By Jessie Taylor
Women’s month offers us an opportunity to not only reflect on the women who have shaped our country’s past and present but also on those women who are working toward a better future.
There are numerous South African women leaders who are creating positive change, taking their place in the boardrooms of the business world and driving innovation across technology-based sectors. Others are achieving international acclaim for their talent, dedication and hard work, forging paths for the next generation to follow.
But their impact goes beyond the achievements celebrated today. Seeing women role models encourages young girls to step outside of stereotypes and enter fields they may have otherwise not considered. This is essential for encouraging full economic participation, particularly in science-based fields and other areas in which women are under-represented.
South African women, young and old, are fortunate to have several leaders to draw inspiration from and we highlight just some of the trailblazing South African women making their mark in the world.
Arlene Mulder has made a name for herself as a trailblazer in the Coding and Technology sector, having founded the non-profit organisation WeThinkCode. She left her job as an investment banker to create the organisation, which today works to unlock the potential of Africa’s youth by nurturing tech talent and encouraging the growth of tech skills.
A technology lover, Mulder believes in advancing Africa’s digital problem-solving capabilities while making education more accessible on the continent. She has also established BiB, Africa’s first audio library app, to keep Africa’s rich storytelling heritage alive, as well as the platform Toybox, which aims to help people with great ideas bring those ideas to life. She is currently a global ambassador for startup competition “She Loves Tech” and was awarded the Forbes Woman Africa Technology and Innovation Award in 2019.
This South African innovator is the founder of iMED Tech- a company that produces medical prostheses and bio-implants. Started in 2015, the company uses medical 3D printing applications to develop custom prosthetics for those who have lost limbs due to accidents, cancer and other diseases.
Nkholise was named as the top female innovator in Africa in 2016 and 2018, she also made it onto Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30 lists. She has since pivoted from mechanical engineering and biotechnology to animal husbandry. In 2018, she founded 3DIMO, a company that aims to improve the traceability of livestock. She is a Harambean member, an alliance of entrepreneurs focused on building Africa’s future, and has been awarded a SAB Foundation Social Innovation Award.
Ntsiki Biyela is South Africa’s first black female winemaker and is the Director of Aslina Wines. The company was established in 2016, named in tribute to her grandmother, and distributes her premium wines globally.
She grew up in a rural KwaZulu-Natal village and first worked as a domestic worker on completing her schooling. However, she was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking and went on to take the industry by storm. She was appointed head winemaker at Stellekaya Wines before starting her own brand.
Biyela was awarded the Wine Harvest Commemorative Event Diversity and Transformation Award in 2021 and has received global recognition from the Sakura Awards in Japan and South Africa’s Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards.
In 2017, she was listed in the world’s top 10 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink by Fortune’s Food & Wine. She was also named South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009 and has been a finalist for the Most Influential Women in Business and Government award twice.
While studying towards a civil engineering degree, Naadiya Moosajee founded WomEng – a non-profit organisation aimed at attracting, developing and nurturing the next generation of women engineering leaders. The social enterprise grows girls in STEM and women in engineering in multiple countries and won the award of “Best NGO” at the Top Women Awards in 2013.
She is also the Co-Founder of WomHub, an innovative start-up creating gender parity through education and technology. WomHub aims to accelerate female-led entrepreneurship in STEM fields.
Moosajee describes herself as passionate about developing STEM, fostering growth, gender parity, leadership & prosperity in emerging economies, developing & mentoring the next generation of leaders and engineering better societies. She was named as a Forbes Magazine Top 20 Young Power Women in Africa in 2014 and is a Global Future Council Member with the World Economic Forum.
Born in the small town of Piet Retief, Mpumalanga, Pretty Yende has become a global sensation for her acclaimed operatic and solo performances worldwide. She debuted at the Latvian National Theatre in Riga as Micaela in Carmen and has gone on to perform on some of the world’s most renowned opera stages.Having always sung at home with her family, Yende was inspired to learn opera at the age of 16 and asked her high school teacher to teach it to her.
In 2016, she released her debut album “A Journey” for Sony Classical. She has since released a second album, with a third solo album in the making.
She has raked in several accolades, including the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, for her excellent achievement and international acclaim in the world of opera and for serving as a role model to aspiring young musicians. She has also been awarded the Italian Knighthood, Ordine Stella d’Italia, for her work in building extraordinary relations between Italy and other countries. She is the youngest South African ever awarded this accolade.
Dr Adriana Marais is a director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa, an organisation aiming to send Africa’s first mission to the Moon. In this role, she aims to inspire African youth to ‘reach for the Moon’ through education, science and space exploration. Her passion for space exploration saw her named an astronaut candidate with the Mars One Project.
She is a member of the Faculty at the Singularity University, where she shares her research in quantum biology, technology required to sustain terrestrial life on Mars, space exploration and how space exploration technology can be applied on Earth.
She has a PhD in Quantum Biology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and is currently designing a blockchain-based economic system for a second PhD.
Dr Marais has received numerous awards, including the 2015 L’Oreal-UNESCO International Rising Talent Award. In 2020, she was among the top five global finalists for Women in Tech’s Most Disruptive Women in Tech Award.
Dr Ncumisa Jilata
Dr Ncumisa Jilata is the youngest neurosurgeon in Africa and has come a long way from her hometown of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape to her rooms at Morningside Mediclinic in Johannesburg. She is only one of five black female neurosurgeons in South Africa and just over 240 in Africa. Her work sees her treat brain conditions such as brain tumours and the effects of strokes, as well as conditions of the nervous system.
Dr Jilata started her medical education at Walter Sisulu University (WSU) and completed her specialist training at the University of Pretoria. She completed a fellowship for the Council of Neurosurgeons of South Africa in 2017, at the age of 29.
She was commended by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017, during his Presidency Budget Vote in Parliament’s National Assembly. He praised her as an inspiration and highlighted her courage and determination.
Aside from her work as a neurologist, Dr Jilata mentors young black women to become the next generation of neurosurgeons and works to bring science to communities.
Finding the solutions to the problems faced by our society requires new thinking from passionate leaders – and many South African women are stepping forward to create new opportunities and possibilities. Each of these women is not only creating a positive change in their sector and community, but they are also serving as role models who can inspire today’s youth to take up the mantle of tomorrow’s leaders.