Mmegi Online :: Unearthing the gems in the wilderness
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Wednesday 19 September 2018, 14:07 pm.
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Unearthing the gems in the wilderness

As policymakers search for a replacement for diamonds as the anchor of the economy, tourism is emerging as a more sustainable gem hidden in the same sands, which first yielded the shiny stones. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports from the wilderness
By Mbongeni Mguni Fri 22 Dec 2017, 13:03 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Unearthing the gems in the wilderness








For me, the whole story is about value. Creating value, distributing it equitably and as sustainably as possible.

This is essentially what the diamond miracle that powered the post-Independence economy was all about. Geologists dug deep in the earth, retrieved value, which prudent policymakers were able to distribute as equitably and sustainably as possible.

The value story goes deeper than that however. Diamonds in themselves have no intrinsic value, but thanks to innovative story telling and marketing, a value was assigned to them by the sellers and buyers. Value is what the other person is willing to pay for the product, whether or not the product actually has that value, a fact the Oppenheimers of this world understand quite well.

The diamond value story however has a chief weakness, being the sustainability issues around the extractives industry. Diamonds might be forever, but the mines are not.

Lying in a US$1,000-a night tented accommodation of near unfathomable luxury on the tranquil edges of the Savute Channel, these are not the thoughts that one should typically be having. I am in Dumatau, far in the north, across from Namibia, where I have joined three other journalists for a short excursion.

Outside in the breezy night, I can hear other guests conversing and laughing, hippos splashing about in the water nearby and occasionally the sound of any number of night wildlife that continue to claim this corner of Botswana as their own.

But unavoidably, this is exactly what the value story is about.

Like the enduring photograph of Manfred Marx climbing out of that dusty pit on April 19, 1967, carrying a sample of what would become Orapa Mine, developers of wilderness lodges carve out these paradises in the middle of nowhere and extract value from them.

There is a product, there is a seller and a willing buyer, so willing in fact, that most travel from across the world, to spend the equivalent of the average Motswana’s annual salary for a few nights in pristine, top end luxury in the wilderness.

Wilderness Safaris owns and runs this particular camp, Dumatau, as part of their total holdings of 13 camps spread across hundreds of thousands of hectares of unspoilt concessions in north and north-western Botswana, including the Okavango Delta.

Earlier in the day, I had sat with Wilderness Safaris’ Botswana managing director, Kim Nixon as he explained how the company approaches the hunt for value. Where Marx and compatriots famously withstood the bare elements, snakes and other bush evils in the hunt for value in the 1960s, Nixon’s approach is a bit different.

“The first thing is to identify the opportunity and establish that it is something that can be sold and is of interest to our clients,” he said.

“When we go to a new area, we ask ourselves if our clients would buy into that. We can run 15 or 20 different scenarios on different cycles looking at recoupment of investment over a certain period.

“Once we have agreed on the business model, the product must be appropriate for the area. At all times, we search out the best location and put our best investment, because we know the wildlife will deliver their part.”

The area is searched out, the aesthetics are evaluated, the numbers are run under different scenarios and only then are the architects engaged to bring the concept to reality, coming up with the product to be ‘sold’ to guests.

I take a break from my thoughts and scan around my room. At more than P10,000 per night, it is evident great attention has been paid to detail, with an emphasis on luxury and exclusivity set deliciously against the raw, threatening wilderness outside.

The guests chattering away in the distant will each have to be accompanied individually to their rooms by camp staff, as part of policy. Hippos, elephants and other animals frequently cross the walkways to the rooms, a fact I am intimately aware of, having nearly crossed paths with a leopard the night before.

The diamond is the physical product, but what is being sold is its mystique, the promise. The luxury tented accommodation, with all manner of convenience available is the physical product, but what is being sold is the wilderness experience, the big African sky, the chance leopard encounters. As Nixon puts it, the wildlife does deliver.

That, at its simplest, is the story of squeezing or realising value from “nothing” in the wilderness, whether its shiny stones or the African bush experience. The difference between the two is sustainability. As diamonds peter out from the country’s mines, value continues to be extracted from the wilderness sustainably. In fact, tourism is now one of the country’s largest foreign currency earners, after diamonds and the collapse of copper and nickel mining.

