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‘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’

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The People’s Banker: ‘Entrepreneurship Means Folding Up Your Sleeves And Working’

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James Mwangi; images by Paul Kariuki Munene for FORBES AFRICA IN Nairobi

In 1993, Dr James Mwangi walked away from a promising career at one of Kenya’s largest banks, to join the Equity Building Society. Three decades on, few could have predicted his entrepreneurial leadership would work to transform not just Equity but the financial services of the region. FORBES AFRICA meets the man behind East Africa’s billion-dollar banking empire.

Dr James Mwangi, Managing Director and CEO of Kenya’s Equity Group, is a captivating figure. His trademark smile and down-to-earth demeanour set him apart from the traditional banker. But Mwangi isn’t your run-of-the-mill chief executive. His journey to the C-suite has been fuelled by sheer resolve, belligerent bravado, and an uncanny concern for his customers.

It’s hard to believe that the force behind East Africa’s pioneering billion-dollar banking brand grew up in circumstances far removed in rural Nyagatugu, a tiny village flanking the Aberdare mountains in central Kenya.

“I am a product of my upbringing [and] it has [had] a significant influence on how I see things today… [but] my village of Nyagatugu was not enough to say that I conquered Africa,” declares Mwangi from his office at Equity’s corporate headquarters in Upperhill, Nairobi’s swanky business district, in an interview with FORBES AFRICA in July.

The banker describes his childhood as humble, dignified but fraught with difficulty. Born in 1962 to peasant farmers, Mwangi’s parents had no formal education and lived apart from what he calls the ‘monetary society’. As a boy, he had never met anyone who owned a bank account or even fathomed being served by any of the country’s banks which, at the time, only catered to a privileged few.

“It was a simple life. As boys, we grazed cows and goats… we hunted wild animals like rabbits. Growing up, we didn’t know [if] people were ‘well-off’ or [if] people were ‘poor’, we were all equals. [As a community], we built houses together, tilled the land together, and even socialized together at village dances,” he reminisces.

While it may seem contradictory, it was this deeply communal atmosphere that inspired the business that Mwangi built.

Founded in 1984, Equity did not start its commercial life as a bank but as a mutual society trading as the Equity Building Society (EBS). Back then, as Kenya was forging a new national identity, most banks were hesitant to provide its vast population with even the most basic financial services. As an answer, indigenous building societies took root. However, while buffeted by good intention, these fledgling financial institutions were poorly run, leading many to ruin.

“I realized that there is no wealth without work! Entrepreneurship means folding up your sleeves and working. Profit is the reward.”

In the 1970s, while these societies were emerging, life’s challenges had already begun to shape the young Mwangi. Shortly after his birth, his family had suffered a major tragedy with the untimely death of his father. His mother, Grace Wairimu, was not only widowed but was left with seven children to raise on a meager income.

Never having gone to school herself, Mwangi’s mother, who was an anchor throughout his life, was adamant that all her children, including her daughters, would study; a controversial decision at the time. And she was not prepared to compromise.

To achieve this dream, Wairimu imposed a strict code of discipline in her household whilst encouraging an entrepreneurial fervor in her children. The family sold milk, tea, charcoal, and fruits to stay afloat. It was an important training ground for the young Mwangi.

“We were vending to eke out a living, to pay school fees, and to feed the family. My instinct for commerce [came] from [there]… I realized that there is no wealth without work! Entrepreneurship means folding up your sleeves and working. Profit is the reward,” he explains.

Nyagatugu was where Mwangi really cut his teeth in business. Then, owing to his academic talent, he had the opportunity to study the theory that governed his early entrepreneurial experiences, on scholarship, at the University of Nairobi several years later.

“Taking milk to the village restaurant or selling fruits to the village middleman, who would take them to [the market] in Nairobi, introduced me to the concept of ‘supply chains’. I realized that I was the ‘primary producer’ with my mother, the ‘middleman’ dealt with logistics, and then an ‘aggregator’, who was our face in the marketplace, played on volume and made more money than everyone else. The owner of the shop received [goods] from the ‘aggregator’ and sold them to ‘consumers’, through the ‘brand’ of his shop. I [finally] understood how the value created [in the supply chain] was shared.”

After university, Mwangi began his career as an auditor with Ernst & Young in Nairobi. Four years later, he moved to the now-defunct Trade Bank Group. Then an innovative financial services firm, founded in 1985, it quickly gained prominence as Kenya’s first attempt at mass-market banking.

Over a brief career at the bank, he climbed the ranks from teller to Group Financial Controller.

However, just as things were looking up, a familiar face came calling. In 1993, the EBS was in trouble, with debt on its books. Founder and Chairman, Dr Peter Munga, had known Mwangi as a boy and was convinced that the young banker was his only hope. By then, Equity had been declared insolvent and was facing dissolution.

“We came from the same village where I had developed the reputation of a ‘brilliant boy’. I was the first boy [from Nyagatugu] to get a university degree. I was also a youth leader in the church. In Nairobi, I had risen up to be a director at Trade Bank by the age of 28 [where] I had a reputation for being a sharp young man who was good at analytics and bold decision-making. All of that combined to package me, in the eyes of Dr Munga (and other EBS executives), as a credible, reliable person,” he says.

Munga’s confidence was not misplaced. Eager to oblige, 31-year-old Mwangi left his job at Trade Bank to take on a role as Director of Strategy at the stagnating society.

“I had gone with [EBS executives] to Central Bank because they had been condemned with closure. Suddenly, the Governor looks at me, as I try to plead their case for more time, and he says [to me], ‘if it was you who was talking of turnaround, then I would give you the opportunity’. I was between a rock and a hard place; if I hadn’t made the sacrifice to join them, then they would [have had] to close,” recalls Mwangi.

“I had a singular mind to build a bank for my mother who [I saw] bury savings under her mattress.”

So, in a seemingly fool-hardy move, the young banker agreed to take on mounting debt, unpaid salaries, dwindling membership, and declining morale at Equity. He even remortgaged his own house to inject some desperately needed cash into the business, inextricably linking his fate, and hard-won reputation, with that of the beleaguered building society.

 Given a carte blanche to transform the business and with no option of turning back, Mwangi was determined to meet his mandate.

“I had made the decision from an emotional aspect [and] I didn’t want to fail them. But I hadn’t realized that Equity was in [such] a bad state. It had not done any [debt] reconciliation, it had not published accounts for three years, and it had not had a board meeting for [over] two years. With everything at stake, it was only my entrepreneurial skill that would [eventually] get us out of insolvency.”

Mwangi’s reforms were more an attempt at reinvention rather than resuscitation. He began by re-training the organization’s remaining staff in the ethos that would later come to define them – customer care.

