’s like I am an exotic animal people never even knew existed, why is that?” she asks, confused. “We’re not welfare, we’re normal.”

In South Africa, just over two million people live with some form of a disability, according to a Census 2011 report by Statistics South Africa.

Her struggles go beyond the stares. Finding a job in South Africa is proving to be a daunting task.

“Minibus taxis see me in a wheelchair and drive right past me even as I flag them to stop. I am no different than an able-bodied paying customer; the only difference is no one is willing to assist me. Can you imagine my life, I’m black, a woman and I’m disabled, that’s like a triple disaster in this country,” she laughs.

This achievement was a big part of her drive to work towards disability inclusion. Her hope is for every aspect of life to be accessible to people with disabilities and she plans to use her communications degree to achieve that.

“I really want to change the image of people, and of women in particular, with disabilities, break barriers and show that being in a wheelchair is not a limitation.”

Monyatsi has proven it certainly isn’t.

Current Affairs

‘With Covid-19, See How Resilient Nature Is’

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Adjany da Silva Freitas Costa; image supplied

Adjany da Silva Freitas Costa, the youngest minister in the Angolan cabinet, is an intrepid adventurer, biologist and conservationist committed to saving the world’s last wild places.

Adjany da Silva Freitas Costa is not your ordinary minister. At 30 years old, the Luanda local is currently the youngest minister to serve in the Angolan cabinet and an intrepid adventurer with an inspiring hands-on background.

In 2015, Costa was one of the braves who undertook a four-month journey for the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. The captivating trip documentary, Into the Okavango, follows the courageous crew of scientists (including Costa) who travel the riverine route. The journey began in the highlands of Angola and had the team meandering 2,400km by mokoro (a traditional canoe), camping wild along the Okavango River until they reached the town of Maun in Botswana. The trip illustrated how the Okavango Delta relies on Angolan rains, but also highlighted the costs of Angola’s lengthy war to its landscapes.

In April this year, Costa assumed the government position as Minister of Culture, Tourism and Environment. “It is not exactly unusual for a woman to join the Angolan government,” says Costa, “but it’s not exactly common either.” Currently, there are seven women ministers in the Angolan cabinet, creating a gender split of roughly 35% female.

“We bring a lot of benefit for the simple fact that we can bring inclusion to the politics forged in society,” says Costa. “I think that every single one of us brings a different perspective to the whole context of politics. Currently, I am the youngest minister to serve in the Angolan cabinet. It makes me feel like there is hope for youth and hope for the future. I do think we bring an innovative way of thinking and innovative vision into the current system that is very beneficial to change and to the improvement of the system here in Angola.”

The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project expedition revealed new species (to date, ongoing field trips have resulted in the discovery of 26 species new to science, more than 75 species potentially new to science, and more than 130 species previously unknown in Angola). It also embedded in Costa a life-long commitment to saving the world’s last wild places. It short, it changed her life.

“It changed the whole perception that I had of everything, personally, professionally, academically,” Costa admits. “The trip helped me see the world and my participation in the world, in a very different way. In a very concrete way and I don’t think I would be sitting here answering these questions if I hadn’t participated. I have never, ever in my entire life “envisioned myself as a minister. I don’t think I’ve ever envisioned myself being part of politics, but there is a writer who once said, ‘You don’t choose politics. Politics chooses you’, and that’s exactly what happened. I see it as an opportunity to bring change from the outside. I am someone that has always applied the policy that’s created by decision-makers. I think it’s an opportunity to bring that applicability into the system and make it much more action-focused – and more than a piece of paper.”

In 2017, Costa was named an emerging explorer at National Geographic, and in 2019, she became the Young Champion of the Earth for Africa in the United Nations Environment Program. Before taking a seat in the government, Costa worked as an ethno-conservationist to pioneer projects that developed working conservation models for communities living alongside crucial wildlife hubs.

“Being a biologist is also a great advantage for this position. I believe that policies should be made to be applied and not archived,” Costa says. Another benefit for her position is that she knows all about being on the ground. “I started my journey in conservation, looking specifically at biodiversity and working directly with the specimens. I started with turtles, and all we did was patrol the beaches and look after the nests – and that was it. There was no engagement. For a long time, I always thought there was a separation between humans and wildlife – and that the separation was needed for us to protect wildlife. Working for the past five years in the East of Angola, I realized that it is the complete opposite. The gap that we’ve created with nature is what causes us to destroy nature in the first place.”

