Business in Botswana: Better the Devil You Know?

Katlego K Kol-Kes

Is the thing which stunts the growth of many Botswana-based businesses the fact that local consumers rarely complain when they receive substandard service? What could remedy this debilitating condition?

Industries don’t develop by way of wishes and dreams, they grow due to ingenuity and the demand for more than what is on offer – this is an indisputable fact. How then do we expect businesses based in Botswana to develop to become global – or even regional competitors – if there seems to be minimal expectation from consumers and service providers for anything beyond just “fine”?

As a Motswana, and a proud one at that, I am always the first to speak about the beauty and potential that my country possesses, but I am always confronted by one thought: ‘How long will we have potential before we are completely colonized by those who see the gaps we are too lazy to fill?’ Botswana has a reported population of just above 2 million people – a fact that many people I’ve met have laughed at as they are citizens of countries where cities have larger populations – and this low national population (many of whom are in rural areas) has been credited, by some, as the reason we don’t see the impact we can truly have on the world. Who are we when you take away our diamonds? Our ranking on the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report conducted by the World Economic Forum saw us drop by 3 positions to number 71 – barely making it into the upper half of the 144 territories assessed.

On a bus ride from South Africa to Gaborone, a young man of Setswana origin but raised in Australia said something quite shocking to me. Our conversation unfolded thus:

Him: (In a feint Australian accent) Gosh, I hate this place! I really hate this place… I don’t even know why I keep coming back here!

Me:  Well, then, why don’t you just leave? You know you can.

Him: Because I love money. Because I see what this place can be and it seems the people here are just sleeping on it. I’ll tell you one thing, Botswana is ripe to be raped, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Granted, the subject of rape is a very sensitive one but I couldn’t help but agree with something in what he said. Ultimately, rape is an act of violence, it is abusive, it traumatizes the victim, it completely alters the survivor, it affects the person and everything and everyone around them, and in the act of rape the perpetrator feels they are asserting their rightful power of dominance, and the perpetrator often leaves unscathed and carries on with their pursuits as usual. Looking at the many times people have said to me: “Why don’t you open/start a (insert countless artistic and technological business endeavors here)?” this could be simply replaced with the bus man’s proposition to forcefully assert the power recognized in some of my crazy ideas. So then why don’t we demand more if we know what more is, or could be, available out there?

The adage ‘Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t’ is my description of the mentality plenty of the consumers and service providers in Botswana have fallen prey to. This is what has come to rape us.

Why is it that some people of affluence – another side effect of being a comfortable resident of Botswana – would rather go to Johannesburg for the weekend than demand that the very products they cross the border to buy be brought into the country? Why, when we have some of the best tourist destinations in the world, do we rush to South Africa, Namibia, United Arab Emirates, or Mozambique at any given chance for holidays? We know that if we complain it’s not going to change anything so we’ll deal with these things when we want to, but when we want world-class treatment and service provision we will go to the world rather than expect it from Botswana. This is part of what is stunting our commercial growth and industrial diversification – along with the dearth in economic eco-systems – yet we still keep throwing about this advice to our youth that their only way out of poverty is by becoming entrepreneurs.

The trap of entrepreneurship is that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of item, you must have the knack for realizing opportunity beyond your present situation, and the perseverance to follow through with your crazy ideas until your environment comes around to accommodating you. You basically need to become a weed in the garden of business until you take over and you’re everywhere and they call you ‘pretty’; but how can you get there when your environment isn’t willing to challenge your flaws and shortcomings? I wish I had the answer to this question – especially considering that I am a self-proclaimed ‘practicing’ entrepreneur.

My solution has been to look at the world as my market and compete with others across the globe who are doing what I want to do. I’ve consciously told myself repeatedly: ‘Botswana will catch up whenever it does but the world must be my playing field.’ It may take me much longer to see full success as a Botswana-based business person than it would if I just left the country, but then I’d not be of any good to anyone because my flavour is the very fact that I come from Botswana. Call me a die-hard Motswana if you will.

Two of the most inspirational stories I’ve had the fortune of being audience to are those of Adam Jones – Wealth Magazine– and Ephraim Rwamwenge – Rwa Business Group . Adam founded his publication with the sole drive to establish a reflective and informative business focused product based in Botswana and he persevered through self publishing and knocking on many doors for support; now he is the editor of the nation’s best-selling print magazine with nationwide distribution and high-roller corporate advertorial content. One lesson I’ve learned from Jones is that you need to know what you want and demand it and nothing less – even if there isn’t anyone or anything there to deliver it immediately. Ephraim’s story is slightly different from Adam’s in that he didn’t break ground for an industry but rather dove headlong into a market which was already overpopulated and succeeded.

Commodity markets are very risky because most people inherit their preferences and very rarely do new producers gain followings unless they introduce themselves to the market at base prices – resulting in small profit margins – and risk losing favour when they mark up prices. Yet, Ephraim went into coffee and sugar trading as teenager and now runs a business which beats what many long-time entrepreneurs in Botswana have been attempting to do.

The interesting fact about these two stories is that Botswana has a role to play in each one: Adam Jones is Zimbabwean and rose to success by challenging a market in Botswana to want more for their businesses and their futures; and Ephraim Rwamwenge was born in Botswana emigrated to Kigali, Rwanda, in 2012 at the age of 19 to help rebuild his paternal motherland and has gained great traction toward international success through demanding economic independence. Like any environment, Botswana didn’t break but build these two non-Batswana to see beyond their initial circumstances and believe in greater, universally viable futures.

So, when will those of us on the mainland start to want to build Botswana by demanding nothing less than international grade services and products from within our borders? There are many monopolies in the country which have not only cornered but have markets in chokehold and still get away with less than mediocre service provision. Do we, as participants in the development of the business atmosphere in Botswana see our silence about our displeasure as a helpful act? If not, why do we remain silent, because it’s only so long until the devil you know trades you in for something better.

Perhaps, the next time you get terrible service, you won’t say: “Botswana as usual” but rather you might stand up for what you are spending your time – an irreplaceable resource – on. Perhaps… who knows?


Katlego K Kol-Kes is a Branding and Business Development Strategy consultant with Kat Kai Kol-Kes International; an ARTivist, published author, educator, performer and theatre producer. She is a 2016 Queen’s Young Leaders Awards Highly Commended Runner Up, 2015 Chevrolet African Feather of the Year Award nominee, 2015 Centre for African Cultural Excellence Writivist, 2013/14 Best of Botswana Performing Arts honouree and a member of the Global Shapers Community Gaborone Hub.