“We didn’t have money… the currency that created Equity was a passion to please the customer. I had a very small staff, none of whom had gone beyond Form 4 [Grade 10]. They didn’t have the skills but they had enthusiasm. We didn’t [even] have a meaningful product so we had to give our clients an experience that they had never had anywhere else and that they were willing to pay for,” he continues.

According to a Lagos Business School case study, Mwangi ensured that, in this way, his 12,000 customers were accorded with the dignity they deserved, breathing new life into the institution. This had an impact on both sides of the counter. Customers felt valued and continued to patronize the building society. On their side, staff felt confident and empowered even whilst working long hours.

 In 1997, things looked promising. Equity had cleared its debts, encouraging staff and customers to begin purchasing shares in the company. This time around, Mwangi made sure that records were meticulously kept.

“We didn’t have money… the currency that created Equity was a passion to please the customer.”

According to its website, Equity’s client accounts had grown exponentially from 32,000, in 1997, to 482,000 by 2005. This exemplary track record allowed Mwangi to raise capital from the European Union (EU), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and other institutional lenders to introduce computing technology to the building society, paving way for his ambitious expansion plans.

“Transaction times dropped from 30 minutes to five, queues disappeared, the process, including signatures and so on, was automated. Equity was now on a rapid, but solid, growth path,” notes Mwangi in a 2012 interview to African Business.

Steady growth made the building society’s transition to Equity Bank, in August 2004, possible. Two years later, the bank listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). Bolstered by further investment, Equity made its first foray into the region, listing on the Uganda Securities Exchange, as EBL in 2009.

Within five years, the bank was operating subsidiaries in Rwanda, Tanzania, and was among the first to open branches in South Sudan, Africa’s youngest country. By 2019, the bank had transformed, yet again, becoming Equity Group Holdings, with customers across East Africa.

In 2020, three decades after Mwangi made his debut, the Equity Group boasted a market capitalization of KES128.1 billion (approx. $1.3 billion) making it the largest banking outfit in East Africa, out-rivalling its closest competitors.

Equity’s tremendous transformation is due, in large part, to what is now known as ‘The Mwangi Model’. Thanks to this ground-breaking framework, Mwangi has been able to introduce a bulk of East Africa’s low-income population to the financial services sector. It is a model of inclusion that thrives on high volumes, low margins, and mass-market appeal.

“I realized [after leaving Trade Bank] that it was not the bank of the common man. My mother would have never been able to [open] an account there. Nobody in my village would have qualified for an account either. In fact, not even [EBS Founder] Dr Peter Munga would have qualified. I had a singular mind to build a bank for my mother who [I saw] bury savings under her mattress,” reveals Mwangi.

At the time, this drive to serve the so-called ‘unbankable’ population had only been attempted once before at the Grameen Bank founded in 1984 by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. However, in Kenya, the model was risky, untested, and needed modifying.

“To be honest, [in 1993] I didn’t have a very good view of what Muhammad Yunus was doing. His [main product] was group lending, Equity started out with individual lending. I simply wanted to remove the barriers for people, like my mother, in opening bank accounts. We could do better than a mattress!”

This revolutionary perspective blew open the Kenyan banking sector. By eliminating monthly ledger fees, minimum balance requirements, and easing withdrawal limits, Equity ended up engineering a product that it could bank on.

By 2000, Mwangi says, Equity began signing on an average of 100 new clients per day. Going directly to its customers, initially, in weekly marketing campaigns in rural towns and villages, the bank eventually developed a network of third-party ‘banking agents’ to provide services across Kenya, even in the most far-flung corners.

Today, with mobile banking, Equity’s customers benefit from yet more convenience with access anywhere, any time, and at a minimal cost.

As a result, Mwangi’s entrepreneurial reward has extended far beyond profit. The ‘Mwangi Model’ has been recognized and analysed in case studies at some of the world’s most prestigious business schools including Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, and the Lagos Business School.

He is also the holder of numerous honorary degrees and the winner of countless awards for his commercial prowess. The first, and most memorable, he says, was the ‘Global Vision Award’, which Mwangi won alongside fellow micro-finance trailblazer, Muhammad Yunus, at the 2007 G8 Summit.

In 2012, after clinching the title of FORBES AFRICA ‘Person of the Year’, the Kenyan banker triumphed over 58 global business leaders to become the first African ever to be crowned Ernst & Young’s ‘World Entrepreneur of the Year’ in Monaco.

Mwangi, as Founding Chairman of the Equity Group Foundation (EGF), is also a prolific philanthropist. In May this year, EGF, with the Mastercard Foundation, pledged KES1.1 billion ($10.3 million), to Kenya’s Covid-19 response and to provide personal protective equipment to frontline medical staff in public hospitals. A portion of the endowment, KES300 million ($2.8 million), was a personal donation from the Mwangi family. Since March, the banker has been a member of the Covid-19 Emergency Fund Committee, a 10-member board peopled by the country’s most accomplished private sector leaders, convened by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

A key feature of the ‘Mwangi Model’ is its resilience which the current pandemic is putting to the test. In June, Equity saw its acquisition plans, through the highly-anticipated Altas Mara deal, in Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zambia, halted. Instead, Mwangi announced that the Group was doubling down and would take a more conservative approach to see through the crisis. In an unprecedented move, shareholder dividend payments were also delayed to safeguard liquidity reserves.

“Covid-19 has been a turning point. We have analysed over 1,200 years of data, starting with the bubonic plague, to understand this [Covid-19] pandemic. The only way we can survive this is if [our] business is agile and resilient enough to navigate these times.”

While much is still uncertain, the pandemic has had some positives for Mwangi, a proud husband and family man.

“I am not a very outgoing character so ‘working from home’ has been very exciting for me. I’ve been able to spend more time with my family, which is important for me,” he says.

On another high note, Mwangi jests that Covid-19’s most visible impact has not been on his balance sheet but his waistline.

“I have been making the best of this crisis. Instead of 30 minutes, I am now able to put in at least two and a half hours at the gym. When I look at myself [in the mirror], my body is looking much better!”

Despite the present tumult, Mwangi insists that the fundamentals remain unchanged and only the things that matter get him up, at 3AM, to start his day.

“Seeing a smile in people’s lives still makes me happy. I’ve lived a full life and it’s humbling to know that the child my mother raised has not changed and [with the values she taught me] I’m able to share what I have with others. Thirty years later, it’s been a journey of changing one life at a time.” 

James Mwangi’s 10 Tips For Entrepreneurs During Covid-19

1. Stick and focus on purpose, use essence to filter dos and don’ts.

2. Protect the public license. Society will never forget the side or position you took when you had the chance.

3. Support the supply and value chain and recover. Bend backwards to accommodate your business’ unusual circumstances.

4. Adopt a shared prosperity model using social and impact investing.

5. Adapt to ‘the new normal’. Be aware Covid-19 might have irreversibly changed your world in terms of resource reallocation, priorities, tastes and preferences.

