It is instructive to watch Thabo Thamane gushing with pride as he shows off an autographed copy of John Adair’s book: Not Bosses but Leaders.
We are sitting in his spacious office and the newly minted Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA) Chief Executive Officer is explaining the pioneering work of Adair, an authority on leadership who has transformed the world’s understanding on how executives can become business leaders.
Should Thamane crack it in the CEDA hot seat, he will owe it in large part to his favourite leadership expert. In fact, there are times when it is difficult to tell where Adair ends and Thamane begins. Ask him about his relationship with his charges and in typical Adairspeak he says things like: “We are one big family. There is no master/servant relationship. Most of them are knowledgeable, professional staff. They know that I am in charge and they have work to do. I never look at any of them as my subordinate.”
But far, from the world of writing celebrities and book signing circuits, Thamane is a trail blazer in his own right. At 37, while his peers are still crawling, Thamane, who is the youngest parastatal CEO in Botswana, is already walking tall. So far he seems to have it all figured out. Hardly two months in office, has he already negotiated his way around the sensitive areas of political interference?
“At all material times I want to pursue a business development disposition. So far my shareholder, the Minister of Trade and Investment, has been very supportive. Politicians can be very understanding. The important thing is to keep them informed, have them in the loop around challenges and strengths. And they turn out to be very understanding people.
Thamane knows how political CEDA can be. Every Member of Parliament takes it upon themselves to ensure that their constituents get a share of the multi-billion pula soft loans that government has been giving out since 2002.
The trouble though is that while politicians, especially Members of Parliament, are encouraging the public to go on, for CEDA the same cannot be said about the same political tribe encouraging their voters to pay back.
As if gasping a little bit of air, which by the way he does more often during the interview, Thamane says it would be much more helpful if politicians could be the ones encouraging he public about the obligations that come with accessing a CEDA loan.
“Business Development disposition is my vision. If I don’t follow it, this business will go down under.”
The tactic is a throwback from his time as head of CEDA Young Farmers fund.
“My experience with politicians is that they listen if you do not hide information away from them. At young farmers fund we had a quarterly magazine dedicated to the project. We would always ensure that all Members of Parliament have it in their pigeon holes. I tell Members of Parliament to advise their constituents to get money from CEDA but also to tell them to pay back,” he says.
Thamane is also aware of the full weight of his burden: “A lot of Batswana come here with nothing but a dream and we have to make it a reality.”
He tries to keep tabs on the dreams from the time CEDA appends its stamp of approval to the projects to the time they either fly or are crashed under the deputy sheriff’s hammer. Even as he agrees that repayment remains a challenge, he will not hive out or outsource debt collection to private companies.
“Want to create relationships with clients. Collection is very sensitive. You need people who espouse the values of the organization to be the ones following debts. If you are not able to service your loan, come talk to us, we listen. Litigation and foreclosure is always our very last resort.”
Despite all the talk about CEDA throwing good money after bad projects, Thamane is happy with the success rate of their projects.
“My non performing book is sitting at 22 percent. My target is 20 so I am 2 percent above target. Our survival rate is 69 percent. By survival rate we look at those companies that make it beyond three years and our record compares favourably both in the region and internationally. South Africa for example has a 40 percent survival rate. From an international perspective almost 70 percent of all start ups die before three years. So this means we are doing very well.”
In the main, he says it is important not to confuse survival with non-repayment.
This is because there are many businesses that are just about getting on but have heir finances not deep enough to service loans. In such instances, the challenge for CEDA is to hand-handle these companies until such time that they are able to start repaying.
He is confident that CEDA is still very relevant despite facilities offered by commercial banks. A few years ago, in its annual report, the Central Bank decried the true value of CEDA.
Bank of Botswana hinted that by using government cheap money, CEDA could crowd out the commercial banks.
In a hard hitting editorial, the Bank said many of the projects financed by CEDA were not self-sustaining beyond the cash injection from the agency.
Worse, the Bank pointed out that there was not much of an imperative upon CEDA to collect back the money owed so it as to ensure the book was revolving and self-sustaining.
“CEDA should not compete with commercial banks,” is Thamane’s short but loaded answer.
He says as it is, start-ups are a no go area for many commercial banks as a result of the risks, but also the absence of collateral demanded by commercial banks.
He is confident that without government subsidized rates, CEDA would still be able to attract start up investors.
“I still don’t believe that the government should continue to offer low interest subsidized rates. CEDA still has competitive advantages. As a country we still need state owned development institutions. It is only when CEDA competes with banks that there will be a problem. Commercial banks are reluctant to venture into start ups. Besides, banks require collateral whereas CEDA only looks at the viability of the project.”
But did Thamane ever dream himself holding what is by any measure one of the most influential offices across government owned companies?
Did he ever see himself as heir to Thapelo Matsheka, his immediate boss who was also the young CEO’s lecturer at University of Botswana?
To answer these questions, Thamane takes a long winded route.
“When this position was first advertised I did not apply because I had just been appointed Deputy CEO. I felt strongly that I had to serve in that position. But when it was re-advertised I had an urge to put my name inside. But as the interview process dragged on and I moved many stage up, I realised that it was now serious business. Until I was appointed I did not really think I was going to get the job. But make no mistake, I am enjoying it here. While I still do not believe all the frills and cushy embraces of the CEDA top office, making a difference in peoples lives has so far proved very humbling.”
It goes without saying that this much coveted and highly political office has come at great personal costs to Thamane’s private life.
“I lost a big portion of my life to the position. I have grown overnight in terms of association and conduct but I am enjoying it.”
His family has also had to pay the price: “Sometimes I get home and my two little kids are all asleep and when I leave in the morning they would still be asleep.”
But he relishes the fact that the job has given him an opportunity not only to make a difference in other people’s lives but to also see the good in them.
“There used to be time when I had a very short fuse. I had a difficulty in seeing the good in other people. That has changed and there is not a slightest feeling of anger in me. For now I tell my colleagues here that CEDA profits are out there in the companies that we finance. If the companies we finance make it then we cannot ask for more.”