Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Nkawana: the ex-wildlife ranger who made it into tourism industry

Two minutes into a conversation with Kgoberego Nkawana, the managing director of Bigfoot Tours, is enough to see why he ventured into tourism.

Unlike peers of his age who spent 30 years in civil service and retired into farming, he chose to continue with his passion years after leaving government.

Sitting at his office in Gaborone Extension 10 suburb, he traces back the big footsteps that led to the creation of the business in 2003.

“It was born of the fact that it was a familiar terrain having been a wildlife officer and Principal at Wildlife Training College,” explains Nkawana.

After spending 26 years with the Department of Wildlife, he decided to set up his own company and plough back the knowledge he has acquired over the years into the industry that is perceived to be a white people’s business.

The journey of Bigfoot is of any other starter-up business in the country as setting up the company was not easy like any other new venture. Before going into campsite business, the company first operated a lodge owned by a community and infighting by the owners affected the business big time.

It was after this experience that Nkawana took a break to rediscover himself and started other operations. Bigfoot re-strategised and came back with a fired up team that had energy and zeal to spend nights in the bush.

Currently, the company operates and manages 28 campsites in Khutse and 15 others located in the controversial CKGR.

“We grew and today we have additional campsites.”

Bigfoot has won a tender to operate public campsites that government decided to privatise in a bid to increase efficiency.

Now the role of government at the game reserves is concerned with providing security for the wild animal and fauna.

Like every other tourism areas, the two game reserves where the company operates are frequented by foreign tourists with Batswana making a small percentage of their visitors.

Nkawana cites Europeans, especially the Germans, as their big market while South Africans sporadically visit the campsites.

Rather than bash the local travelers who have been criticised for not visiting domestic areas of interest and prefer South Africa, Namibia or Mozambique, instead he sees challenges as some of the impediments of local travel.

Prohibitive charges usually quoted in US dollars have often been identified as one challenge facing a local traveler despite some tour operators having special rates for the locals.
Nkawana dismisses the insinuation that Batswana are not interested in visiting places of interest in the country.

His analysis is that people who grew up next to wildlife areas will not find it interesting while those who did not would like to visit these game reserves and experience the wild life.

“Those who grew up in the rural areas would go to Cape Town,” suggests the bush expert.

He reveals the impediment to locals visiting campsites is that at times they do not have camping equipment and vehicles to reach the camping areas and he says ‘that is where we want to come in’.

Bigfoot is in the process of buying buses to transport local tourist to the Khutse main gate and then use tour vehicles (open vehicles) that are used on the sandy conditions of the desert.
The buses will add to the fleet that the company has at the moment. It started with one Landcruiser and staff of two people.

Now it boasts of a fleet of 7 vehicles and more workers.

The compliment has grown to 8 people in Gaborone with another 8 people working permanently in the bush and every month temporary staff is brought on board.

In this competitive industry, there are difficulties that the players face. For example, the challenge facing tour operators has been identified as lack of skilled employees in the professional tour guiding.

The risk is that these skills are in demand and training them makes them attractive enough to be poached by competitors.

“We do not have those skills in the industry. Ba a lwelwa (people fight for them). Professional tour guides are few,” says Nkawana.

The other difficulty is that with unemployment high in the country some school leavers attend Wildlife Training College, but without passion for the job.

This explains why many young people are reluctant to work long times in the bush. Most of the operators with permanent structures, like the ones in The Okavango Delta, normally have a tour of duty and then release their employees to debrief.

The other challenge facing operators like Bigfoot is to find and retain the international market. This market, which brings the much needed foreign currency to the country and helps jerk up the GDP numbers, is a sensitive market that needs to be nurtured.

This market normally needs good customer service, which remains a major challenge in the country.
“We forget that we help people that do not understand our culture.”

Some tourists will want to come to Botswana and be served by locals, but others would love to be served by their own race.

As part of the company’s marketing drive, Nkawana says they target a number of high profile exhibitions around the world, including the annual Tourism Indaba in South Africa, others in Namibia, Zambia and they will travelling to Japan.

The company also has a website and distributes brochures in an effort to sell its products and services to possible customers.

He is also of the view that government’s agencies tasked with marketing the country (abroad) can do more to supplement what they are already doing.

“We think the country is not marketed in totality by those who are supposed to market it. They must do more than what they are supposed to do.”

Apart from campsites, Bigfoot manages and operates itineraries, mobile tours, and cultural safaris. It plans to diversify the product offerings in the future.

Nkawana, the former junior wildlife scout who made it into tourism, has been credited for being a wildlife management and community education specialist.

Part of his duties during working days included looking after the Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) programme in Botswana and worked with projects like Chobe Enclave Community Trust and Khama Rhino Sanctuary.

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