UCT rising star presents solution to food waste at UN Global Leaders Summit

Maryjane Mokgethi, a student on AIFMRM’s MCom in Risk Management of Financial Markets programme, headed to New York to attend the UN Global Leaders Summit. The winning solution, in a UN Global Compact competition, focuses on the problem of food waste and was presented at the Summit this September.

Maryjane Mokgethi giggles when she says, “I had only ever used my passport before to go to Botswana, and now I have been to the UN in New York!” The elated 25-year old has just returned from the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit which took place in iconic Midtown Manhattan in September.

Earlier this year, she entered the UN Global Compact’s Breakthrough Innovation Challenge, which aims to bring together “young intrapreneurs from leading companies to design future sustainable business models powered by disruptive technologies”. No small task, but Mokgethi and her team were up for the challenge.

The competition posed eight questions and students were invited to submit a solution to any question. “We worked on a challenge posed by Nestlé: ‘to enable exponential consumer engagement and behaviour change to contribute towards Nestlé’s strategy to prevent and minimise food waste along the value chain.’ We won, and the prize for the winning solution was a trip to New York to attend the Summit and present our solution alongside Nestlé,” she explains.

Mokgethi and her teammates, Bridget Fundikwa and Wadzanani Nyabeze, two recent chemical engineering master’s graduates from UCT, created a solution to minimise food waste through a mobile app. “We provided a solution to reduce food waste, particularly in developed countries, as this problem is more prominent in developed countries. The intention is to create awareness around food waste and to change consumer behaviour. Some people are not conscious of food waste, and we hope to change this. Many people are socially conscious, but with busy schedules and modern life their behaviour and purchasing patterns lead to waste.”

The team’s mobile app, Bagzielicous, allows consumers to track the expiry of perishable items that they have purchased, to avoid waste. The app is currently being developed by a company that they were partnered with, and they met in New York. “The app is in its final stages of development, and I am excited to witness its success when launched in 2018,” says Mokgethi.

After the presentation, the team was awarded a certificate of excellence for outstanding performance and lasting contribution to the Breakthrough Innovation Challenge. “It was heart-warming to be acknowledged, and I will always hold on to that moment.”

Mokgethi is currently completing her MCom. She has an undergraduate degree in Economics and Finance, and an Honours in Financial Analysis and Portfolio Management, both from UCT. Of her education, she says, “UCT really opened my eyes, and when I worked for a year at an investment manager, I realised that you have to be a well-rounded person, not just good at numbers. You need to be true to yourself. Be socially conscious. Yes, I am studying finance, but at the same time, I want to have a social impact. That is what drew me to AIFMRM.”

AIFMRM proudly sponsored Mokgethi’s New York trip. Dr Co-Pierre Georg, Senior Lecturer and Director of the UCT Financial Innovation Lab at AIFMRM says, “It is not every day that one of our own embarks on an exciting adventure like this.”

“I am so grateful to AIFMRM for sponsoring my trip and supporting me in this once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Mokgethi, and “especially to Co-Pierre Georg, who acted as my advocate and believed in this initiative.”

Georg sees Mokgethi as a significant role model, especially for young women. When asked if she has advice for young women pursuing their dreams, she says: “My story certainly shows that anything can happen! Be daring. Try. Go out of your way to have a well-rounded university experience and life experience. Be socially conscious and engage with people or join university societies that you may not have been exposed to before.”

Ultimately, her hope for the long-term is that we can implement similar apps in South Africa. “As our country becomes more developed; we need to establish sound social awareness around food waste and food security. It will lead to a better South Africa in the future.”

Mokgethi’s UN experience was life-changing, and she says, “the words of the Global Leaders will remain with me for years to come. I am looking forward to the future and aspire to be identified as a Global Leader who pushes beyond the boundaries of technology and creates disruptive change through the face of sustainable business conduct”.

What we need to keep blockchain booming in Africa

To harness the power of blockchain technology for the continent, we need a new generation of highly skilled professionals to drive its application. South Africa will soon see a first-of-its-kind intensive skills building boot camp and hackathon to achieve just that.

Blockchain is booming in Africa. On the financial side alone, Bitcoin trading hit record highs in South Africa in August as the currency surged to $4,700 a coin. Additionally, Pick and Pay, one of South Africa’s largest retailers successfully trialled Bitcoin as a payment option.

The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) has said it is open to issuing a national digital currency, likely based on blockchain or distributed ledger technology and similar plans are in the pipeline in Senegal and within the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA).