Costa has a masters degree in Biology and a PhD in International Wildlife Conservation Practices from Oxford University. In the wake of Covid-19, we are just beginning to see the harsh effects of tourism loss to wilderness protection.

“Rural communities are the true protectors of the environment around them,” Costa says. “Ethno-conservation is the art, and it is our privilege of being able to work with communities for the sake of nature. Not just for the conservation of biodiversity, but also the improvement of their own lives.”

The drastic decline in visitor numbers in the wilds of Kenya, Zimbabwe and across the African continent highlights the importance of such a conservation model more than ever as decades of conservation successes hunker in jeopardy due to tourism collapse. 

“Our main target for tourism in Angola is internal tourism. We have 29 million people that don’t know most of the country,” says Costa. “We have a lot of potential though; whether it’s landscape, culture, adventure or eco-tourism, it’s possible in Angola. We are very much focused on creating the services and infrastructure for internal tourism before we look outside of our borders.

“In terms of tourism, Angola’s biggest asset is definitely diversity,” Costa enthuses. “Not just naturally and not just culturally. The conditions that you find from one place to the other are so unique that you can go, within Angola, to 10 different places that feel like completely different countries. We literally go from a tropical forest, all the way to a desert in one row. Angola has partnered with different collaborators to assure the protection of these spaces. Whatever happens in Iona National Park is completely different from what happens in the Luengue-Luiana National Park (which feeds the Okavango Basin), and that’s completely different from what happens in the Quiçama National Park.”

She also believes that protecting such wild spaces enables wildlife to flourish.

“Nature has this incredible thing that is, to me, one of the most fantastic traits. It is resilient. Even now, with this Covid-19 situation, we have seen how resilient nature is. Wilderness itself can resuscitate, and wilderness can find a future – if we just know how to protect it.”

When asked about inspiration and the future, Costa cites other intrepid conservationists, Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle as strong influences.

“If I have to send a message to young women around the world, what would it be? Do it. That’s something that I always say. Do it. Whatever it is that we set our minds to do. We can most definitely, definitely do it. We can achieve impossible things. I’m a minister today. That says a lot!”

 – By Melanie van Zyl

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Sport

Naomi Osaka Is The Highest-Paid Athlete Ever, Topping Serena Williams

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The 22-year-old Japanese tennis player racked up $37 million in earnings in the past year, more than any other female athlete in history.

Naomi Osaka was only a year old when Serena Williams won her first grand slam title in 1999. Nineteen years later, Osaka beat Williams at the U.S. Open finals to win her first grand slam. It was one of the most controversial matches in Open history involving three code violations called against Williams. Now the 22-year-old ace has beaten her legendary rival once again, this time for bragging rights as the highest-paid female athlete in the world.

Osaka earned $37.4 million the last 12 months from prize money and endorsements, $1.4 million more than Serena, setting an all-time earnings record for any female athlete in a single year; Maria Sharapova held the prior record with $29.7 million in 2015.

Osaka ranks No. 29 among the 100 highest-paid athletes, while Williams is No. 33. It’s the first time since 2016 that two women have made the ranks of the top 100 highest paid athletes, with the full 2020 list set for release next week.

“To those outside the tennis world, Osaka is a relatively fresh face with a great back story,” says David Carter, a sports business professor at USC Marshall School of Business. “Combine that with being youthful and bicultural, two attributes that help her resonate with younger, global audiences, and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon.”

The ascension puts an end to a decisive winning streak for Williams, who has been the world’s highest-paid female athlete each of the past four years, with annual pre-tax income ranging from $18 million to $29 million. The 23-time grand slam champion has collected almost $300 million during her career from endorsers who have swarmed the 38-year-old star.

Osaka’s rise to the head of the charts was a perfect  convergence of several factors. She first proved herself on the court, with back-to-back grand slam titles at the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open. That plus her heritage—a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father—helped separate her from the pack; at only 20 when she won her Open title, she had a cool factor and engaging personality.

