A tale of two towns: Phikwe and Lobatse fight to live

Lazarus moment: Both Selebi Phikwe and Lobatse are witnessing revival
Lazarus moment: Both Selebi Phikwe and Lobatse are witnessing revival

One suffered the closure of its economic backbone, BCL Mine, while the other has suffered relocations of key institutions, closure of a major employer and the disadvantages of living in the shadow of Gaborone. From the doom and gloom, however, both towns are now reporting higher optimism for their futures, Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI notes

Selebi-Phikwe teetered on the brink of ghost-town status in the period after the 2016 closure of BCL Mine, the economic giant that supported more than 5,000 jobs and the downstream industry that kept the north-eastern town alive. Nearly 480 kilometres away, Lobatse has battled to avoid a similar fate as frequent disease outbreaks have hampered the optimal operation of the Botswana Meat Commission. Lobatse Clay Works, another major employer which at one point produced 30 million bricks every year helping to erect most of the country’s buildings, equally has been staring death in the face, being on care and maintenance from 2018 awaiting additional capital injection.

However, recent developments in both towns have their leaders more optimistic about the future and also provide hope to the country’s broader ambitions to transform its economy and create resilience.

In Lobatse, one of the most obvious symbols of economic revival is a shiny new P110 million shopping development known as the Lobatse Junction Mall, which is scheduled to open within months. Tenancy for the mall is nearly at 100% and includes businesses that previously had no presence in the town, such as Spar, Clicks, Options, Vision Sports, KFC and Debonairs. The stampede by tenants to take up space in the mall being built by PrimeTime Property Holdings runs against the fact that the disposable incomes of Lobatse’s 40,000 residents have generally taken a knock in line with the town’s own troubles.

Joe Simpson, asset manager for PrimeTime and Turnie Morolong, a director of both Time Projects and PrimeTime, explain the group’s confidence in locating itself in the historic border town and the fast uptake of mall space by tenants. “We had long debates in this regard before we went ahead with the development,” the two executives revealed to Mmegi this week. “The proof is however in the pudding – the development is practically fully let, and we are three months away from completion.” While it would seem logical to assume that PrimeTime took a chance on Lobatse by considering the cross-border or transit traffic, Simpson and Morolong explained that the new mall’s target is actually the town’s residents. “We do expect some cross-border footfall, but our primary catchment node is people from Lobatse.

“Considering our offering of essential retail, our view is that the development is defensive in nature.

“Although we do have a good fashion offering, we are not targeting high-end consumers. “We offer largely essential goods differentiated by excellent quality. For instance, the Spar will likely be one of the best offerings in the country.”

PrimeTime, which boasts a countrywide property portfolio valued last at P1.4 billion, sees the Lobatse development as a way of creating employment, boosting taxes and circulating money into the system.

“Lobatse is a town unlike many others in Botswana.

“It has a rich history and institutional pedigree with quite a diverse population. “A large number of very successful businesses have been operating from Lobatse for a very long time, so we don’t see the town disappearing overnight.

“We are confident that even if some of the larger landlords had to exit, life will go on,” the two executives said.

Equally confident about Lobatse’s revival is the area Member of Parliament, Thapelo Matsheka, who is also the Minister of Infrastructure and Housing Development.

“My view is that there’s a renewed sense of hope about the prospects of rebuilding Lobatse,” he said this week.

“Remember Lobatse was the key magnet for the Southern region, but over time it lost that spark because of relocations and others. “We welcome PrimeTime and its investment because it will make it easier for people in the Southern parts of the country to come for their shopping here.”

Matsheka said several other projects had reignited economic activity in the border town, including key infrastructural developments that investors view as critical in their decision making processes. One of these is the P500 million upgrade of the Pioneer Border into a one-stop-shop project, which he expects to move more traffic into Lobatse and activate the Trans-Kalahari Highway, together with its related economic activities in the border town.

