In conversation with Jonathan Gibson

Jonathan Gibson, Chobe Holdings Ltd. Group CEO & Deputy Chairman

What is the history behind Chobe Game Lodge?

The lodge was originally built by Southern Sun in 1972 but closed it in 1977 because of the war in Rhodesia, and we bought what was then a pretty derelict property in 1983. Prior to that, as a kid we used to camp on the river and had a house in Serondella when it was still a village, so knew the area very well. My partner at the time, Ian Green, who started Sabi Sabi back in the day, were chatting the one day and said we needed to get back into the tourism industry – we were in construction at the time. Ian was keen to go back into the Eastern Transvaal as it was called at the time, but they were small farms with much conflict about land usage between hunting, tourism, retirement etc.

We struck on the idea of Chobe Game Lodge, so we phoned Southern Sun, and they said they’d just been there and decided not to reopen it. We told them we’d like to buy it, but they suggested that we better go and have a look at it before we decide.  It looked pretty derelict, but on closer inspection you could see that it had been well built, the plumbing and electrical was still there – amazing that nothing had been touched in the five years that it had been vacant, the beds were even still made! So, we came back and said we wanted to buy it… they took a week and gave us a price. It was a lot of money at the time, but the fact that we had a small construction company meant we could do it on our own. So, we said yes…

So, what was involved with the renovation?

It was very tough at the beginning with the low intensity war going on the Caprivi and the dissident problem in Zimbabwe, so it was a hard struggle, and everybody thought we were mad, and my parents thought we were insane! But we finally we got it going and opened in March of ’84, only nine months after taking occupation. All the interiors needed replacing, thankfully most of the structure was sound except all the small walls which the elephants had knocked down, and the four patio pools which had all collapsed because they’d been badly built. My brother, a civil engineer, gave me all the drawings and told me how to do it, so we did. The vegetation had encroached everywhere, which also took a while to sort out – it was nothing like it looks now.

And don’t forget, in those days’ communications were a nightmare. There was no such thing as just pick up a phone, they were there just two outgoing lines by poles from northern Botswana, one to Vic Falls and Bulawayo and one down to Francistown. So, you had to get through to the operator in Francistown, give her the number, you would ask how long it would take, she would say ‘I have a long list, I don’t know’. But we couldn’t just sit next to the phone for what could be the twelve hours and wait. So yeah, it was very difficult.

Getting supplies to Chobe was another challenge, we had trucks driving to and from Francistown and Johannesburg endlessly, and it was 300km of hell driving on a dirt road through the bush from Nata to Kazungula. But we managed and got it going in the end. And looking back now it was fun, a real adventure.

When did you first feel that you were ok with the project?

At one point we got ourselves into some financial difficulty, and Sun International (who had by that time split from Southern Sun) came back to us and said that they wanted to buy 50% of the lodge back again in about ‘85. It suited us, not just because we needed the money, but it helped us as I was at the lodge and Ian was doing the marketing and reservations which he was getting tired of so, they took over those parts of the business. He also wanted out to pursue other interests, so in ’89 he sold me his share, which enabled me to acquire Sun International’s share – working with them had been frustrating… let’s just say our business styles were different. It was good for us at the time, but we were ready to move on and parted ways amicably. It was at this point that I formed Chobe Holdings.

And from there?

An invite from Jessie Neil, an eccentric American woman, to visit her camps, Camp Moremi and Camp Okavango, was a turning point for us. We bought her business, Desert & Delta Safaris (DDS), in 1992, added Chobe Game Lodge to the DDS portfolio, and grew and expanded the brand from there. We finally listed on the Botswana Stock Exchange in ’99.

What was your vision for Desert & Delta Safaris?

Firstly, my reason for being in Botswana is that I loved the bush, had wonderful childhood memories, and wanted to get back to this area. Working as a chartered accountant in Johannesburg wasn’t going to do it for me long term. And being able to earn a living doing what I love was important to me.

