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Dr Simone Dahms-Verster, 28

Assistant lecturer
University of Johannesburg

Dr Simone Dahms-Verster holds a PhD in zoology, and plans to use her expertise to perform work that will improve the natural environment, so that her child and younger generations will live in a world with clean rivers and rich biodiversity. Her research focuses on pollution in South Africa’s water resources. She says the people who are directly in contact with freshwater resources — and thus vulnerable to exposure to pollutants — are people in informal settlements and rural areas, where access to potable water sources is limited or non-existent. As a lecturer, she aims to marry her passion for her work with her students’ education. “Ultimately, they will be the custodians of a cleaner environment and a better future for all South Africans. My hope is that they pay it forward in turn,” she says.

Her proudest moment has been obtaining her doctorate — not an easy journey, because she battled with self-doubt. One incident that shattered her confidence and made her question if she was cut out for a PhD was when she received an unfavourable review. “A hazard of making a career out of something you are so passionate about, is that your work becomes a big part of you,” she says.

Her advice to her younger self and others is, “To try to just roll with the punches. You can plan as meticulously as you want to, but life has its own plans and you have to learn to be fast on your feet”.

Lastly, Dahms-Verster says people who want to pursue a career in science, should know they can — everyone can: they just need to be determined, persistent and enthusiastic.

Author - Tshegofatso Mathe
Preshanthie Naicker-Manick, 34

Preshanthie Naicker-Manick, 34

Deputy director
South Africa’s department of environment, forestry and fisheries

“Striking a balance and integration of my intelligence, spiritual and emotional quotient has been very important to me,” says Preshanthie Naicker-Manick, speaking of her position as deputy director at South Africa’s department of environment, forestry and fisheries — as well as having her hands full as a mother and a master’s candidate in environmental microbiology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Naicker-Manick credits her experience as a mother for augmenting her already established and extensive academic experience. “Being a leader is an innate trait for me. However, being a mom has shaped me to create my leadership blueprint based on the principles of self-confidence and empathy,” she explains. The balance that she’s established allows her to use her life experiences and advanced knowledge in sciences to provide a service for the benefit of all life forms. Spiritual experiences are vital for a well-rounded self, and have allowed her to establish the direction of her spiritual compass.

“Being on pilgrimage in India with my parents, and singing Christmas carols with my guru has certainly been my proudest moment for my mind and soul,” she says. “My spiritual experience during the pilgrimage has set my true North in my spiritual compass.”

While a five-year plan is effective as a goal-oriented guide, Naicker-Manick suggests that living in the moment and riding the right wave can benefit your career and personal life in ways you might not expect. She believes it’s her responsibility to serve South Africa through her knowledge and experience in the environmental and small business sector. Focusing on inclusive development for women, youth and those with disabilities in South African sectors gives Naicker-Manick the drive to excel, and ensures her impact is enough to carry through generations.

Scott Dodds |
Refiloe Mathibe, 29

Refiloe Mathibe, 29

Civil engineering technologist

“I waited in the shadows for someone to notice me: ‘Hey, please give me a chance, I am creative and a hard worker.’ I had no idea that I could make mistakes, but then I actually concluded that if I wasn’t making mistakes, I was still waiting for a rescue team and no one was coming to save me. To the 19-year-old me, I’d say: ‘Dream big and do not fear failure, failure is just assurance that you actually tried something — you’re out of the shadows, you’re living’. Learn and grow from your mistakes. The only way from rock bottom is up!”

Civil engineering technologist Refiloe Mathibe is currently a long way from rock bottom. Thanks to her mentors, she learned early on that it was important to set and write down goals, and she’s been steadily working towards them ever since. “My biggest mistake was believing that getting a degree was all you needed to be successful, but I have learned that one has to be intentional in designing your own successes in life.”

Passionate about green buildings and infrastructure, waste management and renewable energy, Mathibe is on a mission to leave the world in a better way than she found it while working towards a clean, healthy and green South Africa. She is aware of her purpose on this planet, and what’s even more awe-inspiring is that she’s got the self-confidence to declare she knows she’s not here by chance.

“I want to live a full life and leave empty. In other words, live a purpose-filled life. Not knowing when my final or last day will be allows me to be appreciative every morning I wake up.”

Rosie Goddard |
Athenkosi Baba, 27

Athenkosi Baba, 27

YouLead co-ordinator

Athenkosi Baba has been working in the youth leadership development sector for the past 10 years. He first joined Project 90 by 2030 back in 2015, and quickly excelled at using his own life experiences to develop climate-conscious youth leaders. At Project 90 he developed his own understanding of the growing climate emergency and the need for climate justice, particularly on how low income families will be most affected by the impacts of climate change.