The Lobatse wastewater project funded by the World Bank will also provide key supporting infrastructure for residential and commercial growth in the border town. As the area MP, Matsheka said he has already been approached by investors seeking to establish in Lobatse. “People are taking a new look at Lobatse,” he said. “I have been approached by developers who have secured land to put up housing developments.

“You need those residential structures on par with Gaborone to attract the cream of talent. “Others are talking about fertiliser plants and looking at what they can set up.

“Lobatse is a Leather Special Economic Zone but what is important is the difference in infrastructure between us and Gaborone. “We had sanitation issues such as in the Woodhall area and we also require the right accommodation.”

Matsheka said Lobatse was well-placed in terms of location and access, while its rich cultural history added an allure to investors. “It’s about getting all those things to work and we have our work cut out for us on these projects.”

In the North East, Selebi-Phikwe mayor, Lucas Modimana this week reeled off a list of advanced projects expected in the near term, during a full council meeting.

The projects include the P500 million Selebi-Phikwe Citrus Project, which sits on 1,500 hectares near the town. About 150 hectares had been planted earlier this year, but lower winter temperatures resulted in the suspension of planting activities. These are due to resume in August and developers expect that 800 hectares will be planted by the end of June next year. The project is due to employ 1,000 workers and create another 1,500 seasonal jobs when fully operational.

Developers of the oxygen and air separation plant also expect talks with the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA) for funding of plant, equipment and operations to conclude later this month, allowing the project to kick off. The plant will produce 10,615 tonnes of oxygen, 3,504 tonnes of Nitrogen and 876 tonnes of nitrous oxide per annum. Already, the developers sealed P25.9 million in funding from the Botswana Development Corporation for the construction of warehouses and offices.

Other projects in the near-term pipeline include the manufacture of poly-ethylene shade nets and packaging solutions for horticulture farmers, as well as the production of corrugated card boxes for various uses. Both projects have been funded by CEDA, which has invested a total of P242.9 million over 2,589 projects with a total employment of 5,325 in the entire Greater SPEDU region.

Modimana told Mmegi his council is confident not only in the projects he highlighted in his full council speech but also in the town’s future in general.

“I always tell people my vision is to industrialise this town and the region through setting up of industry such as the citrus project,” he said.

“Including those specific projects in my speech indicates the level of confidence that we have in them.

“For the citrus project, we are touring the farm next week as councillors; we did so before July, but now we are looking at their progress for the second phase of the project.

“Such a massive project at this level has never been seen before and we are now preparing to have the support industry flowing from that such as fertilisers, the transport sector and others.” The town and its region are also taking advantage of the abundant underground and surface waters available to drive commercial agriculture developments. One project that excites Modimana is an oyster mushroom farming project initiated by nine former BCL Mine employees. Production activities kicked off in May and by the 25th of the same month, the project reaped its first harvest.

Hotels, lodges and retailers have also come on board to support the project.

Premium Nickel Resources, meanwhile, is finalising its due diligence into BCL Mine, to make the government an offer for the suspended operation by year-end. The Canadian firm, spearheaded locally by former BCL boss, Montwedi Mphathi, was appointed the preferred bidder for BCL Mine in March and has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the mine’s liquidator.

“If things go well, we expect that by December or January, there will be a transfer of assets from the liquidator to PNR, which will then led to restarting operations,” Modimana told Mmegi.

From the depths of economic distress, Lobatse and Selebi-Phikwe are doggedly rising, with infrastructural developments underpinning investment activity and interest. The two towns’ success is something policymakers at the central government are hoping to replicate at the national level, as the country struggles to bounce back from the record economic contraction caused by COVID-19 last year.

Editor's Comment
Where Are The Vaccines?

The government has without a doubt come up with good initiatives such as partnering with private medical practitioners in the vaccine roll-out. This was indeed a welcome development that reduced congestions at government vaccination centres.Well, unfortunately, the celebrations were short-lived. People flocked to the vaccination centres in large numbers and most of the private clinics are currently left with no vaccines and unending telephone...

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