6. Be part of the solution to our shared global challenges in humanity, health, and livelihoods. Don’t run away from the reality your customers are facing.

7. Focus on the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution like digitization, big data, technology and innovation.

8. Adopt an appropriate leadership style for these uncertain times. Provide visibility, hope and answers to concerns and when carrying your followers along with you.

9. Preserve cash, liquidity, and capital reserves for the long haul.

10. It is all about people: staff, customers, society and humanity.

– By Marie Shabaya

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Covid-19: Beyond The Lockdown: What Big Business Is Doing Now

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Corporate Africa has to urgently pandemic-proof itself with new ideas, innovations and emotions, to merely stay alive fighting a marauding virus.


The verdant vineyards of Stellenbosch, a charming wine town in South Africa’s Western Cape province, offer breath-taking, panoramic views of the rolling hills, valleys and mountain ranges fringing them.

Only that there are no tourists to marvel at them now – and perhaps will not be for a long time to come.

Like good wine, these views will stay but who will savor them? 

Like every other industry on the planet, South Africa’s wine industry too, which produces some of the finest wines and spirits globally and employs millions in its tourism collaterals, has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Even with the President Cyril Ramaphosa (whose leadership at this time was commended by world leaders and media) easing lockdown restrictions to Level 4 on May 1, liquor and wine sales are prohibited, and the big players say the local industry has taken a hit.

Michael Jordaan, Former banking CEO and wine entrepreneur

Former banking CEO and wine entrepreneur Michael Jordaan speaks about the effects the crisis has had on business.

“Local sales represent 50% of industry turnover,” says Jordaan. The export ban was lifted five weeks after the lockdown but by then, he feels “precious sales and rack space” in export markets were lost to foreign competitors. “Related wine businesses such as wine tourism or restaurants are suffering the most as income has gone to zero while many costs remain.”

The wine industry is already a high-cost, low-margin business, he adds, with industry surveys showing that only 28% of wine grape producers made a profit in 2019.

Most wineries were cash-strapped to start with, and the pandemic has left a bitter after-taste.

“It is inevitable that many of the 290,000 jobs in the industry will be lost…” he says.

Premium wine houses are now looking at offbeat ways to sell and deliver online.

Jordaan’s Bartinney Wines – in the Jordaan family since 1953 – is produced from a 28-hectare farm in Stellenbosch, and he says he has made it a priority to look after staff using savings and income from non-wine businesses.

“We’re also exploring new export markets but struggle as this usually requires trips to sellers which are obviously not possible,” he adds.

The wine-drinking wealthy across the continent are also not immune to the crisis. Some South African billionaires, listed by Forbes every year, made announcements to help fight Covid-19 even before the government announced the lockdown.

Billionaire Johann Rupert and family, worth $4.6 billion (as of mid-May according to Forbes), announced R1 billion ($54.73 million) through the Sukuma Relief Programme “consisting of grants and low-interest bearing loans with a 12-month repayment holiday, given to formal sole properties, closed corporations, companies and trusts”. On April 6, the program closed the application platform on account of the overwhelming response. Ben Bierman, administrator of the program, told CNBC Africa the relief program received applications in excess of R2.8 billion ($153 million). Nicky Oppenheimer and family, worth $7.5 billion (as of mid-May according to Forbes), made two contributions towards Covid-19 relief. The first made by Nicky and son Jonathan, pledging R1 billion ($54.73 million) to the South African Future Trust (SAFT). Following in her brother Nicky’s footsteps, the second pledge came from Mary Oppenheimer-Slack and her daughters who pledged R1 billion ($54.73 million) to the state’s Solidarity Fund, stating it’s “most aligned to our concerns about basic needs, food, medicine, general care and gender abuse”.

The Motsepe family pledged another R1 billion ($54.73 million) to the country’s coronavirus Solidarity Fund and said the pandemic has shifted the priorities of the Motsepe Foundation. The Founder and Chairman of the foundation, Patrice Motsepe, with a net worth of $1.5 billion (as of mid-May as per Forbes), said: “The Motsepe family and companies we are associated with, will continue to do everything possible to assist health workers, poor rural and urban communities and all South Africans to prevail over the current coronavirus pandemic.”

Other established South African businessmen such as Douw Steyn and family pledged R320 million ($17.5 million) through the Douw Steyn Family Trust. 

Globally, tech billionaires such as Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, worth $4.7 billion, announced on April 7 that he was moving $1 billion of his Square stock to support various causes including Covid-19 relief efforts. The tech billionaire didn’t specify how much of the $1 billion donation would be going towards the pandemic.

Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma donated protective equipment to all 54 countries in Africa through his Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation. The donation includes a total of 1.1 million test kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits.

Global tech billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda committed more than $250 million through their foundation. According to Forbes, much of it will be spent on vaccines, treatment and diagnostic development.


“Covid-19 has essentially become a catalyst for the shift which was bound to happen,”

– Sipho Maseko, CEO, Telkom Group

Whilst the big dollar signs bring hope, the numbers for Covid-19 continue to bring gloom as worldwide statistics rise.

At the time of going to press, the number of cases globally was over five million, with the death toll over 325,000. So far, almost two million worldwide have made recoveries. Africa has over 90,000 cases, with 2,900 deaths and over 35,000 recoveries.

But the big global bodies overseeing the crisis say the world’s youngest continent, Africa, may suffer heavily if the disease is not contained.

The World Health Organization said in a statement released early May that “83,000 to 190,000 people in Africa could die of Covid-19 and 29 million to 44 million could get infected in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail” as per a new study based on prediction modeling, looking at 47 countries in the WHO African region with a total population of one billion.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “sub-Saharan Africa is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis that threatens to throw the region off its stride, reversing the development progress of recent years and slow the region’s growth prospects in the years to come”. It predicts the region’s GDP to contract by 1.6% this year, making it the worst forecast on record.

On its part, the African Development Bank (AfDB), led by president Akinwumi Adesina, is supporting the continent through the Covid-19 crisis with $26 million for the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for the procurement of critical medical supplies. The bank also launched a $3 billion ‘Fight Covid-19’ social bond, with bids exceeding $4.6 billion. It also launched a $10 billion Crisis Response Facility to support Africa to address the pandemic.

Gary Booysen, Director and Portfolio Manager at Rand Swiss

Because Africa’s financial markets are less developed than many of its global counterparts, Gary Booysen, Director and Portfolio Manager at Rand Swiss based in Johannesburg, says: “They often struggle with liquidity. As the world grapples with the economic fallout of the lockdowns and Covid-19, risk appetite will almost certainly diminish. This will likely see money initially flowing out of more speculative frontier markets. This, in turn, could potentially result in undue pressure being placed on African financial assets.”

