From waiter to MD: Lempheditse Odumetse's rise

On the rise: Odumetse
On the rise: Odumetse

Maun native, Lempheditse “MC” Odumetse, was last week announced as the new managing director of Chobe Holdings, one of the country’s largest tourism groups. He talks to Mmegi Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, about his humble beginnings and rise to the top

Mmegi: Please give a brief outline of your career path leading to your current position

Odumetse: Having completed my high schooling in 1996, I was employed at The Duck Inn, a famous bar and restaurant in Maun, as a waiter/barman. In 1999 The Duck Inn closed business and I was offered a position at Desert & Delta Safari’s Camp Moremi, located in the Xakanaxa area of Moremi Game Reserve.

This was indeed a very exciting opportunity for me as it was always my desire to work in the bush and get back to my roots of being in the great outdoors. I was also intrigued by the greater aspects of the tourism industry in general and this opportunity actually allowed for me to fully anticipate and plot my career path within this industry.

Whilst working at Camp Moremi, I studied to be a professional guide and I obtained my professional guide’s license.

In 2000 I was transferred to Xugana Island Lodge where I worked as a Professional Guide until 2005 when I was promoted and offered the role as Assistant Camp Manager and shortly after that I became the Manager of Xugana Island Lodge.

This appointment made me the second citizen manager in the Chobe Holdings group. This was the start of a very successful localisation programme and something both I and the company identified as crucial to the overall benefit to the future of the Botswana tourism industry at large.

In September 2005 I travelled to the United States of America to work at Disney World Florida on a cultural exchange programme in the Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge. On my return to Botswana in 2006, I immediately returned to my duties at Desert & Delta Safaris as a Camp Manager and was delighted to grow myself by managing Camp Moremi, Camp Okavango and Savute Safari Lodge.

In 2013, I was promoted to Chobe Holdings head office in Maun as Assistant General Manager for both Ker & Downey Botswana and Desert & Delta Safaris. This was a great position to learn the ropes of the Maun based operations. In 2015 I took on the role of Ker & Downey Botswana General Manager looking after five lodges in a 5-star circuit.

In 2017 I was promoted to Operations Director for Ker & Downey Botswana and in 2020 I was asked to join the Chobe Holdings Board and took on the position as Group Operations Director.

My most recent position is now of Managing Director for Chobe Holdings Limited.

Mmegi: Your brief background?

Odumetse: I was born in Maun in the late 1970s and grew up with my grandmother in Sexaxaxa village on the outskirts of Maun.

My mother had taken the brave decision to relocate her children from Nxaraga Island, a remote island in the heart of the Okavango Delta, to Maun, to provide her children with formal education. My fondest memories remain of my pre-school and younger years when I ran in the bush herding cows, riding donkeys, eating wild fruits and learning the ways of the bush. This was also made special by spending time with my grandmother around the evening fire learning oral traditions and stories from her youth on the islands of the Okavango Delta.

My primary school education started at Botswelelo Primary School in Maun. I didn’t enjoy this school as the distance to walk to and from school each day was too far and so I signed out of that school and enrolled myself at Mathiba Primary School which was a closer walk from home. From there I moved to Sedie Community Junior Secondary School and later completed my high school career at Maun Senior Secondary School.

As a young boy one of my ambitions was to find employment and be able to buy myself a 10kg bag of sugar, rice, tomato sauce and mayonnaise as these items weren’t always readily available to me in my childhood. If we were lucky, we would be treated to these wonderful goodies at Christmas time only! Also, before entering formal employment, I would have loved to have studied law.

Mmegi: It is quite interesting that you started out in the group as a waiter. At that point in your life, what were your ambitions or plans?

Odumetse: I have always been ambitious. Starting out as a waiter in the tourism industry, my ambition was to get a foot in the hospitality/tourism industry door and work hard and diligently to acquire my professional guide’s license, learn various aspects of what is required to manage and grow, not only myself, those around me, but the business that gave me the opportunity. This helped me to learn the culture of customer care and guest service and have a better understanding as to what would be required of a safari guide, manager and now business leader. It also meant I was closer to nature and conservation, a passion I had and loved as a child.

Mmegi: What would you say are the personal attributes or principles that have carried you along to where you are today?

Odumetse: I believe honesty, dedication, loyalty and passion have got me to where I am today. I have been with Chobe Holdings for 22 years and have been fortunate to have true mentors and individuals who believed in me, saw my potential and pushed me to realise this myself. A little bit of bravery has also helped but most importantly, I have worked for a company that has opened the doors of opportunities for me and has been prepared to mentor and guide me in my career path. The localisation policy which is embedded in the culture of Chobe Holdings, has allowed me to grow and achieve my full potential.

