In conversation with Ernest Chaba, Assistant General Manager, Desert & Delta Safaris…

Tell me about your life…

I’ll start with full name, which is Ernest Chaba, but I prefer to be called Erny. But nowadays I’m getting used to be called Mr Chaba (he says with a smile).

I joined Desert & Delta Safaris (DDS) in July 2007, and started working at the iconic Savute Safari Lodge as a groundsman. And while there I took advantage of the company’s policy of allowing employees to learn from other people in their spare time, and so I went into the kitchen and started learning how to be a waiter and how to do the bar, and I also spent some time in the scullery when we were short of staff in the kitchen. I really loved being a part of the kitchen team.

Within six months I was employed as a waiter and was soon relieving the barman as well. I also had the opportunity to work closely with the management and staff of that department. Then some time in 2008 the company advertised an internal position for a trainee manager, I was one of the candidates who took the opportunity. In mid-2008 I was offered a position as trainee manager at Camp Okavango, where I worked with MC (Lempheditse Odumetse) who was manager there at the time. He is now Group Managing Director a position previously held by Jonathan Gibson.

So, you went from groundsman to waiter, to barman and then trainee manager in a year?

Yes, I did (Erny smiles, modestly).

After that I moved around a lot as a trainee manager and then towards the end of 2010, I was offered the position of assistant manager at Camp Okavango, stepping in when the manager went on leave. During all my years at the various lodges I have also learnt guiding skills, from tree names to birds to mammals. This was important because sometimes the manager needs to fill in and accompany a junior guide out on a drive with guests in a supportive manner.

Then in 2012 I decided to apply for the Disney World Internship Programme that the company offers and encourages employees to do.

What was the procedure?

DDS helped me to apply for the programme, and then the recruiters from Disney came to Africa with their teams to speak to potential candidates. It was quite funny as I had hosted the guys the day before at the lodge – I didn’t know they were from Disney, so when I get there for the interview, they say, ‘thank you for hosting us yesterday, that was your interview, we don’t need to ask you any more questions’. That was very special for me.

What is involved with the Disney World Internship Programme?

It’s a year programme where we learn the ‘big picture’ of hospitality, and as a host I had to deal with people, from hosting a thousand people on the breakfast shift, to guest interactions and learning about the hands-on work of the culinary team and assigning tasks to team members. We learnt valuable skills like problem-solving, teamwork, customer service, and communication – I had to do presentations about Botswana. It was a beautiful experience, and I was even able to travel around on my off days.

The great thing was that DDS put my contract on hold, and towards the end of the programme started communicating asking if I would be coming back. Which I did. And it was as lodge manager at Savuti Safari Lodge.

And from there?

In 2014 I was moved to Camp Xakanaxa, which the company had just acquired, and spent time educating them about our systems and our ethos. Several lodges later as manager, including at the revamped Camp Okavango, where we won best team in both 2017 and 2018, I was promoted to manager’s trainer and assessor. This meant travelling to the various camps and managing and training the managers. With DDS the managers need to know all aspects of the lodge, from working with the groundsmen to the mechanics to the kitchen and even the guiding. They need to know everything!

In January 2020 Florence Kagiso from Chobe Game Lodge and I went with James Wilson from the marketing team to the United States to spread the word about the positive impact of tourism in Botswana. Flo talked about her journey to become the first female guide at Chobe Game Lodge, which subsequently became the first all-female guiding team in Africa.

I spoke about the journey of my career development with DDS, and how as a company the culture is to empower its people. Which shows positively in how the staff do their jobs and how they interact with guests, which in turn has guests saying how incredible their experience has been. My role in the company is to empower our staff, connect with our guests and help protect our nature.

Then Covid came.

The thing that I loved with the company (Chobe Holdings), though, was that we supported each other. They sent a very clear message to all of us that they didn’t want to lose anybody and were going to try as much as they could to keep all their employees and would give them all a little bit to survive, even though there was no tourism happening, we all got paid, even though there was no profit. We managed to go through it until business resumed.

And now?