Analysts believe Africa will be impacted dramatically by the rise of blockchain technology, arguing that it can enhance both efficiency and transparency across sub-Saharan economies. The applications range from micropayment systems to digital identity management or smart contracts, driving a new era of more inclusive growth, job creation, and prosperity.

However, while the technology is flourishing, skills development in the area is not. Moreover, this has prompted two forward-thinking organisations to collaborate to host a first-of-its-kind blockchain boot camp and hackathon aimed at building skills in this rapidly expanding area.

The event will be hosted in Cape Town by the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at UCT and Linum Labs, a blockchain production studio with a focus on blockchain consulting, training and community development.

The hackathon aims to stimulate the development of ideas, prototypes, and applications relating to blockchain technology to solve business problems, particularly within the FinTech sector. “The emphasis is on skills transfer and mentorship within a collaborative and enabling environment,” say the organisers.

“The blockchain is changing the nature of finance. As a result, the need to develop innovative financial products has never been more pressing,” says Dr Co-Pierre Georg, Senior Lecturer at AIFMRM. “The decentralised nature of FinTech and the blockchain means these innovations are often built from the ground up by individuals, start-ups, freelance coders and students – and facilitating interaction between these stakeholders is pivotal for the diffusion of new ideas and technology.”

It is not just not just FinTech being revolutionised, says Andrew Tudhope, Lead Architect at Linum Labs. “This is a paradigm-shifting technology. The community plays a critical role in the direction any blockchain takes, and to have a viable community; you need education and skills transfer,” he says.

Many students with a keen interest in the blockchain do not have the opportunity to learn in a traditional setting, says Georg. “Creating opportunities for people to gain practical skills enabling them to develop on the blockchain is therefore crucial to addressing the skills deficit on the continent,” he says.

The boot camp and hackathon – an intensive 10-day experience which includes skills training, networking, advice on how to turn ideas into businesses, and the opportunity to win cash prizes of up to R100,000 – will be sponsored, and delegates will be chosen on merit through a rigorous application process. Organisers plan for it to become an annual event that sets the benchmark for blockchain technology development on the continent.

Delegates will gain a head start in this rapidly evolving industry, and will be well positioned to drive the application of the technology on the continent, says Linum Labs’ Devon Krantz.
“In South Africa alone, there’s great potential for changing systems that already exist,” she says. “For example, improving solar technology, notably introducing more transparent solar energy transferral. Moreover, transparency, in general, is an exciting possibility: the identities of children receiving the Child Support Grant, for example, could be stored and protected using blockchain. There could be greater transparency in managing social welfare grants.”

Blockchain could be a game changer, agrees Georg. “The nature of the technology: that it is secure and open to all, cutting out the middleman, means it could revolutionise life for people living in low-income countries or fragile states such as are common in Africa. However, this will not happen if we do not take care to develop the skills needed to drive its application on the continent so that it is accessible to more people.”

“We need to make sure that Africa can develop and keep its young talent before they take their highly sought-after skills to China, Europe or the USA,” says Paul Kohlhaas, CEO of Linum Labs.

“The hackathon is a unique opportunity to start this important journey to keep the blockchain booming on the continent.”

For more information on the hackathon please go to http://linumlabs.com/blockchain-hackathon/. Any qualified person interested in learning more about the blockchain is welcome, preference will be given to students particularly those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Five myths about maths debunked

Giving children a decent mathematics education is about more than teaching numbers – it is about fighting unemployment and creating opportunities. It may also help save the planet, says one expert.

The South African Department of Basic Education is considering dropping mathematics as a compulsory promotion requirement for pupils in grades 1 to 9. This comes at a time when the country is rated second-last in the world in the most recent Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS). The role of mathematics in education is fiercely debated at many levels, with a few misconceptions being raised that urgently need debunking, says Professor David Taylor, a professional mathematician, and director of the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at the University of Cape Town.

“It is astounding how many misconceptions exist around mathematics,” says Professor Taylor. “If I had a rand for every time I heard someone say that you don’t really need maths, I’d be a wealthy man.”

He says a few of these misconceptions are:

1. Some people just can’t do maths

Nonsense. All people are born with the ability to do mathematics, says Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Marcus du Sautoy. Mathematics has to do with how the brain recognises patterns. Primitive humans had to spot danger quickly in the jungle and did so by detecting patterns – seeing something symmetrical could mean the face of an animal and, consequently, those sensitive to symmetry survived.

Pattern recognition is at the base of how we learn everything – languages, mathematics, music, art, etc. Professor Taylor says mathematics is just another language. “In fact, it is the most comprehensible language because there are never exceptions to the rule.” He debunks the idea that some people are creative and others more scientific. “The most creative people who ever lived, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were great mathematicians and composers like Bach and Beethoven had a non-trivial understanding of mathematics.”