With these forecasts, what is the way forward? Corporate Africa is grappling with the hard reality and is in the process of re-strategizing itself. The only hope is if big businesses realize that they have to not just come up with forward-thinking views but also unlock much-needed solutions and even their balance sheets to help all in these times of uncertainty.

And technology and interconnectedness should be the forces driving these collaborations.

Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for Infrastructure, states on the bank’s website: “Governments, regulators and the telecom industry must do all it takes to deploy affordable, reliable, and safe digital technologies… to work together to achieve the promise of new technologies for all and keep the world connected.”

Shameel Joosub, chief executive officer of Vodacom Group Ltd., poses for a photograph following an interview at Vodacom World in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday, May 16, 2016. Vodacom, Africa’s largest wireless operator by market value, raised three-year targets for revenue and earnings as rising investment in its network delivers growth in South Africa and international markets. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On their part, telecom companies such as Vodacom have stepped up. Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group Limited, says it plans to donate 20,000 smartphones, 100 terabytes of data and 10 million voice call minutes to South Africa’s National Department of Health to collect and transmit data in real time for resource planning purposes as the government accelerates its Covid-19 testing campaign. Vodacom recently entered into a partnership with Discovery Health to offer free virtual consultations with doctors for the general public. The telecoms company has experienced a significant increase in fixed and mobile network traffic since the lockdown, attests Joosub. As a result, Vodacom has accelerated its investment spend.

Sipho Maseko, CEO of Telkom Group

“As the world becomes more online and more digital, it would make fiber and 4G-investment ready for that. This has always informed our investment strategy. Covid-19 has essentially become a catalyst for the shift which was bound to happen,” says Sipho Maseko, CEO of Telkom Group, to FORBES AFRICA. The telecom provider delivered a tracking and tracing system for Covid-19, “in record time”, working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa. Maseko believes that as big businesses face an economy and society that has been changed fundamentally by Covid-19, they will need to find innovative ways to adapt, deliver services, and drive growth in a challenging economic period.


“Tech innovators will find business opportunities in the difficulty,”

Darlene Menzies, CEO, Finfind

Megan Pydigadu, Group Chief Financial Officer of EOH

Megan Pydigadu, Group Chief Financial Officer of EOH, a technology services provider in Africa, believes the company is systemic to South Africa’s IT backbone, and as a result, creates significant responsibility for the company as an organization during the pandemic.

“We have implemented short and medium-term cash flow forecasting which pre-warns us of anything we need to deal with,” says Pydigadu. On potential opportunities and trends coming out of the industry, Pydigadu believes that EOH needs to develop product solutions that will last beyond the company’s current circumstances.

“The ‘new normal’ is here to stay and is going to change the ways of working. There will be an increased need for virtualization and the effective use of information, AI and data to reduce costs as we face an ongoing recession in the medium-term,” says Pydigadu. The CFO says the company is looking at opportunities to accelerate digital transformation for its clients.

As companies continue to look for solutions, one thing is crystal clear.

Corporate Africa is reiterating the need to future-proof businesses through new innovations – and they have to act now.

For years, the question of whether businesses are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has been posed. The pandemic has no doubt now answered that question. Perhaps what we need to ask is how quickly companies must now adapt to 4IR.

Darlene Menzies, CEO of Finfind

Darlene Menzies, CEO of Finfind, an online finance solution platform that brings together the providers and seekers of SME finance, believes online businesses will thrive as traditional forms of business grind to a halt.

“Tech innovators will find business opportunities in the difficulty, and we will see many new businesses birthed that provide solutions to address the gaps that this challenging time has presented,” says Menzies. She believes it’s important every business uses the lessons learned from the pandemic to ensure they are better prepared for any future disaster.

She reckons the world will see a lot of change with more firms deciding to move to a hybrid of virtual and physical work, and many transitioning to an entirely virtual operation. Menzies says the pandemic has also exposed the need to increase the accessibility of the digital economy to people at the base of the pyramid, in order to ensure that everyone can take full advantage of the benefits.

As the world finds itself at the mercy of the digital economy, perhaps more can be achieved through partnerships?

Kweku Bedu-Addo, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in South & Southern Africa

Kweku Bedu-Addo, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in South & Southern Africa, says the pivotal lesson during the pandemic has been the need for greater collaboration.

“It’s clear that we need better collaboration globally to be able to identify a developing crisis sooner, to enable the world to react faster to minimize the fallout,” says Bedu-Addo.

Speaking on digital technology, Bedu-Addo believes that many in the banking industry, and other industries, have had to quickly and safely expand access and capabilities in the area of technology.

“If it [digital technology] is fully integrated into a company’s strategy, it can benefit all employees and help businesses thrive in a time like this.” Standard Chartered has committed $1 billion of financing to support companies that provide goods and services to help in the fight against Covid-19. In addition, the bank has launched a $50 million global fund with donations from colleagues and the bank to provide assistance to communities affected by Covid-19.


“We have seen a 650% increase in alternate channelsin the last two weeks of March alone,”

– Robin Bairstow, CEO, I&M Bank Rwanda

Similar examples abound in the rest of the continent. In East Africa, more banks have responded to the pandemic.

Diane Karusisi, CEO, Bank of Kigali

The CEO of Rwanda’s largest commercial bank, Bank of Kigali, says the bank’s staff set up a fund to support the most vulnerable in Rwanda’s communities affected by the health crisis. “We have provided relief measures to our clients, waived various transaction fees as well as penalties for late payments. We have also designed loan products to support both retail and SME clients going through this difficult period,” Diane Karusisi tells FORBES AFRICA. The CEO’s forecasts for the medium-term are that economic growth will be significantly affected and all stakeholders will have to coordinate efforts to support speedy economic recovery.

“The Bank of Kigali’s excellent liquidity and capital position pre-Covid will allow us to weather the shock and remain a champion in financing the economy,” says Karusisi. On the opportunities she sees for the industry, she says that clients have had to shift their behavior toward digital channels, and cashless means of payment. For this reason, she believes digital transformation in the industry will be accelerated. Should the worst happen, Karusisi believes the bank’s most pessimistic stress tests show that it would withstand “a shock implying large business and retail defaults as a result of our strong capital position”. She adds: “Rwanda recovered from the war and the genocide against the Tutsi only 26 years ago. Our resilience has been tested and Bank of Kigali was the only bank to avail clients’ balances and savings after the tragic events…”

Robin Bairstow, CEO, I&M Bank Rwanda

Another bank in the country is I&M Bank Rwanda Limited. Robin Bairstow, the bank’s CEO, tells us its top priority during the pandemic is to maintain operations, protect the workforce, and keep customers safe and informed. Bairstow mentions the bank has anticipated changing customer needs, and has agreed to allow interest and principle deferrals for three months, and in some cases, longer for all affected customers. They have also reduced lending rates to provide support to clients. He believes that social distancing has given an opportunity for banks in terms of shifting customers to digital channels.

