Executive MBA student aims for safari sustainability
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
I grew up in Maun, a small town in northern Botswana. We have started diversifying, but it is pretty much a tourism-based economy.
My dad used to have a transport company and would deliver gas and building materials for safari companies and I would accompany him into the bush when I was on school holidays. It felt like home to me — I loved it. We also had a family farm a couple of hours outside Maun, where we would go at weekends and on vacations, so I grew up with a lot of exposure to the wilderness.
Mother Nature is one of the resources we have and true wilderness can generate revenue and improve people’s livelihoods, if it is managed sustainably. Sustainability was something that started manifesting in my headspace early on. From a young age, I knew I wanted to work at the tourism lodges in the Okavango Delta.
After high school, I went to Cape Town and got a bachelor’s degree in geographic environmental science and tourism. I then returned to Maun and started working for Wilderness Safaris, where I still work today. I worked in every department from housekeeping to food and beverage and maintenance. I eventually became a general manager, overseeing the whole operation and bringing everything together, before moving to the executive role that I have today, where I look after four camps.
I had this voice that kept bugging me, asking how I could keep improving the sustainability of our business. How can I be more effective? How can I change people’s lives, and do it on a bigger scale?
I spoke to the chairman of our company about it and he suggested that I already had a lot of experience, but that I needed to connect it to trends that were happening not just in my world but also internationally. That led me to go back to the University of Cape Town, to the Graduate School of Business for an executive MBA.
The course attracted me as it is one of the best in the world, and I could do it part time and continue working. There are about 60 of us doing the course, which stretches over two years in two-week blocks, with classes every three months. You have the option of attending in person or virtually, but I chose to go in person because the biggest takeaway for me has been engaging with the other participants.
What I have most enjoyed about the course was the path of self-discovery that it set me on. I learnt about current ways of thinking and hot topics in business, but I discovered which of these actually resonated with me. I learnt a lot about how I actually learn, and how I can best engage with what is happening in other industries or countries.
I never considered myself an academic, so when I started the course, I felt a little bit out of place. Many of the people in my cohort come from very corporate roles in finance or banking, while our company does not really have a very corporate culture. But interacting with people from so many different industries helped me draw a clearer picture of the whole ecosystem of the economy and how we all interact.
I am graduating from the programme in December and I am currently working on my dissertation, which is looking at how we in Botswana can stimulate domestic travel and diversify our tourism industry, trying to learn from the pandemic and travel restrictions. My passion is to have an impact on the tourism industry — that’s where it lies, with the people and, most of all, with the environment. It is about building an economy that sustains both people and nature.
Ultimately, that will require influencing policy — I can’t do it all inside our business. Botswana has developed a great eco tourism model, which a lot of other countries have adopted and looked up to.
But, now, as the next generation is coming in, I’m wondering: can we do better? We need to keep adapting to new changes and challenges, and keep working on our sustainability model. That’s where I wish to have an impact.