2. You don’t need maths to be successful in life

This may have been the case thirty years ago. But the modern world is driven by an Internet ruled by algorithms, complex cellphone technology and banks governed by complicated regulations. Entrepreneurs and innovators coming up with novel ideas to solve the problems affecting communities need to understand how to model ideas and designs, how to draw up business plans and calculate risks. Potential investors and stock traders must comprehend the statistics of markets.

To be successful in business today, CEOs and managers have to be able to decode financial statements, board reports and lengthy documents which all require some level of mathematical ability. Basel III, the latest international regulatory framework for banks, is a document of over 1000 pages. The first Basel accord, compiled in 1988, had fewer than 100 pages. This is an example of how financial complexity has grown over the last few decades.

3. Some cultures are better at maths

Wrong. Chinese people are not inherently maths whizzes. Research by the National Institutes of Health shows that human brains have consistently the same molecular architecture. While individual DNA differs across individuals and ethnicities, our brains are basically the same in structure – and potential – at birth.

The reason why the Chinese are better at math is quite simply that they work harder at it than many other cultures do. Chinese children begin learning multiplication at the age of seven, following a method of ancient Chinese scholars developed 2 200 years ago based on rote learning and repetition. Children spend more than 15 hours per week on maths, both in and outside the classroom.

4. Maths is impossibly difficult

Mathematics is hard. It is the marathon version of mental exercise. But it is not impossible. Professor du Sautoy says maths is like learning to play an instrument or doing sport. It requires practice. Nobody walks out onto the tennis court hitting an ace straight away. But as a muscle grows stronger with practice, the mind also becomes better at mathematics if it is applied consistently.

If you think you can’t do maths – then you probably can’t. In his book, Your Plastic Brain, Benjamin Kramer says, “Changing your thinking is the single most important factor in changing the way your brain is wired. There is simply no other activity which contributes more to brain rewiring, however, it is also the aspect which takes the most time and effort.”

5. Maths really isn’t important

Sir Francis Bacon said knowledge itself is power. To those who say maths isn’t important, the question has to be – to whom? To millions of South Africans, mathematical ability is key to progressing from informal housing to better living conditions, having access to good education, electricity and water supply, proper jobs and a decent income. Being able to work out percentages and comprehending compound interest is necessary for even basic transactions like buying a house or putting away money for children’s education. All of this while decent jobs are reducing in number.

Most importantly, teaching mathematics in schools is about the future, says Professor Taylor. It is about preparing children to deal with the world in 20, 50 and 100 years. What will the planet look like? Will there be enough water? Who will come up with solutions to the consequences of rising temperatures and dwindling food resources? “Mathematical ability is about more than getting a good job and making decent money,” says Professor Taylor. “It may be directly linked to our survival as a species.”

AIFMRM PhD Student Fellowships

AIFMRM invites applications for PhD Student Fellowships. The application deadline is 15 November 2017 and appointments are for as soon as is feasible (late applications will be considered until all positions are filled). The tenure of the fellowship is for three years. Applicants must have a Master’s degree in economics, finance, computer science, statistics, financial mathematics, or closely related fields.

We are looking for enthusiastic PhD students with a Master’s degree in economics, finance, computer science, statistics, financial mathematics, or closely related fields. We offer a three-year, fully funded fellowship of R190 000 per annum. Research support is available, e.g. for conference travel and publication costs. We encourage and actively support PhD Students to undertake internships either in the financial industry or with regulatory authorities and central banks during their PhD. AIFMRM has an extensive set of collaborations with leading universities in Europe and the USA and we encourage students who want to broaden their academic horizon to spend a semester abroad during their PhD. Download the AIFMRM PhD Student Fellowships advertisement

Six Things Finance Graduates Need to Know

Careers in finance are evolving quickly, and yet perceptions about working in the industry remain outdated. Here are the trends for 2018, according to industry experts.

Recently, LinkedIn conducted an analysis of the most promising finance careers of 2017. With high salaries and excellent career prospects, a job in finance has always been attractive to graduates. Now, as technology infiltrates finance, entirely new roles are being created in the industry and the need for technical and quantitative skills is growing.

In South Africa, the field is highly competitive. And, say industry leaders, it is evolving quickly. There is increasing demand for scarce skills, and this trend will likely continue, particularly in the current economic climate.