“We have seen a 650% increase in alternate channels in the last two weeks of March alone (when the lockdown began). If this trend continues, we would have changed behavior and the cost of serving customers will reduce in the industry and the momentum will continue due to the convenience of digital offerings,” says Bairstow.


“My team and I are trying to find or create new projectswhere we are able to work with people remotely,”

– DJ Fresh

In South Africa, internet group Naspers, one of the largest technology investors in the world, was one of the first, alongside the Ruperts and Oppenheimers, to announce funds for Covid-19 relief efforts. The company contributed R1.5 billion ($82 million) in emergency aid to the government’s response; of that, R500 million ($27.3 million) was allocated to the Solidarity Fund, and it’s buying R1 billion ($54.7 million) worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies.

Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, CEO of Naspers South Africa

In an interview with FORBES AFRICA, Naspers South Africa’s CEO, Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, says: “We have a strong and liquid financial position to navigate uncertain times but we are not immune to the impact of Covid-19 and like all other businesses in the global economy.”

On the opportunities ahead, Mahanyele-Dabengwa believes in the longer term, Naspers’ payments and fintech business is expected to benefit across its markets from large sectoral trends, including more customers transacting online and more online transactions being executed through alternative forms of payment, instead of cash.

Moving to the travel and lifestyle sector, tourism has been hit the most. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that industry passenger revenues could plummet $252 billion or 44% below 2019’s figure for the world.

“Airlines need $200 billion in liquidity support simply to make it through. Some governments have already stepped forward, but many more need to follow suit,” says IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, in a web statement.

Marc Wachsberger, Managing Director of The Capital Hotels & Apartments

In South Africa, Marc Wachsberger, Managing Director of The Capital Hotels & Apartments, a luxury hotel and apartment room provider that also offers conference venues and meeting spaces, believes travel will change dramatically in the future.

“As social distancing becomes the norm, hotel groups that will survive will be sure to go the extra mile in cleaning and sanitation protocols, while giving guests the room they need to maintain sufficient physical distance.”

With approval to operate during lockdown, Wachsberger says the company helped a few businesses to remain open during this time. It pivoted its business and implemented steps to offer safe spaces for guests and their staff, through ‘self-isolation hotels’ for anyone needing to isolate for approximately 14 days, or until they have been cleared; and ‘sanitized sanctuaries’ for families and corporates who want to live and work freely during this time. The company has partnered with Discovery Health in operating The Capital Empire in Sandton in the heart of Johannesburg as a Covid-19 isolation recovery facility called ‘The Get Well Hotel’. He adds that occupancy is expected to increase as more industries return to work and need to isolate or quarantine. He reckons hotels that can offer contactless check-ins, room access, check-outs and payments will be the way forward.

Wachsberger believes the meetings, incentives conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry is feeling the ripple effect of the virus and will continue to struggle as business travelers stay away. Many venues will flounder as large meetings and gatherings can only possibly convene again in Level 1 of South Africa’s ‘risk-adjusted strategy’. 

Gareth Taylor, Country Manager for Bolt in South Africa

Another company steering itself for the future is Bolt. The app, formerly known as Taxify, offers services from ride-hailing to food delivery. Gareth Taylor, Country Manager for Bolt in South Africa, says the company now offers free sanitization liquid refills at all its driver centers on a daily basis.

The ride-hailing company has launched several new services to provide alternative ways for drivers to continue to earn an income. One such is the ‘Bolt Isolated Car’, featuring a physical barrier between the front and back seats, limiting the risk of exposure between drivers and passengers. Taylor says there will be a bigger focus on businesses connecting and assisting one another through partnerships.

“Businesses that can collaborate the most effectively and to the greatest mutual benefit, will win,” says Taylor. On the future of the transport industry, he says it is likely to evolve as electric vehicles become more available. “Electric vehicles are cheaper to run and maintain than petrol or diesel vehicles, which could in turn make transport more affordable, particularly for the more cash-strapped.” Taylor reckons that as more people and businesses have become accustomed to a work-from-home labor force, it’s likely that car ownership will decrease.

With the cancellation of movie premieres, concerts and big ticket events, those in the entertainment industry are also feeling the heat. And this includes actors and celebrities.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: Gabrielle Union attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison /2020 Getty Images)

In a recent Instagram Live session (which seems to be the order of the day), Hollywood actress Gabrielle Union told her fans that a number of black entertainers are grappling to pay their bills as they are getting fewer gigs during this crisis, and that “this stoppage of work and money is impacting marginalized ‘celebrities’ the most”.

Over the last few months, people working in the entertainment industry have had to look for other alternatives of making money.

DJ Fresh

Closer home, as a DJ who travels for shows around the world, Thato Sikwane, known as DJ Fresh, realizes that DJing is one of the jobs that has definitely taken a knock.

The DJ says he’s fortunate to have work outside of his DJ career. “Radio being one of the biggest mediums and forms of entertainment and information providers, we are marked as essential support workers. I still have Fresh on 94.7, Monday to Friday,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

Whilst the entertainment industry has been rattled by the lockdown and travel bans around the world, DJ Fresh says players in the music industry will need to carry on finding new windows of opportunities to keep generating personal incomes.

Furthermore, he states that they will need to have bold ambitions to change the way in which they previously applied their minds, in order to survive.

“I am working on new music and excited for it to be released. I have live streams every Sunday on my Facebook page where I work with Oskido and a few other industry mates to create sets called Legends Live. My team and I are trying to find or create new projects where we are able to work with people remotely and that will help some of the unemployed people.”

The South African DJ believes those that fail to fully utilize and exploit their digital presence during this period, will have wasted a crisis.

Through trial and error, big business and big names are re-evaluating, re-strategizing, and trying innovative ways to face the disruptive virus and rebuild themselves sustainably for the future, knowing only too well, that if they don’t adapt, they will surely die.

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Covid-19: The Ultimate Disruptor

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The coronavirus has rebooted every aspect of life as we know it. Across Africa, home-grown ideas and small-scale technological innovations are coming to the fore to help combat it.


It’s 8PM in Johannesburg on March 29, the first Sunday of the lockdown in South Africa, and a team from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is hard at work, not in the comfort of their homes, but at an innovation lab, designing the first two prototypes of a face shield.

Letlotlo Phohole and Moses Mogotlane, the two members of the team, are working on paper and transparent face shield models, with a Perspex headband, and they are doing all of this at a Transnet-sponsored innovation space hosted at Wits; together in thought, but apart in (social) distance.

Their work would use 3D-printers and a laser-cut solution, in coming up with the very first version of a face shield developed by Wits.

Reeling from the disastrous effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, just like any other part of the world, Africa is turning to home-grown solutions such as this to tackle a global problem.