Remember that back in the ‘80s tourism in Botswana was essentially divided between the hunting industry and visitors to the National Parks, both of which were called tourism. We knew that the hunting industry was bound to decline in importance at some point, and that it would be displaced by the non-consumptive tourism industry as that grew. Much of the hunting industry at that time was run by very wealthy Americans and their clientele was principally American. They were basically a consumptive industry and with the bulk of their revenue going offshore, contributing very little to tourism or to Botswana. In 2014, then President Ian Khama, introduced a ban on hunting, and despite it now being revoked, times have changed and thankfully hunting isn’t as popular as it was back then.

This brings me to my second reason… the idea of operating a business offering non-consumptive photographic safaris, which at the time were virtually non-existent, inspired me, as did the possibility that tourism could provide far-reaching employment opportunities and empowerment to the people of Botswana.

So, how did you go about providing all this much needed employment and empowerment?

It was difficult at first as none of our local staff had at that time had any hotel training which meant we had to fill management positions with expats. But our goal from the start was to identify those of our employees that showed potential and had both an interest in and inclination for advancement. We established in-house training, presented them with educational opportunities, including tertiary education, and mentored them gradually so as to be able to fill management positions. And if we couldn’t find the right person within our employees, we looked elsewhere, with the emphasis always being on employing as locally as possible to grow and empower the Batswana citizens.

We are very proud of this and have several success stories to share. Such as John Kata who progressed from night watchman to camp gardener, then mokoro poler to guide, something that has been his profession for 40 years. There’s Ernest Chaba, who went from groundsman to Assistant General Manager, Methale ‘Metal’ Mosheti, who went from safari guide to Head of Desert & Delta Safaris Guide Training, and MC (Lempheditse Odumetse), who went from waiter to Group Managing Director! And these are just a few of our many wonderful success stories.

But it’s not just about the quality of employment you give people, it’s also about how you pay them and how you treat them. Ese things are vital for us, and quite frankly, throughout the Group, our staff is our asset. They are absolutely fantastic, unbelievably good and a pleasure to work with.

And what your vision for empowering Batswana citizens?

I remember a phrase first coined by Derek Flatt, former DDS Managing Director, ‘Empowering Botswana through tourism’, a phrase that is very much part of our ethos.

As Desert & Delta we employ more than 400 citizen staff, with Chobe Game lodge employing more than 100 citizen. And since 2014 each one of our camps has been wholly managed by Botswana citizens. And the listing of Chobe Holdings Limited on the Botswana Stock Exchange has allowed for a broad-based citizen shareholding of more than 1500 shareholders.

And in addition to our ‘CARES Philosophy, which encapsulates the way we operate and do business by caring about careers and community, advanced healthcare, being responsible to our environment, equality in the workplace as well as the soul and spirituality of our people, we are actively involved with several local charities.

There is the perception that much of the revenue from tourism in Botswana leaves the country, how do you feel about this?

It is a general perception, but for us at Desert Delta Safaris, we bring revenue into the country, pay all our taxes, operating licenses etc, all in addition to the salaries we pay, which by employing locally, generally stays local too. The only leakage would be to the international agents, but they certainly work hard for their payment.

How did your eco journey start?

Preserving the environment has always been part of our ethos, but when Botswana Tourism Organisation started their eco-grading, we formalised what we were already doing. Our GM at Chobe Game Lodge, Johan Bruwer, was really keen on all the environmental stuff, including all the paperwork that was required to measure everything we were doing. From keeping tabs on the solar output and how well the sewage treatment plant was working, to the move towards electric powered vehicles and boats, which was a first in Botswana.

And in 2017 Chobe Game Lodge won the Responsible Tourism Award for Best Carbon Reduction at the World Travel Market for its work in reducing carbon emissions as a result of their fleet of electric vehicles and boats. Something we are incredibly proud of.

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