A fascination with numbers and a penchant for problem-solving helped a quiet boy from a poor village in northern Namibia become a world-respected financial mathematician who has visited and lectured at some of the world's leading universities.
Dr Mesias Alfeus, a senior lecturer in Financial Risk Management at Stellenbosch University (SU), was recently appointed as a local node leader for a global platform for responsible science – InSPiR2eS Centre for Responsible Science (IC4RS). He has travelled extensively and is a member of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences' (NITheCS) Quantitative Finance Research Programme Steering Committee. Alfeus recently attended the Symposium in Quantitative Finance and Risk Analysis (QFRA) held in Crete, Greece.
His flourishing academic career had its humble roots in Okadila village, Namibia, where he was raised by his great-grandmother. “She taught me about God, and I gave my life to Him at an early age." A quiet child, he enjoyed playing the traditional game “Owela womanghete", which involves mathematic thinking, with his great-grandmother. Maths was not the most popular subject at the local school, but Alfeus excelled at it and by Grade 5 he was doing Grade 7 maths problems. By Grade 10, he was the top-performing maths student in the country.
“Unfortunately, I was spending too much time on my maths and performing poorly in language," he admits. His mathematics skills eclipsed any language shortcomings, fortunately, securing him a scholarship for an engineering degree after school at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. While doing engineering, Alfeus felt “mathematically starved" and decided to pursue a degree in BCom Mathematical Sciences at SU. Sadly, it was here that his lack of language proficiency proved to be a stumbling block and Alfeus deregistered from this course.
But Alfeus is not one to easily be deterred by a challenge and he returned to the University of Namibia. During his time there, he attended a conference in Spain – travelling for the first time on an international flight. A few years after leaving SU, he was invited to return to do a joint honours degree in financial mathematics with SU, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the University of Cape Town. “Coming back was a joy," reveals Alfeus. He adds that this honours programme proved challenging, with only two of the eight students making it to graduation. Alfeus, however, completed the programme to graduate cum laude. He also received a merit award for his thesis.
He then accepted a sponsorship from the Namibia Financial Institutions Supervisory Authority (NAMFISA) to enrol at SU for a master's degree in financial mathematics. Again, his thesis earned him a merit award. After a brief stint at NAMFISA, Alfeus applied for a PhD in quantitative finance at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia. He chose UTS because of its multidisciplinary Quantitative Finance Research Centre, he explains. And it offered the exciting opportunity to live in a new country.
Alfeus settled well in a Christian community close to the university, and he completed his PhD in less than three years. “This was an opportunity for me to grow as an academic." During his PhD, Alfeus won the Young Investigator Training Programme (YITP) international award to attend the XIX Workshop on Quantitative Finance, held at the Roma Tre University in Italy. He also spent a month doing research at the Dipartimento di Matematica at the University of Padua in Italy
He was then offered a full academic position at the University of Wollongong in Australia. While he enjoyed his time overseas, it was a matter of the heart that brought him back to local shores. He married his wife, a specialist urologist at Groote Schuur, in 2019 and returned to SU the following year as a lecturer in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science.
Now a senior lecturer at SU, Alfeus is also head of the NITheCS Quantitative Finance Research Programme. “I coordinate research in SA, provide students with funding and foster collaboration with other universities and industry partners." The objective is to provide practical solutions for industry-related challenges. Maths models can be developed to deal with the energy crisis and environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges as an example. Alfeus also supervises master's and PhD students.
Already widely acclaimed in his field and NRF rated, Alfeus says his next career goal is to host the first Bachelier Finance Society – an organisation in mathematical finance where academia and practitioners can meet and exchange ideas – World Congress in Africa at Stellenbosch. “I want to make sure that quantitative finance is known throughout SA."
Photographer: Stefan Els