“Design can save the world,” says Dr Randall Paton, one of the engineers in charge of coordinating this project. And for any innovation at this time, speed is paramount.

“I think that innovation, especially of the sort that leaves us with a legacy of new products or ideas, is essential in tackling an issue like the coronavirus crisis,” he adds.

The face shields were initially designed for health workers at Netcare Hospitals, made from a flat pack consisting of two pieces that can rapidly be assembled.

Now, they are producing the face shields in only 90 seconds using die-cutting (cutting chosen shapes from low-strength materials), as opposed to 3D-printing them which takes up to 90 minutes.

“We are also working with the Wits’ UK representative looking at possible collaborations with the University of Edinburg who responded similarly to Wits in the face shield provision to healthcare workers. We are sharing our stories with the aim of learning from their mass production process that we could emulate,” Phohole tells FORBES AFRICA.

This pandemic could very well see innovation going from Africa to the rest of the world.

Another example is Fablab Rwanda, a space for members to turn innovative ideas into products specifically in the hardware and electronics domain based in Kigali, that has produced 3,500 face shields so far as the entry point for personal protective equipment, especially for health workers, and is now working on producing low-cost ventilators in Rwanda.

A manufacturer of industrial robots, YASKAWA, in South Africa, for many years, has been looking into a crystal ball believing robots would come handy at such a time. “Future-oriented solutions won’t merely be an option, but an absolute necessity,” they say.

Robotics and automation technology are already playing a pivotal role in the health sector, from the use of automated laboratory tests to autonomous disinfectors utilized in hospitals, but they’re about to extend further into other industries faster than anyone could have anticipated.

The global Japanese manufacturer’s southern African branch has already installed over 2,500 robots in the automotive, manufacturing and packaging industries. Decades ago, YASKAWA proposed the innovative concept of an unmanned factory termed ‘Mechatronics’. Since then, the concept has evolved into ‘i³-Mechatronics’, featuring further advancements and implementation of automation through the management of digital data.

“The fast-moving consumer goods and food markets, however, should see an increase and acceptance in the usage of robots and automation technologies… And this is where robotics could come in to reduce contact and cross-contamination,” says Kurt Rosenberg, Managing Director of YASKAWA Southern Africa.

Covid-19 is birthing a new era of health-focused robots and tech to be used in all spheres of life.

Rosenberg believes a robot-powered workforce is the way to the future, both locally and internationally.

And there are more such examples of blue sky thinking.

In South Africa, construction company Profica has partnered with ‘temporary infrastructure specialists’ Chattels to construct temporary Covid-19 triage and testing facilities.

Chattels have already constructed new temporary Covid-19 triage and potential field hospitals at Tygerberg Hospital, Victoria Hospital and Paarl Hospital in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

Meanwhile in South Africa’s North West province, in Mogwase, a company called Akim Holdings Pty Ltd has designed a walk-through sanitizing unit. With an engineering company, it has created a tunnel that is practical and adjustable to suit the specifications of clients.

“Covid-19 is an introduction to a world hygiene awareness program that many have not been practicing or have partially practiced. The sanitizer tunnel was created with health risks involved especially for hypersensitive individuals and to also accommodate the disabled and parents with prams, providing a ramp and sprayers that release 5-10ml of sanitizer per person,” says Thuli Mabebo, one of the directors of Akim.

Corona contact-tracing is also an area where technology and manpower meet.

According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland in the United States (US), contact-tracing is key to reopening the economy.

The world’s tech giants Apple and Google have joined forces to unveil plans to build contact-tracing technology with the potential to cover the vast majority of smartphones currently in use across the world. In a joint statement, the companies explained they will develop technology-enabling governments and public health agencies to develop apps to track the pandemic, “with user privacy and security central to the design”. They have decided to refer to it as “exposure notification”.

Closer home, one of the entrepreneurs working on a contact-tracing device app is 2020 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list-maker, Olajumoke Oduwule, with her company KJK Africa in Nigeria. The ‘DISTANCING App’ ensures the user can observe a six-feet distance with others to control the spread of infectious diseases.

2018 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list-maker Roger Boniface and his brother Dean, have been working alongside the Aurum Institute, architects, 3D-printers and branding specialists to build automated wash-bins called Shesha Geza. It is a cost-effective mobile wash-bin and sanitizing solution that can service large numbers of people. Boniface plans to install these in high-density areas such as taxi ranks and plans to “sanitize more than 100K hands a day”.

Communications solutions provider, Liquid Telecom, is also coming up with digital solutions for Africa during the pandemic. It has provided solutions for remote learning at Kibabii virtual school in Kenya, established Covid-19 toll-free helplines in Zimbabwe, and provided better connectivity across the East African Community.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa is also pushing the boundaries of innovation, using an app developed for rhino poaching to tackle Covid-19. Cmore allows rangers to use their cellphones to track poaching incidents, sightings, carcass locations, or to track rangers out on patrol. Now, it is being used to record screening data and assist in tracking potential coronavirus cases. “Community health workers have to enter information on a cellphone and, when they press submit, the cellphone sends a location – not just to the person that has been screened – and that location pins itself on the screen at the CSIR, so we know where we have covered the country with our screens,” says Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory group, during an event just before the lockdown at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

As cases spike in South Africa, Evolutio, an African company whose cloud solutions include BSS/OSS and CRM, has developed artificial intelligence (AI)-powered Covid-19 screening software that will allow the system to identify Covid-19, pneumonia and tuberculosis on chest x-rays, or a photo of the x-ray, in the absence or presence of pathological findings. “Our results from reading thousands of x-rays has showed that the system can achieve an accuracy comparable to radiologists, above 90% sensitivity and above 80% specificity across conditions,” says Evolutio’s co-founder Sunil Menon. However, he says the regulatory authorities have not responded to most Covid-19-related initiatives so they have faced challenges with any local traction.

This is an issue encountered by most innovative players in the fray. Some local manufacturers of Covid-19 test kits claim the regulatory authorities are stifling the distribution and export of kits despite massive demand globally. It will take a while before legislation can approve certain home-based innovations; as a result, it is global innovations that seem to be thriving in Africa.

An ad hoc team of engineers and doctors from the MIT Emergency Ventilator (E-Vent) Project, has developed a low-cost, open-source alternative of ventilators to assist hospitals across the world facing shortages. The goal of the project has been to find a way to automate resuscitator bags using mechanical paddles that continuously, precisely and gently squeeze the sides of the bag. Instead of relying on someone’s hands to manipulate the bag and deliver oxygen, the idea is that this device could do it automatically, and act as a long-term ventilator.

‘A Game Of Survival, Not Growth’

Small businesses all over the world are succumbing to the pandemic.