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that travel and tourism directly contributed P6.3 billion in value to the economy last year and will contribute P6.8 billion (or eight percent of GDP) this year. The sector held 25,000 jobs in 2016 and this is projected to have risen by 6.8 % this year.

The story of value continues in that last statistic.

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Wilderness Safaris in Botswana employs more than 1,000 people, nearly all of them local citizens and many from the villages and settlements that border the concessions.

When morning breaks, I speak to some of these employees and their stories are remarkably similar. Many began their careers doing something completely unrelated to tourism. Some were bookkeepers, another was an aspiring soldier, but at some point they intersected with Wilderness and receiving tourism up-skilling.

Within the group, continuous training takes place in various aspects of the tourism industry, including through the accredited Wilderness Training Facility. All field staff are equipped with a working knowledge of common flora and fauna species, a handy skill to have when you are out in the bush and suddenly confronted by one animal or the other.

One of these employees is Lesh Moiteela, Wilderness’ Culture Ambassador and Community Relationship Manager. From a background in hotels and restaurants, Moiteela transitioned to fieldwork, worked as a camp manager overseeing the construction of numerous camps, and supervising several in Linyanti including Dumatau. He tells of the time the wildlife got too near.

“I was in a boat with other guys, just relaxing. I put my hand in the river for a second and immediately felt something bite and pull. I was able to pull away and could see that it was a crocodile in the water.

“Fortunately I was able to get treatment to stop the bleeding and today, I’m only left with the scars,” he says showing what look like scratches to his fingers. The staff in the wilderness not only share in the value, but they also create it, being a big part of the experience being sold to guests. I am reminded of the Kasane guide who jetted off to the US last year hosted by a grateful visitor impressed with the service he had been given.

In his current role, Moiteela also ensures the spread of value to communities around the concessions through various initiatives, including the now well-known Children in the Wilderness, which offers life-skills and educational programmes for rural children living adjacent to wildlife areas.

At least 10,000 children across the seven African countries Wilderness is involved in, have benefited from the initiative.

Leaving Dumatau in the late afternoon, we arrive in Vumbura Plains in the Okavango Delta, an even more upscale camp one has to navigate through lions, zebras, elephants and the ubiquitous impala, to get to.

The sheer scale of comfort in this particular camp reminds me of another direction in which value is shared. The billions of pula the WTTC estimates local tourism generates include a significant amount of procurement power, which can be directed locally or internationally.

South Africa is generally the biggest winner of sectoral procurement in Botswana, as reflected on the monthly import bills published by Statistics Botswana. The Chamber of Mines is in the third year of a deliberate strategy to swing procurement locally and thus promote local industries. Individual tourism companies are doing their bit as well, to varying degrees.

Trundling through from the camp on a bush drive, Wilderness conservation manager, Kai Collins notes that the canopy structure for the vehicle we are driving in is manufactured in Maun. The group is now purchasing all of its canopies locally, with each vehicle costing upwards of P700,000 when fully fitted.

Nixon explains that efforts at import substitution are ongoing, even for everyday items such as soap, bringing the value sent across the border, back home and into local jobs.

Procurement, when it can be achieved from adjacent communities, also helps in the human animal conflict. In parts of the tourism heartland, farmers and wildlife are fighting eternal battles for the limited land available. Farmers want pasture, but this often leads to encounters between wildlife and livestock. One way is to open up alternative income avenues for farmers, such as industries that can supply the camps and lodges with items they are currently importing. On the flight to Maun, I think about the irony that the sector that could sustainably provide the biggest support to a post-diamond economy, is quite similar to diamonds.

Just as the value of diamonds depends on demand from overseas consumers, in tourism, the value is sourced from countries such as US, UK, Germany and others.

Arguably, however, there is more room for Batswana to take up equity in tourism, than in the diamond sector, where government holds the equity on citizens’ behalf. One clear avenue for an equity footing in the value offered by tourism, would be via a stake in any of the listed tourism entities.

Whichever way, the opportunities around the gems in the wilderness remain available, whether by way of one being directly employed by the companies, securing a supply contract, participating in the community initiatives or otherwise.

Where many Batswana complain that they have never touched a diamond, the opportunity still exists to visit any of the wildlife camps in the tourism heartland and sidle up to an impala.

The sands of the wilderness, in many ways, offer a value opportunity that diamonds, dwindling as they are, can never again yield.

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