The Minister for Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Kitso Mokaila, always has to remind the media that tourism is not a white men’s business. The media, on the other hand, thinks otherwise.
Sammy Mokgadi, the founder of African Excursions, a Maun-based tour operator, is proving that even Batswana can make it in an industry surrounded by perceptions of racism. He founded the company in 2006, armed only with the idea when he started and the belief that he could make it.
“I did not have any money but I knew what I wanted to do and I believed it was possible,” Mokgadi tells Sunday Standard.
He says he later applied for licenses required to start such a business and then applied for a Youth Grant of which he got P50, 000 that kept the ball rolling. With this money, he bought the necessary equipment, including chairs and tents amongst others.
By then, he says he did not have a car and had to rent while at the same time he did not have permanent employees. Today, African Excursions is making its mark in the tourism industry.
After some time, Mokgadi explains, he started saving and bought a vehicle in 2007 (a Toyota Hilux 4 x 4) and four months after the first, he acquired a second vehicle. African Excursions take tourists to what they call ‘fascinating destinations in Botswana’ while simultaneously providing mobile Safaris for travelers to make sure every sport can be reached, the company says on its website.
Some of the nicest destinations that the company takes tourists to include the Moremi Game Reserve, the famous Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Makgadikgadi Pan amongst others.
To showcase his products, Mokgadi has been participating at the annual Durban Indaba that attracts thousands of tourism players under one roof. African Excursions has been participating at the Indaba since 2006 and reaped the rewards of participation.
“It was an experience for me. The first one (Indaba) was just a shopping for me. The second one was better and then I knew what to do,” he explains.
The company started seeing business coming in 2008 and that was when he employed permanent staff of 5 employees. On the other hand, the 2008 Indaba introduced him to the world of travel because that was when he started knowing people and people started enquiring. However, Mokgadi is concerned that most of his clients are still tourists coming out of Botswana borders. He gets most of his clients from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France and the UK.
Batswana are still reluctant to visit Botswana wilderness although during holidays, the company advertises discounts to entice Batswana to spend money locally. It also has a website.
Most of Batswana still prefer to go to South Africa (Durban, Cape Town and other exotic destinations in that giant country), Namibia and Mozambique.
“Batswana are very few on the trips we do. Maybe it is just 6 percent.”
To attract locals (Batswana) to visit places of interest in their country, he advertises and gives them discounts every holiday, which are about 40 percent of the normal charges.
“I try my best to support Batswana. Sometimes we do not make profit, but they are taking time. They spend a lot of money going to South Africa,” he says.
“It is not that they do not have money, but they rather prefer to go outside the country.” This is not the only challenge African Excursions and other tour operators face.
Mokgadi says because there are few Batswana in the business, he is not getting enough business support from bigger companies, saying they only give it to others they trust. The only support he gets is from the hotels, like Cresta, Rileys and guest houses.
On the other hand, the challenge facing tour operators, like African Excursions, is that this business is a seasonal one. Normally, from January to April it is quiet, yet they still have to meet expenses like staff salaries.
The rainy season is another factor that Mokgadi identifies as a challenge to his business, which leaves the roads in a bad state leading to breakdowns.
“It happens every single trip during the rainy seasons,” he explains.
Mokgadi is looking at opportunities to expand his business. Not so long ago, African Excursions and other 5 Batswana companies put up a tender to operate camp sites. The consortium tendered and won amongst others an ablution at the Third Bridge and they will be running these camps from next year.
These latest acquisitions, Mokgadi says, will help his company. He is also looking at opportunities for 2010 and other events in the region. African Excursions’ war chest is also boosted by the contract they have gone into with Footsteps, a South African agent, which gives his company business on contract basis.
Footsteps approached a group of seven companies and divided the business from the list. African Excursions has been on the contract for 3 months now and it is complementing the marketing that the company is already doing.
He explains that there are opportunities for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and gains were made at the Tourism Indaba in Durban. He says he talked to agents on packages and he hopes it will come right.
“But we need to be ready and we are starting to get ready,” explains Mokgadi. The owner of African Excursions has a track record in the industry, with 8 years working at Cresta and Afritourism.
He has done a Hospitality Management programme and has stayed in the United States where he did Disney for one year between 2004 and 2005. When he came back, he decided to start his own business.
“There is future in the industry as long as you know what you are doing,” he says.