Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Tete-a-tete with Dominic Ntwaagae: ‘the railway boy’

His peers affectionately call him ‘the railway boy’. When he talks about trains, Dominic Ntwaagae oozes so much confidence and authority he leaves you agape with awe. He is well-versed with the DNA of the train. If the question is about the train, he will readily and unflinchingly provide the answer and the explanation. The question then becomes, why is Botswana Railways always attracting negative publicity when it is led by a man who has been running trains for 26 years? ‘’It could be a lot of people just don’t understand the dynamics of the railway industry”, that is what Ntwaagae believes.

The interview takes place in his office at the Botswana Railways Headquarters in Mahalapye. ‘’This is a unique business. Don’t look for money but rather look for passion”, Ntwaagae says about his mission at the helm of the national railway organisation. He says he is in it for the love of it and not necessarily for the money.  Even then, he says while people cry out loud that BR expenditure is too high, the organisation is making that money. Ntwaagae says such negative stories used to get him really worked up but he has since developed a thick skin because he believes for an economy such as Botswana, BR is doing pretty well. ‘’As a group, we are doing well”, he says, referring to a combination of companies under Botswana Railways, which are BR Properties, Gabcon, BR Express and Sea Rail Botswana in Namibia. Many negative stories have been written about Botswana Railways but Ntwaagae believes most of them are as a result of ignorance on the part of the journalists. When it comes to the railway side of their business, Ntwaagae is adamant they have managed to recapitalize the organization through procurement of new locomotives, wagons and coaches. The re-launch of the passenger train has been hailed as a success by Ntwaagae.  At one point, he says, the newly launched BR Express had 880 passengers, all comfortably seated. Ntwaagae says they have changed many aspects on the new train when compared to the old one which was discontinued several years ago. ‘’We want our customers to travel in luxury and dignity”, he says.

BR Express customers can now enjoy the comfort of travel right from the waiting rooms which are air-conditioned. Unlike in the past where customers could just get in the train and be packed like sardines, this time BR observes their carrying capacity and once all seats have been fully booked, they stop ticket sales. Customers also buy tickets in advance and do not pay on board.  To purchase a ticket, customers are also required to provide identification and Ntwaagae says this allows them to account for each and every customer that travels with BR.  Ntwaagae was personally involved in the design concept of the new passenger coaches and this is because he wanted to make sure the manufacturers pay attention to all the details he had set out, that of a luxurious and comfortable train. The new coaches are air-conditioned and fitted with flat television sets. More leg room has been provided for passengers across the different classes of the train.  He says he dares anyone to try out the new train and he promises they will be hooked. Ntwaagae says since we are living in a modern world, our rail transport has to match the times. ‘’ I can’t spend so much time studying in Canada and come back to do things the same old way”, he says with a chuckle.  He says by its nature, the train is addictive and this happens only when passengers travel in comfort. ‘’We strive to offer utmost ambiance and that is where we are pushing our brand to”, the BR boss said. Ntwaagae says Batswana need to appreciate the value add of the train to the country’s economy. He also says he is disturbed by the deliberate vandalism by some passengers. For instance, there is a seat that has been slit across with a sharp instrument and the seat is said to cost around P100, 000. . He has made time-keeping very strict when it comes to the departure and arrival times of BR trains. ‘’We don’t want to inconvenience our passengers. If you ask someone to wait for you at the train station at an indicated time, our train must arrive at that particular time”, he stresses.

 Ntwaagae says BR transports very heavy goods in large quantities and this eases the strain that our roads would have if we relied solely on road transport. ‘’We carry 12 000 metric tonnes per load and just imagine how many trucks it would take to transport all that”, he asks rhetorically and calculates that it would take 300 trucks to do that. BR goods train transports about 400 000 tonnes of soda ash every year and this is a feat that would be practically impossible to achieve with the use of trucks. BR transports 1 million litres of fuel on a given single trip. Ntwaagae talks passionately about trains and even has a miniature model of a train in his office which he uses as a teaching aid whenever he has to explain the anatomy of a train to someone. From the top of his head, he is able to explain the carrying capacity and even fuel consumption of all BR trains.

 Ntwaagae comes across as a man on a mission to turn around BR fortunes. Through BR Properties, Ntwaagae has managed to build one of the busiest shopping malls in the country, Railpark Mall. The mall was built from a loan of P350million but it is now valued at P650million and it is now wholly owned by Botswana Railways after buying out minority shareholders. They are planning on constructing a much bigger railway park to match the Gaborone CBD. Ntwaagae also wants BR Properties to venture into real estate business.  They are also using the dry port in Namibia to run one of their subsidiaries, Sea Rail Botswana which is currently up and running. The port is used to receive imported cars and other goods coming to Botswana and neighbouring countries. Ntwaagae also mentioned that BR has invested USD3.6 million on acquisition of 8 brand new, state of the art locomotives from the US. They are expected to be delivered in October 2017. He says the locomotives have far much enhanced technological capability as just two of them are able to do the work normally carried out by three. 

Ntwaagae counts among his achievements the enrolment of female train drivers in the Botswana Railways. For the first time ever, BR now trains women drivers and some of them have already acquired their licences and are behind the wheel. ‘’Some of them started the two-year training when they were only 20 years old”, he says with a sense of pride and achievement.  He ended by revealing that the secret behind being a good leader is the ability to be able to co-exist with others. ‘’I want BR to be at the top with the best. We want Africa to benchmark”, he concluded.

Fresh from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, Ntwaagae joined Botswana Railways in 1990 as a Mechanical Engineering graduate trainee. He worked in the BR workshop in Mahalapye where his duties entailed maintenance and repairs of locomotives and coaches. He continued as the ‘train doctor’ until 2004 when he joined the executive management of Botswana Railways.  Ntwaagae also acquired further training in Railways Safety Management SATCC Technical Course for Engineers RITES, Maintenance and Management of Rolling Stock. He also underwent an Executive Development Programme (EDP) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He climbed up the managerial ladder and eventually became the Chief Executive Officer in October 2011. 2016 marks his 26 years of service with Botswana Railways.

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