Osaka’s roots are crucial to her endorsement stardom. She was born in Japan. When she was three, she and her family moved to the U.S., settling on Long Island and then heading to Florida; older sister, Mari, also plays on the pro circuit.

She turned pro in 2014, a month before her 16th birthday. She cracked the WTA’s top 40 in 2016 and won her first title in March 2018 at Indian Wells. In the 12 months that followed, she became the first Japanese player to win a slam, and first Asian tennis player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

Osaka maintains dual citizenship but made the wise choice to represent Japan ahead of the since-postponed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. The decision made her an even hotter commodity for Olympic sponsors, like Procter & Gamble, All Nippon Airways and Nissin, who signed endorsement deals with Osaka to use her around marketing for the Games, now scheduled for summer 2021. She is expected to be one of the faces of the Olympics that had triggered unprecedented levels of excitement among the Japanese public before the coronavirus.

A Decade Of Highest-Paid Female Athletes

Tennis has been a winning strategy for highest-paid female athletes. Before Naomi Osaka arrived on the scene, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were the top earning women of the decade, holding the top spot for five and four years, respectively.

The last top-earning female athlete, outside of Williams and Sharapova, was Serena’s sister Venus in 2003. Tennis remains the only route for women to rank among the top-paid male sports stars. Sharapova, Li Na, Serena, and now Osaka are the only females to rank among the 100 top earners in sports since 2012. The highest-paid female athlete every year since Forbes started tracking the data in 1990 has been a tennis player, with Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis the top earners most of the 1990s. 

Tennis players are walking billboards in the only major global sport where men and women have some level of equality in their paychecks, thanks to similarly sized audiences tuning in to watch tournaments. Prize money at the four grand slam events has been even since 2007, although men still earn more at lower level tourneys.

The demographics of the tennis fan make sponsoring top players attractive for brands. At the U.S. Open last year, attendance skewed in favor of women by a ratio of 56 to 44, a rarity at big time sporting events; 78% held at least a bachelor’s degree versus 35% for the U.S. overall; the average household income was $216,000. This is a group with significant disposable income, ready to buy apparel, sporting equipment, cars, watches and financial services.

Steering Osaka’s brand is tennis powerhouse agency IMG, which leaned on its history with breakout female tennis stars when Osaka started blowing up, having represented Maria Sharapova and Li. Stuart Duguid is her lead agent at IMG.

The apparel deal is almost always the biggest endorsement for tennis stars, and Osaka’s timing was perfect there as well, as she hit the open market just after winning two grand slams. It triggered a free agency bidding war between Nike and Adidas—her previous apparel sponsor. The Swoosh emerged on top and paid her more than $10 million last year in an agreement that runs through 2025.

Osaka secured an extremely rare but lucrative provision in her Nike contract. The sportswear giant always requires its tennis players to be clad in Nike gear from head to toe, without any other logos on their shirts or hats. This is lucrative real estate for marketers, as cameras focus closely on the player as they serve or get set to return serve.

Nike never made an exemption for Serena, Sharapova, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi or any of the other marketable tennis stars in their stable. The only exception until last year was China’s Li Na; Osaka was the second, thanks to massive leverage with Sharapova headed for retirement and Williams turning 39 this year. Her “patch” deals are with All Nippon Airways, MasterCard and ramen noodle maker Nissin Foods.

Nike plans to launch an Osaka streetwear line in Japan in the fourth quarter, featuring hoodies, leggings and shirts, as well as a new collection each season. There will not be any tennis apparel.

Osaka now has 15 endorsement partners, including global brands like Nissan Motor, Shiseido and Yonex, whose tennis racquets she has used for more than a decade; almost all are worth seven-figures annually. 

Sharapova was 17 when she defeated Williams to win the 2004 Wimbledon crown. IMG quickly mobilized to lock up lucrative long-term deals for the Russian, who ranked as the highest-paid female athlete for 11 years before injuries and a suspension for taking a banned substance dented her earnings.

IMG got an education on marketing a female Asian tennis star with China’s Li. She was the first grand slam singles champion from Asia, man or woman, when she captured the 2011 French Open at age 29. IMG quickly secured seven multi-million deals, pushing her off-court earnings from $2 million to $20 million. She challenged Sharapova as the sport’s top earner until her retirement in 2014.

