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In this exclusive interview, with less than a month on the job, Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela speaks to Medical Chronicle’s Nicky Belseck. 

New SAHPRA CEO Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela has a wealth of experience and energy to spare.

Confident she’s up to the challenging role of SAHPRA chief executive officer (CEO), Dr Semete-Makokotlela believes her hands-on-approach is exactly what the authority needs. “When I look at where the organisation is, it really needs someone who is very operational because there are just so many moving parts. You don’t want someone who comes with some grandiose far-fetched plan and doesn’t come back down to ground with practical solutions,” she said.

Although she doesn’t have a regulatory background, with a degree in genetics, a PhD in biochemistry, and a MSc in Finance and Investment from Wits Business School SAHPRA’s new CEO certainly has the grounding necessary.

“A benefit of not having a regulatory background is that I ask a lot of questions,” said Dr Semete-Makokotlela. “There may be different ways we could do things, and in asking the questions I see things from a different perspective. I see the fact that I’m not a pharmacist and I don’t have a regulatory background as an advantage for the organisation. I have a strong chief regulatory officer (Portia Nkambule) who will fill that gap for me. My role is to ask why we do things a certain way, and how can we do them better? My international research experience and entrepreneurial thinking enables me to develop innovative strategies.”

Particularly passionate about innovation Dr Semete-Makokotlela has experience in nanotechnology drug delivery systems, publications in high impact factor journals, and has supervised PhD and MTech students. She also worked in management consulting at McKinsey and Company – where she assisted pharmaceutical and other companies with their pressing business challenges in the African context, to grow in the continent, and reach their financial objectives – while also lecturing in immunology and nanotechnology at the University of Pretoria. Dr Semete-Makokotlela was head of R&D and Innovation office at The Innovation Hub, leading the BioPark incubator prior to joining the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as the executive director for Biosciences.

A NEW CHAPTER

Following a time of introspection, Dr Semete-Makokotlela welcomed her fortieth birthday last November. “What’s exciting is there’s this calmness that being forty brings. You don’t stress about the things you used to and you’re happy in your skin,” she said.

The timing couldn’t be better, because her new job as SAHPRA CEO is going to keep Dr Semete-Makokotlela on her toes.

PURSUING SCIENCE

Dr Semete-Makokotlela was first introduced to genetics in high school. “I was intrigued by the fact that a single gene could determine the colour of your eyes or hair, and in particular why one person gets a disease, and another does not. I wanted to know everything I could. Fortunately, I had an exceptional biology teacher who was really passionate, and she fuelled my curiosity.”

THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA

Growing up in post-apartheid SA Dr Semete-Makokotlela credits her parents for shielding her and her siblings. “Apartheid had more of an impact on my parents than me, in terms of opportunities, education, jobs and income. They didn’t have access to the same opportunities I did. However, my experiences were to a certain extent limited to what they could afford. For example, I couldn’t go to the top schools because they simply couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t learn how to swim until much later when I could personally pay for lessons,” said Dr Semete-Makokotlela. “I definitely wasn’t exposed to many of the things my children are today. They have access to far more opportunities at a much younger age than I did.

HARD WORK & EDUCATION

“On reflection, my parents never really sat and spoke to us about the importance of hard work and education, but rather it’s through their actions that we learned their value.

“I think I got my work ethic from my dad, although I don’t think I actually realised that till December (2019). My dad is an incredibly hard worker. He’s retired now but is still just as busy with all sorts of projects and is making money,” said Dr Semete-Makokotlela.

“My mom sacrificed so much, just so that my siblings and I could get an education. And I think that sacrifice indirectly communicated the value of education. My mom would resign from a position just so she could get the pension pay-out so she could afford to send us to school. Then she would go and get another job and do it again. As a result, the pension that she gets now isn’t what it could have been.

“I do sometimes wonder, had I been exposed to more, where I’d be in my life? But as a result, I had this deep desire to learn and to be able to afford whatever I want, and I resorted to working hard. As soon as I finished matric, I started waitressing. I was going to Tuks (University of Pretoria), where I knew I’d be meeting students from top schools and I was determined to be able to afford a good pair of jeans and have decent clothes in my wardrobe,” Dr Semete-Makokotlela said.

“I waitressed my entire under-grad to ensure I had enough money and I didn’t have to worry about not having a textbook that my parents couldn’t afford to pay for. After all I still had two younger siblings for whom my parents had to provide.”

THE ROAD TO CEO

“I’ve always known that I didn’t want to be a professor, I’m not an academic. I have a natural curiosity, but I knew I didn’t want to stay in a university and teach, I’m not patient enough to teach, or to churn out publications. I knew I wanted to go into management, commercialisation, etc,” said Dr Semete-Makokotlela.

“The thing about science is you have to have a base. I knew I needed to have a very strong scientific foundation, if I wanted to be taken seriously. A PhD is a basic necessity in our field, and I knew I needed to be published, so I spent time in the lab doing research, publishing, etc. But because I knew I wasn’t planning to stay in academia, when McKinsey approached me, I jumped at the opportunity to do something different.

“It was when I was at McKinsey that I realised I need a finance background. In our field you’re exposed to colleagues across the globe and increasingly you’re seeing scientists that are in management and leadership who have an MBA or finance degree. It’s not that it’s a requirement, but it’s becoming more and more common to have a PhD and something else. I love learning and knew I wanted to go the management route, but I didn’t want to do an MBA, so when I came across the finance programme at Wits, I knew it was the right fit.

CAPITALISING ON OPPORTUNITIES

“I valued hard work and education because I realised, they opened doors. The benefit of those two things in the context of black economic empowerment (BEE) and having women in certain positions, is when exposed to certain circles people can see exactly what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved, and they want to work with me,” said Dr Semete-Makokotlela.

“When companies are forced to look for people within certain parameters (BEE) and find someone within those parameters who is good at what they do, it’s a good combination.

“I have benefitted from the current legislative requirements. If they were not in place would I be here? I doubt it. Because I may not have had the opportunities I have. I’d still have been great and hardworking in whichever space I was, but I probably wouldn’t have been CEO by the age of 40, it probably would have taken me longer, perhaps only by the age of 45.”