Back in 2017-2018, Baba helped develop a new youth project at Project 90 called the YouLead Initiative. It focuses on creating opportunities for 40 young people from Khayelitsha to grow their understanding of climate change and find pathways for action.

He was inspired by the impact civil society has had on him, saying:

“I would advise anyone not to underestimate the opportunities that are presented to them, and for young people to join youth organisations that bring positive change to their communities.”

He is currently the organisation’s youth programme co-ordinator, a role that gives him the opportunity to inspire a future generation of community leaders and climate activists. He says: “I want to see the youth who are informed about climate change and leaders who are activists in their communities. Also, we are building leaders who can challenge our government to see that climate change is real and it’s happening now.”

Baba has continued to develop not only himself but others around him. He has proven his passion to develop the capacities of the youth he engages with, dedicating almost every weekend of the year to running workshops, leading youth leadership hikes and running youth events. He explains: “The social ills in my community are the motivation that drives me to keep making changes for the youths I work with.”

Max Dylan Lazarus |
Ramulifho Pfananani, 30

Ramulifho Pfananani, 30

Postdoctoral research fellow
University of Venda

Ramulifho Pfananani says being the first from his family and village to complete a doctorate degree was a moment of immense pride for him. His PhD is in river management, he is the national vice-chairperson of the Young Water Professionals and he is a postdoctoral research fellow. He got his PhD in zoology from the University of Venda, and it was there that he’s previously completed his honours and undergraduate degree in environmental sciences. He is fascinated by rivers and has contributed to research on sustainable management of rivers in Venda and the protection of voiceless organisms that inhabit these environments.

Pfananani is the happiest and most fulfilled when he is able to help others and share his knowledge. Even though he sometimes learned this the hard day, Pfananani says he always makes sure to listen to the good advice offered to him by those who know more.

“The truth is I have learned that there are some opportunities where we would never ever get a second chance in life,” he says.

Pfananani is all about grabbing the opportunities presented to him. He says it is important to focus on one’s strengths, rather than weaknesses when trying to accomplish anything. This positive thinking helped him to complete his PhD.

“Working on your faults might help you make a living, but honing your talents may help you change the world for the better,” he says. Being one of the first from his family to complete a PhD is something that has made him aware of the importance of helping others. And helping others encourages a culture of helping. “This means that the more we give our time or resources to the issues we care about, the more others will give in return. In that way, one person’s actions really can change the world for good,” he says.

Fatima Moosa |
Kekeletso Pulane, 27

Kekeletso Pulane, 27

Cofounder and director

Kekeletso Pulane is an extraordinary young woman, and disruptor of note. Dedicated to changing the status quo, she invented a strong, durable and fire resistant building material made from recycled plastic. Construction has long been a male-dominated industry and Kekeletso’s presence in it serves as an aspirational tale for other young women who might have great ideas but are held back by society’s notion of gender and industry.

Her own journey was not an easy one; she had to halt her studies because of financial constraints. As a result, she struggled to find employment in this highly competitive labour market. What sets her apart is that instead of allowing it to dampen her ambitions, she took the initiative to create a business, one that now employs 15 young people.

Her company, Ramtsilo Manufacturing & Construction, provides a sustainable construction alternative with its PlastiBrick product. What’s more, these materials are much cheaper than their counterparts, helping countless people afford to build their homes with safe and affordable materials.

Kekeletso has learned many lessons on her path to success, ranging from naivete regarding intellectual property and the patenting process to how easy it is to doubt yourself. Yet, she forged on to become an innovator and built a business that helps others build their lives.

She wants to see, “youth, and especially women, being bold and taking up opportunities that will out-live them, creating a lasting impact in society”. Her advice to them? “Be bold in pursuit of your goals regardless of how difficult it is.”

James Nash |
Esethu Cenga, 26

Esethu Cenga, 26


Esethu Cenga, 26, co-founded Rewoven, a textile recycling company that is about creating a circular economy in the clothing and textiles sector to build a more sustainable future for the industry. She turned down a great job offer to give her attention to establishing Rewoven, which at the time was a mere concept. She understood the risks and volatile nature of entrepreneurship, but went ahead.

“I knew that most small businesses in South Africa fail within the first three years of operation. Nevertheless, I knew deep down that I would regret never taking the time to pursue it.”

In 2018, Cenga and her team began producing prototypes of recycled fabric to be experimented with by manufacturers and designers. Late in 2018 Rewoven made it into the top 10 finalists for the H&M Foundation Global Change award, an initiative focused on the development of early stage innovations. Last year, Rewoven was accepted into the E-Squared Accelerator programme, which provides support with the aim of contributing to transformation and the creation of jobs in South Africa. The long-term goal for Rewoven is to create more jobs while shaping a more sustainable clothing and textiles industry

Cenga believes in the importance of trusting intuition. “I try to make decisions from a place of intellect and logic, though I think that as women, we have a really strong intuition naturally,” she says. Her journey into business has taught her to be comfortable with change and uncertainty, being able to ride the wave to come out the other side in the best possible way.