“90% of the small businesses went from trading on amonthly, weekly, or daily basis, to zero,”

– Mashudu Modau

Latest research from fintech group Yoco shows small business revenues in South Africa have plunged over 84% in the pandemic.

“This pandemic has been the ultimate disruptor,” says Mashudu Modau, an entrepreneurship enthusiast and founder of Founders Sauce. Formally working as the community and partnerships manager at Yoco, he was one of many retrenched globally in the pandemic.

“[Covid-19] reduced the number of small businesses that were trading by 90%,” says Modau. “This meant 90% of the small businesses went from trading on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis, to zero.”

Many small businesses operating in Africa already face challenges such as not being registered, lack of resources or lack of funding and as a result, the lockdown has crippled the SMME economy.

“Informal economy businesses were completely wiped out, where they could not trade at all and those that were left operating could not trade at a significant level,” he adds.

Only essential workers or businesses deemed essential services could operate during the lockdown in South Africa. As a result, many businesses are relying on digital platforms to survive if they can afford it, and if lucky, with a client base still consuming their products. Most have had to come up with new ideas. Like startup Granadilla which went from swimwear to grocery delivery in weeks. South African brand Tshepo Jeans, known for denim clothing, quickly pivoted to producing fashionable denim masks. Falke, a South African company once known as a sock manufacturing company, has now turned towards manufacturing face masks from its facility in Pretoria.

With hospitals around the world facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), businesses have stepped up. Nike, for example, has manufactured full face shields and powered, air-purifying respirator (PAPR) lenses to protect against the virus, while the Prada group has started the production of 80,000 medical overalls and 110,000 masks to be allocated to healthcare personnel. Food and beverage company Nestlé is contributing masks and other PPE to frontline workers. It’s also donating medical equipment to hospitals in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal. Additionally, in Burkina Faso, it will donate three ventilators, for use in intensive care units.


“Zimbabwe is in the midst of a crisis knowing exactly that its healthcare system is dilapidated…The fact that there is limited supply of hospital equipment in our institutions, especially in this part of the globe, has had a negative effect on our motivation to report for work,”

– Dr Masimba Dean Ndoro

The lockdown regulations have also grounded the construction sector.

Siphelele Mngaza, the Founder and CEO of Hannah Properties in South Africa, had to curtail operations, resulting in many clients pulling out of contracts. However, this has made him rethink his building strategy, especially in crowded areas.

“Social distancing and self-quarantine is almost impossible because shacks can [heat] up to about 50 degrees in summer and be really cold in winter with no electricity and no water,” he says. The key then is how to build better cities suitable for everyone.

He emphasizes the importance of having smoother surfaces, greener buildings that incorporate plants, better ventilation and access to natural light. “[Post the pandemic] I envision healthier buildings that behave like plants,” says Mngaza.

On the other side of the spectrum, businesses operating in the digital space have seen a boom at this time. Twenty-eight-year-old entrepreneur Cleo Johnson has taken full advantage of this. She is the founder of Nuecleo, a hospitality and marketing consultancy in South Africa. With clients based in Africa and overseas, she has been able to put together post-corona marketing plans remotely.

“The big thing is, ‘what is your business going to look like post corona?’ Because it is not going to be the same,” she tells FORBES AFRICA. She remains optimistic.

“As a business owner, taking care of yourself mentally is extremely important as it also gives you clarity on a way forward. There is time now to refine your business, your growth strategy and how you can scale your business.”

Those that grab the opportunities or gaps in this pandemic stand a better chance of surviving because if a small business does not receive any revenue within 30 days, it may die, says Modau.

“Right now, it’s a game of survival, not necessarily growth,” he adds.

Where Africa Stands In Healthcare

A medical staff member wearing protective equipment places a face mask on a mock patient at the Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital in Harare on March 11, 2020, as they demonstrate their state of preparedness to treat the COVID-19 coronavirus in the event the epidemic reaches Zimbabwe where five suspected cases have tested negative. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP) (Photo by JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP via Getty Images)

In Zimbabwe, Dr Masimba Dean Ndoro is a medical doctor on the frontline, working in the country’s Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals. Wearing his white coat and stethoscope, every day, Ndoro prepares himself for the worst.

“Zimbabwe is in the midst of a crisis knowing exactly that its healthcare system is dilapidated,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. He says Zimbabwe was not ready for the devastation wreaked by Covid-19 on its economy and people. “The fact that there is limited supply of hospital equipment in our institutions, especially in this part of the globe, has had a negative effect on our motivation to report for work.”

March 20 marked the first confirmed case of the virus in Zimbabwe, when a 38-year-old man arrived at his home in Victoria Falls after a trip to Manchester in the UK.

By the end of April, there were 29 confirmed cases and four deaths, a small number compared to neighboring South Africa, but with huge repercussions nevertheless.

With Zimbabwe’s economy on its knees and socioeconomic problems lingering, healthcare in the country was already in dire straits. In an effort to curb the virus, the country was put on lockdown.

Coronavirus testing rolled out. But Ndoro believes this is not enough.

“There has been an outcry for the need to decentralize centers for testing so we reach containment faster. It’s so unfortunate relevant authorities are lagging behind,” he laments.

In Malawi too, efforts to curb the virus have been challenging. The nation is divided. Since the first case of the virus hit headlines in the country on April 2, it was met with skepticism by many in a nation not used to epidemics. For a country that recently nullified its 2020 elections, the public’s trust in the government also reportedly declined. Being told to stay at home and stop business because of an invisible opponent was the least of many citizens’ worries amidst the political instability.

By April 7, the country had recorded its first Covid-19 death. Panic ensued, and the president declared a national disaster. Part of the nation began practicing social distancing despite the Malawi High Court putting in an injunction against the notion of a 21-day lockdown.

On May 5, thousands in Malawi took to the streets in support of the opposition party alliance as they submitted their presidential candidate nomination in Blantyre. It was a sea of red.

“It’s like all they care about is to vote, then start the fight against Covid-19,” a Malawian citizen tells FORBES AFRICA. He watched the crowds chant and dance. “The pandemic is here, and it is real. But we Malawians, we are taking it for granted,” says another to us.

Amid all the chaos, one of the many at the helm in the fight against the virus in Malawi is Dr Titus Divala, a medical doctor and epidemiologist.

Operating from the southern part of the country in the city of Blantyre, he works for the University College of Medicine focusing on malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, but now, is also part of the national committee leading efforts surrounding the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One thing I have learned as a medical doctor and epidemiologist, I never thought I would come across something that consumes my every thought,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“For countries like ours, where we are sort of struggling to get hold of every case, what will happen is the virus will spread widely to most of the population and then at some point, it may not be able to move forward because most of the population is already infected. This is a point we call ‘herd immunity’.”