Mmegi: High-end tourism in Botswana is viewed as the preserve of foreign companies or investors with regard to ownership or management. What are your thoughts on this and what would you say is required to empower more Batswana both in terms of ownership and management?

Odumetse: As Batswana we need to ensure that we are working hard towards these management positions and the ownership of high-end tourism enterprises and not just be expectant of having them handed to us on a platter.

Foreign investment and skills are essential to ensure growth, development, the international standards and competitiveness within this industry. In addition, it ensures the transfer of knowledge to Batswana in order for us to be empowered. This takes time, passion and dedication from both the foreigner and Batswana.

Government needs to ensure that localisation policies are not only in place on paper but also in practice.

Mmegi: Would it be fair to say Batswana working within Chobe have higher expectations of you as their citizen MD? How do you intend to manage these expectations or deliver on them?

Odumetse: Indeed, these expectations are not only within Chobe Holdings, but the entire tourism industry within Botswana. I will continue to work hard and deliver to the best of my ability. I am fortunate to be an inspiration to many Batswana and hope I can continue to be so.

One must highlight that Chobe Holdings has 666 employees of which 650 are citizens and only 16 are expatriates. This means that we have a citizen employment rate of over 98%. It is without confusion that our localisation plan, which took implementation in 2000, has been embraced and is showing results. Our lodges are 100% citizen managed and run. This great achievement was not reached overnight as it took planning, development, commitment and is a long-term process.

I intend to ensure that the citizens in our employ who show commitment and are willing to take progressive steps to further themselves, be allowed to grow and flourish with the growth of the company.

In terms of the Botswana tourism industry, we have trail blazed this aspect of our development and we intend to be the future leaders creating opportunities for our citizens to grow and lead at the same time.

Mmegi: What does the role of managing director of Chobe Holdings entail and what are your priorities for this new task?

Odumetse: The role of MD is to direct and control the company’s operations and to give strategic guidance and direction to the board to ensure that the company achieves its mission and objectives. My priorities are to ensure that we come out of the COVID-19 Pandemic stronger more resilient and that as Chobe Holdings we continue to be leaders in the industry.

Mmegi: The tourism industry has been hard hit by COVID-19 and travel restrictions. The new measures around border entry are also causing cancellations. What is Chobe's situation with regard to these and how do you intend to tackle these challenges?

Odumetse: Potential business has deferred to other more favourable and easily accessible destinations where vaccinations are not being forced at the Ports of Entry. Foreign tourists are not interested in travelling to a country where they are required, if unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, to be vaccinated at the Ports of Entry. Since the announcement of these new regulations, we have recorded cancelled bookings for travellers and as a result, loss of funds and income generated to support economy.

A common reason for these cancellations is that travellers coming on holiday or business to Botswana do not want to deal with the side effects of the vaccination during their stay within our destination.

Even though we might not agree with those who choose not to be vaccinated, it is their choice, and they can still positively contribute to our economy through travelling for work or pleasure. In all cases, these travellers have comprehensive travel and medical insurance as part of their travel packages and will be of no burden to our country or the government medical system.

The reality is that the current requirements and regulations have a direct impact on our industry at large and ultimately the economy of the country. It is a known fact that the impact of COVID -19 on the global tourism industry has been devastating and the knock-on effect of that on our local industry and economy has been immense.

We are in the very early stages of recovery post COVID-19. The tourism industry in Botswana is the second largest contributor to our GDP and these new requirements are detrimental to this revival. As an industry, we have made immense progress in ensuring the employees and tourism workers have successfully been vaccinated and new measures are currently being put in place to assist and facilitate the effective vaccination boosters are also administered. We have been addressing this issue at all levels of government and will continue to do so until this issue is favourably resolved.

Mmegi: In light of these challenges, would you describe your appointment at this time, as a baptism of fire?

Odumetse: No – As I will take this opportunity and any challenges faced head on and tackle them to the best of my abilities.

Mmegi: Finally, please give us an idea of your typical day? What do you do for leisure?

Odumetse: My morning starts with me taking a run with my dogs, followed by heading into the office which can vary from jumping on a light aircraft to ensure the camps are running smoothly, to engaging with officials in Gaborone. Typically, I like to end my day at the gym.

For leisure, I enjoy travelling and spending time with my family and snoozing on the couch! I am blessed with an amazing wife and two beautiful daughters, who inspire me daily to succeed. They say that behind every successful man is a strong woman and I’m grateful for the support and love my wife gives me.

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