This means undergraduate students need to buckle up, as a Master’s degree is typically required as a minimum to work in this industry. Speaking at the University of Cape Town’s African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) on 23 August, representatives from Rand Merchant Bank, Old Mutual, Liberty, ABSA, and AIFMRM, advised aspiring quants and risk managers what they need to be prepared for.

1. Instability in the economy is not the end

Asked whether instability in South Africa was a career death sentence, the panel was adamant. “I have never seen such a professional drive for quants,” said Greg Mollentz, Head of Asset Liability Management at OMSFIN.

ABSA’s Nico Le Roux, Principal: Rates and Credit Structuring, pointed out the need for some kind of direction in order to sell. “From that perspective, volatility is not a bad thing,” he told students.

A deeper analysis came from AIFMRM’s Obeid Mohamed, who said industry developments post-2008 meant a growing demand for risk managers. “Since then, management has been playing catch-up. Quantitative skills are more important than ever in the risk management space,” he said.

Moreover, he added, it was important to acknowledge the positive role risk managers played. “Risk management is not only about adverse events but also about identifying opportunity and enabling business,” he said. “Banks play a very important role in society; enabling transactions plays a big role in developing society. We must not only focus on the negative side.”

2. New skills are in demand – and they’re evolving constantly

There’s the opportunity to thrive in a rapidly-changing industry, said Co-Pierre Georg, senior lecturer at AIFMRM. Georg cited industry buzzwords: fintech, machine learning, big data, blockchain… “The financial service industry is changing”, he said. “This will result in a fundamental change in how the economy works.” Georg, co-convenor of the new MPhil in Data Science of Financial Technology, hopes to prepare students for this change.

“The demand will soon be inordinate for people with scarce skills that combine finance with modern technology,” he said. “This will be the case in every environment where there is risk, for example where there is sensitive data that needs to be shared.”

According to Georg, machine learning will be a core element of this shift and forms a crucial part of the new degree, where students learn to develop their own artificial intelligence: AI trading platforms or a chatbot for customer service, for example. “This is currently state-of-the-art,” he said. “There has been a massive breakthrough in technology over the past few years.” The flip side, he added, is that every year or two, knowledge runs the risk of becoming outdated – it is essential to remain ahead.

“We are very fortunate to live in a time where we witness this change in the industry,” he said.

3. Stay the distance

It’s not easy to study and work, and sometimes funding is scarce and this places heavy financial demands on students. Lennox Masangane, Counterparty Credit Risk Models Consultant at Rand Merchant Bank, emphasised the importance of staying the distance. “Try to stick it out with your studies for as long as you can,” he advised. “It is worthwhile.”

David Taylor, founding director of AIFMRM, concurred. “In the last 10 years, a master’s degree is the standard qualification you need to get into financial careers, especially if you want to climb the ranks,” he said. He added that the institute works hand-in-hand with industry and government to raise money to help fund students on its MPhil in Mathematical Finance and MCom in Risk Management of Financial Markets.

4. Postgraduate is increasingly competitive

There is an interesting paradox: although numbers decrease sharply from undergraduate to postgraduate level, applications at this level are still fiercely competitive. At AIFMRM, for example, there are just 25 places available each year on its sought-after MPhil in Mathematical Finance. At NYU, said Taylor, there are around 900 applications each year for just 30 places. “We are not quite there yet,” he said. Nonetheless, competition is tough and merit-based. It has even been necessary to move application dates forward by a month to 30 September, so that graduates can have enough time to find sponsorship before they enrol at the end of January.

5. Employers expect you to be work-ready

A challenge, said Taylor, is that employers increasingly expect graduates to be work-ready as soon as they leave university. “Firms are essentially looking for a maturity of mind and attitude in new recruits. The technical sophistication of modern Financial Services roles, the speed at which the environment can change, and the breadth of knowledge and abilities required, means employers want recruits who do not need a year or more of post-employment immersion to begin to contribute in a meaningful way,” he said. “Somehow we have to slide students through a scale into people who sit down in their new jobs and start making money.” He encouraged students to hone their professional skills early and to embrace internship opportunities.

6. Graduates have scope to shape their own career

There is a need for those who dream big, said Georg. “You must have an interest in trying and failing. We want people who want to experiment and change things,” he told students. “My dream is that at the end of next year, we will have students who start up their own companies.”

“We must go from the mindset of trying to get jobs to trying to create jobs.”

Whatever route people take in the industry, it is a fantastic and challenging career, panellists agreed. Without exception, they expressed their enjoyment of their careers. “If nothing else, this is a really fun job,” said Ved Somera, Head of Trading – Equities at Nedbank.