IMG used its expertise in Japan with Kei Nishikori, who has never won a grand slam but is the most successful Japanese male player ever, resulting in an endorsement portfolio worth $30 million a year.

Sharapova, Li and Nishikori paved the way for Osaka’s marketing breakthrough. “We were fortunate to have a very sophisticated office in Tokyo that already had the experience with Kei,” IMG’s head of tennis Max Eisenbud told Forbes last year. “The relationships in that region are important.”

With plenty of endorsement cash, Osaka partnered with several brands last year, with significant equity components, including emerging sports drink BodyArmor and Hyperice, which makes recovery and movement products.

BodyArmor marketing exec Mike Fedele says Osaka was one of inspirations for its “Only You” ad campaign launched this week. “Naomi is fiercely dedicated to perfecting her game on the court and a huge part of that is what she does off the court with her training, nutrition and hydration,”he says.

“I’m really interested in seeing a young business grow and adding value to that process,” Osaka told Forbes last year. “I tasked my team with finding brands that align with my personality and my interests.”

Brands are lining up to get into the Naomi Osaka business.

Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes Staff, SportsMoney

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Politics

‘It’s The People-To-People Connections That Make A Lasting Impact’

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Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia’s first female president and the only serving female head of state in Africa, tells FORBES AFRICA why more leaders should use soft power to achieve shared growth.

Sahle-Work Zewde has her name etched in political history. A veteran public official having served as an ambassador to Senegal, Djibouti, and France between 1989 and 2006, before her presidency, Zewde was Special Representative to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union. In an email interview, Zwede, who was also on FORBES AFRICA’s list of ‘Africa’s 50 Most Powerful Women’ for its March issue, dwells on why the ‘Africa we want’ will only become a reality with the positive and significant transformation of women’s lives:

In your position, how are you moving to achieve more gender proportionality in Ethiopian politics?

I see my being in this position as both an opportunity and responsibility. I know that it is political will that has opened the way for me and many other women to assume positions of power and influence in the Presidency and the ministerial cabinet in Ethiopia. This stride is a major step forward for Ethiopia as a nation and also for the continent. However, things can regress and go back to how they were unless we take strategic and intentional action to build on the momentum. For me, the way forward is using my platform to empower and embolden the women coming after me. This can occur in two ways. The first is working on empowering the women who are in the workforce and especially in positions of leadership to reach their full potential and engage in activities that provide opportunities for the next generation of women leaders. The second is helping female students at both the university and high school levels to ensure that we have a steady stream of competent, educated and confident women ready to take over. As women in power, we have a responsibility to all the women that will come after us to ensure that their trajectory is easier than ours.

How must Africa change in this regard?

Although more progress has been achieved in terms of delivering on our promise to provide support towards women’s education, health services, access to finance and political participation in a growing number of African countries, much more needs to be done. As a continent, we must go beyond the rhetoric and provide tangible solutions for African women in all sectors. The ‘Africa we want’ will only become a reality with the positive and significant transformation of women’s lives and the extent of their participation in all walks of life.

What do the words ‘power’ and ‘soft power’ mean to you?

There is a clear distinction between ‘power’ and ‘soft power’. While the first uses any means to achieve a goal, the latter relies on influence through communication, understanding and healthy discourse. Soft power does not resort to violence or coercive methods to achieve the results sought. Serving as a diplomat for a quarter century and at the United Nations for over a decade, I became very knowledgeable of the utility of soft power to reach consensus and effectuate change.

For me, the idea of soft power is what we need to promote as a continent. For decades, our continent has been ravaged by civil war, ethnic conflict and infighting.

However, Africa is now enjoying more economic growth than it has ever had. What we need now is more leaders to exercise soft power, finding what unites us to achieve a vision of shared growth. Traditional governance sees the government as the sole owner and executer of international relations. However, with our increasingly globalized world, it’s the people-to-people connections that make a true and lasting impact and bond. Leaders of today have to detach from traditional views and adopt the more global perspective the times require.

– Interviewed by Renuka Methil

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