However, there is one key advantage Malawi and other African countries may have over Covid-19 and that is a young population. It is quite possible the risk of death is slightly lower than that of an older European or American population. However, according to Divala, if a vaccine is found, it may take long to reach African countries due to political and economic challenges.

Further up the continent, in Nigeria, Dr Nneka Mobisson, provides healthcare support for her clients digitally.

“I realized that we as Africans were not willing to take ownership of fixing our healthcare systems. We all have a role to play in ensuring the health and happiness of Africa and I hope everyone is willing to take on that responsibility in the post-Covid world,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

She is the co-founder and CEO of mDoc, a social enterprise that integrates methodologies in quality improvement and behavioral science with web and mobile-based technology to optimize the end-to-end care experience for people living with chronic illnesses. At this time, her patients are most at risk.

In the first week of April, Mobisson lost an acquaintance to Covid-19. “She had been at the Yale School of Public Health when I was there for medical school and was my best friend’s close friend. She was such a champion for public health in the US, a 45-year-old mother of three, so it just hit too close to home,” says Mobisson, who also knows more friends who have tested positive for the disease. She and her team have been working 24/7 to combat the virus – digitally.

Very few healthcare entities have the ability to provide virtual care and at such a time, it puts Mobisson at an advantage.

“We have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable, and we have been knee-deep supporting our members, the general population and health workers with Covid-19 support. We have shut down all our in-person hubs but have ramped up all virtual care support,” she says.

They have built a center locator called Navihealth which helps to reduce the burden of overwhelmed and insufficient hospital systems in the country. Digitally, they have been able to reach thousands.

However, Mobisson says it has not been easy with funding and resources being limited.

“Most of our team is located in Lagos and electricity is not constant which makes the reality of providing 24/7 guidance to people challenging. We fortunately have a redundancy system when generators or fuel are not available but it certainly makes things very expensive.”

What About Other Diseases?

As governments, hospitals and organizations shift all focus to Covid-19, burdening existing healthcare systems, where does it leave patients with other conditions needing critical care?

“Other diseases are suffering now,” says Dr Herbert Longwe, a lab director at ICAP at Columbia University in Pretoria, South Africa.

Liam Klassen, a 19-year-old from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, experienced this first-hand. After discovering that flesh-eating bacteria had entered a wound in his leg, he was admitted to a hospital 45km away from home. The staff, he says, were too preoccupied treating Covid-19 patients.

“It was very intense being in hospital, with nurses and doctors, and they really wanted me to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. And my wound was very severe,” he says. Anxiety levels remained high for the family as they were not allowed at the hospital due to regulations, what’s worse; they say they didn’t receive adequate communication about what was going on.

“What has happened is, many people are focused on Covid-19 now, and skilled people who were looking at HIV, are now focusing their attention on Covid-19 and the other diseases are being abandoned,” notes Longwe. His work involves doing surveys to measure the impact of HIV, the burden of the disease and the populations that have been affected. Longwe says that there has been a lack of further research and finances being put into other diseases, as a result, the coronavirus has triggered a funding crisis for NGOs when they are needed the most. “People are no longer paying more attention and putting their efforts in writing grants or research proposals on other diseases, for example, TB, HIV and malaria. The focus has dramatically shifted away from those diseases. But those diseases are still killing us. They are still a public health problem,” he adds.


“The initial genome sequencing was costly and time-consuming but efforts are underway to reduce this cost and get faster turnaround time. This will allow us to help those trying to trace the transmission of the disease in South Africa and the continent,”

– Peter van Heusden

But on the other hand, the pandemic will expand knowledge in the public health space and grow more human resources and skills. “We are going to draw a lot of knowledge in terms of public health on disease intervention, disease prevention and disease control,” says Longwe.

Hunt For A Vaccine

Vaccine vial dose flu shot drug needle syringe,medical concept vaccination hypodermic injection treatment disease care hospital prevention immunization illness disease baby background. stock photo

Billions of dollars are being spent globally to find a vaccine for Covid-19, but the big question is which is the most promising? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 70 vaccines in the works for Covid-19, but only four of them are already being tested.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the manufacturing of seven potential vaccines. But it is possible that one or two of these may be successful.

In South Africa, Peter Van Heusden, a bioinformatician focusing on pathogen genomics, is part of a team researching ways to understand the coronavirus. Simply put, he builds and uses software to make sense of genomic material from bacteria, parasites and viruses.

Together with Dr Mushal Allam, a graduate of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and other scientists, they immediately got to work researching the virus in January this year. “My role has been in sequence analysis, that is taking the data from the sequencing process and trying to clean it up and make sense of it, both for this single SARS-CoV-2 genome and to understand the genome in the context of other SARS-CoV-2 genomes worldwide (collected on the GISAID portal),” Van Heusden says.

This work is a breakthrough in understanding Covid-19 in South Africa in the context of the global pandemic. “The initial genome sequencing was costly and time-consuming but efforts are underway to reduce this cost and get faster turnaround time. This will allow us to help those trying to trace the transmission of the disease in South Africa and the continent,” he says. This research will also help in understanding the global diversity of Covid-19 and note any significant changes in the virus.

Madagascar has reportedly found a cure for Covid-19 in an artemisia-based tonic that’s subject to more trials.

Other options being explored globally to treat Covid-19 include new drugs specifically designed to target SARS-CoV-2, as well as repurposed drugs designed to treat a different disease.

One of the oldest treatments being tested, is convalescent plasma. This involves using blood plasma from people who have recovered from Covid-19 and infusing it into patients presenting the disease.

In Pakistan and India, it was reported that Covid-19 patients recovered through this method, although it’s contested.

In short, it’s all hands on deck as countries and corporates come together to find ways to alleviate the disease.

Rebuilding the world

It’s hard to imagine what the world may look like by the end of the year. From healthcare, to retail, media, travel and education, it will no longer be business as usual. Experts are already coming up with strategies to entirely rebuild nations.

“I hope that in the post-Covid or Covid world, we are willing to invest in primary care systems, non-siloed care that focuses on building awareness and health literacy and one that invests in educating, retaining and supporting our healthcare workers at all levels of the system,” says Mobisson.

Sanitizing, social distancing and mask-wearing are the expected new norms, along with remote working and e-learning. Van Heusden fears the worst in a post-corona society. “I fear there will be a lot of trauma. How we deal with that will define the post-Covid-19 world. We might turn inwards and focus on blame and recriminations. Or we might draw on new awareness of how interconnected we all are and draw strength from that,” he says. In a tweet, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says “the reality is that we are sailing in uncharted waters. There is still a great deal about the epidemiology of the virus that is unknown. It is better to err on the side of caution than to pay the devastating price of a lapse in judgement.”

We are living a textbook example of history as it’s being made, amid uncertainty that will likely not go away for long. The moot question is: will we all live to tell the tale of a pre-and-post Covid-19 world? Only science can answer that.

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