I was recently promoted to the position of Assistant General Manager for Desert & Delta Safaris, hence having to get used to being called Mr Chaba (he says with a broad smile).

Can you tell me more about how DDS operate?

All the lodges that we own are run by local Batswana people, which is about 36 managers, and then there are all the other staff members too. We have a slogan, ‘Empowering Botswana through Tourism’. It’s the same ethos our sister company Ker & Downey Botswana operate with. Even our safari pilots are all Botswanan!

We all operate under Chobe Holdings, which is listed on the Stock Exchange, so all profits, taxes and other benefits stay within Botswana. It’s a huge financial benefit to the country.

I know that investing in people is core to the ethos of DDS, can you give me some details?

We’re all about investing in our people and the communities we call home. We’ve established an inventive and integrated corporate social responsibility initiative that blends our corporate responsibilities with community projects, to complement government programs.

At Chobe Game Lodge, we’ve adopted Liswaani I Junior Secondary School, making sure all 370 students from neighbouring villages get what they need for their math and science classes. We even donated ten flat screen televisions to the Ministry of Education in the Chobe District to help promote English literacy. But that’s not all, they support the kids at Children’s Ark Orphanage, stopping by every month to hang out and lend a hand. And then there’s the Turning Heads (Changing Lives) Beauty Salon, an empowering initiative for vulnerable women which receives continuous funding support from them emphasizing our dedication to social empowerment and wellness.

A longstanding relationship with the Botswana National Youth Council provides young people with training and work experience within the hospitality industry, and since 2006 Chobe Game Lodge has trained 196 young people, employing 54 in various roles within the food and beverage department. Many have subsequently gone on to have successful careers in the wider hospitality sector.

Desert & Delta Safaris also provides support to students pursuing International Hospitality Management degrees at the Botswana Accountancy College, by extending opportunities for internships and career growth within the hospitality sector. Furthermore, various schools, such as Tshodilo Junior Secondary School and Khumaga Primary School, benefit from financial assistance, educational resources, and engagement projects, enhancing the students’ academic experiences.

These are just a few of the community initiatives we support within Botswana.

You mentioned MC (Lempheditse Odumetse) earlier, can you fill me in on his journey to Group Managing Director?

MC began his journey with the company as a waiter at Desert & Delta’s Camp Moremi in the Okavango Delta in 1999. He later qualified as a Professional Guide in 2000, and from there had management roles at Xugana Island Lodge, Camp Moremi, and Savute Safari Lodge. In 2005, he was chosen for the Disney World International Cultural Exchange Program, where he stood out as a savanna guide.

Throughout this period, MC achieved remarkable success, getting the ‘Best Desert & Delta Safaris Camp of the year’ award seven times during his decade-long management of various camps. He was then promoted to Group Assistant General Manager in 2013, and subsequently served as General Manager for Ker & Downey Botswana, before assuming the role of Operations Director on the Board in 2017. In September 2020, he was invited onto the Chobe Board as the Group Operations Director.

MC played a huge role spearheading the company’s localisation initiative, championing the discovery of local talent, and developing over twenty staff members into senior lodge management positions across the group. With this hands-on and innovative approach MC has enabled us to become a luxury safari company that solely managed by local citizens, of which the management team comprises over 50% women, just showcasing our commitment to empowering communities and uplifting families.

And one more quick question, what do you hope to achieve within the company from here?

I see myself as an integral part of the company who has helped contribute to the growth and success of the organization. I would like to continue developing my skills and knowledge to be able to take on more responsibility within the company.

And one piece of advice to anyone wanting to enter the tourism sector?

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance in the hospitality and tourism industry requires effective time management, setting boundaries, prioritizing self-care, seeking support from colleagues, and embracing stress-reducing activities outside of work.

Common challenges faced by professionals in the hospitality and tourism field include long working hours, high-pressure environments, dealing with demanding guests, and seasonality. These challenges can be managed by implementing effective time management, stress-reduction techniques, communication skills, and fostering a supportive work culture.

Read this article in the digital mag HERE