Scott Dodds |
Shaakira Chohan, 35

Shaakira Chohan, 35

Architect and urbanist

Architect and urbanist Shaakira Chohan says one of the proudest moments in her career so far was being part of the team that erected the statue of Nelson Mandela in Palestine. She led the team that designed, erected and unveiled the statue, which is now in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

“It was humbling to be able to share values and messages of justice, peace and righteousness across borders and cultures and it taught me about the power of faith, brotherhood and humanity, despite difference,” she says.

Being part of the team also allowed her to understand the power of making an impact on people’s lives in unexpected ways without any expectation of return.

It is this ethos that inspires her work. Chohan said she wants to see more considered, human-centered environments in cities that provide safety, healing, opportunity and inspiration for their inhabitants. Through her work as an architect and urbanist, she hopes to see marginalised communities being allowed to participate in their neighborhoods and cities to create a more equitable society.

The personal and the public are very close to each other for Chohan. How she treats people in her life is how she approaches her work. “My passion is making the world a better place for someone else — whether that is through showing up for a loved one or working on my career, I am driven by the ability to give and uplift, most especially to anyone that is in need,” she says.

Chohan is a Mandela Washington Fellow as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative. She’s a TEDx speaker, and a previous finalist for the Pioneer in Innovation for Women in Construction Award, and won a Standard Bank Rising Star Award. She wants to not only improve herself but also to ensure she shares all she knows, especially regarding developing emotional intelligence.

Fatima Moosa |
Mokgadi Moloko Mabela, 33

Mokgadi Moloko Mabela, 33

Director and founder
Native Nosi

“I want the youth to smash stereotypes and tread in spaces our parents would have never dreamt of treading,” says Mokgadi Mabela. The 33-year-old is the director and founder of Native Nosi. Native Nosi is a company that produces and sells honey, wax and organic and indigenous by-products.

Mabela is a third-generation beekeeper. Her grandfather, the first bee-farmer in their family, used his savings to start a small beekeeping operation. Many years later Mabela continues the tradition but in her own way. Using the knowledge passed down from her grandfather and father. Mabela had to contend with the challenging modern honey market — but has made a name for herself by producing superior honey of better value.

Mabela is proud of the fact that her Native Nosi honey is special. She says the customer is given exactly what the bees made: her company won’t tamper with the honey produced by the bees in any way.

And Mabela has been recognised for her outstanding work. In 2019, she was recognised for her contribution as a female farmer in the food industry. She won the Woolworths FoodXX agriculture award at the Women In Foods awards by FoodXX. She was recognised for giving back, for sustainability and being the future of food.

The award for her work has helped Mabela gain a better sense of the importance she is bringing to the honey industry. She says she used to underprice her honey to compete with the commercial retailers. However, she realised that her target market values her product and will pay the price for a raw, pure product with sources they know and trust.

Fatima Moosa |
Akhona Lerato Xotyeni, 23

Akhona Lerato Xotyeni, 23

Master’s Candidate; Researcher; Youth Advisor and Activist on policies involving Human Rights and Climate Action
Stellenbosch University and South African Institute for International Affairs

They say knowledge is the tool of activism and, with the world in desperate need of both, Akhona Lerato Xotyeni is making sure she’s well equipped. The 23-year-old master’s student wears many hats: she contributes as a researcher, never shies away from public speaking, works as a youth advisor and dives head first into activism, focusing on human rights and climate action. Her studies have primarily revolved around environmental management and social studies, while any extra-curricular activism work is done with the noble goal of making South Africa a safe space for people from all backgrounds — with emphasis on women, the LGBTQI community, people of colour and the foreign nationals feeling threatened in the country.

Xotyeni’s motivation comes from struggling to find purpose in her teens. While some students thrived academically, others athletically, she realised that it was the good character, discipline and diligence instilled in her by her mother that were her greatest strengths. Xotyeni threw herself into helping others, starting with outreach programmes, litter drives and other environmental projects, thus forming the groundwork of her future.

“One does not need to wait until you are considered an adult before you can be seen as credible,” she says. As a youthful voice, Xotyeni has been working tirelessly to put herself into policy and decision-making spaces that lack the representation of young and vulnerable people. She was a youth advisor with the British Embassy and their climate change policies, worked with a UCT professor for a panel at the annual EU Development Days forum and was invited to give her first TEDx Talk — all to provide a voice to those who aren’t heard. It starts when you’re young, she says: “By investing in early childhood development, we can ensure that we are producing better future citizens for South Africa.”

Scott Dodds |