MASERU – WHEN Dr Mohlalefi Sefika swapped the lecture theatre for business in 2002 he immediately realised that he had been hardly prepared for the challenges of running a successful business venture. Armed with a PhD in Information Technology from the University of Illinois in the United States, Sefika had assumed the switch from the world of academia to business would be seamless.
It soon dawned on him that he was utterly wrong.
University education had not prepared him adequately to deal with the challenges of running a successful enterprise.
The chasm between what he thought he knew and how business operates was huge. He had to learn “on the run” to bridge that gap.
Sefika says immediately after setting up the business in 1998 he was soon to realise that he was “a computer scientist but not a businessman”.
“I was the technical guy with no business sense,” he says. After setting up Computer Business Solutions (CBS) , Sefika and his partner, Lebina Ts’epe, had to learn how to drive the project forward while at the same time learning how business functions.
He says he had to learn how to manage people and at the same complying with Lesotho’s tax and labour laws.
That was no simple task, he says. “I had to read and learn at the speed of light. I read a lot of books on business management,” he says.
Sefika says he will be forever grateful to two business management giants, Jack Welch and Jim Collins, for his “fast-track” education in business management.
Welch is the author of a celebrated book, Straight from the gut, while Collins penned the book, From Good to Great.
“These two business management books really changed my life. I realised there were gaps in my knowledge in the fields of business and managing people.”
Knowledge puffs up, says the Bible.
And it is not too often that you find individuals who have passed through the “cathedrals of knowledge” in universities acknowledging their inadequacies.
Yet, for Sefika, the realisation that he did not know it all, must have been a humbling experience.
Sefika says he realised that while “a PhD will make you a professional in a technical field, business was completely something else”.
The fact that you know how to make a plane doesn’t mean you will succeed in the airline business, he says.
Having realised there were things he did not know, Sefika says they tried to fill-in the gaps by recruiting the best brains available in IT and business, initially recruiting his former students. They also sought to forge alliances with other people in business locally, regionally and internationally.
“We had to consult from the best through and through,” he says.
Even as they were trying to find their feet, Sefika says they had to battle against negative perceptions from the market.
“People did not think that someone with a PhD would go into business. The thinking was that we are not practical and down-to-earth,” he says.
He had to work hard to smash such negativity and win the people’s trust.
Sefika says when they set up the business in 1998, the IT sector in Lesotho was not a very active industry.
To compound the situation, the nascent IT sector was characterized by lack of trust with educated people trying to get into business.
Banks were also not prepared to extend lines of credit to emerging businesses.
Yet, in spite of all these challenges, Sefika says they were determined to “deliver software solutions that were appropriate for the Lesotho market”.
He says while there were some companies that were providing IT services, they realised such companies “were not developing software”.
“There was a market demand for software that was affordable and customised to the needs of customers.”
Having identified that niche market, Sefika and his partner swiftly moved in.
And for the past 18 years, CBS (Pty) Ltd has become a household name in the IT sector providing cutting edge solutions to business needs.
In the next five years, Sefika says they hope to reach new heights in service delivery and market coverage.
“New technologies such as cell phones are opening up unimagined channels for innovation. We want to continue to drive appropriate solutions for the Lesotho market.”
The country’s hostile terrain means there is room to explore new ventures such as tele-medicines and health management through cell phones.
“Too many applications that were considered impossible 10 years ago are now possible. There is a huge niche for Lesotho.”
With 18 years’ experience in business, Sefika tells young Basotho aspiring to get into business to dare to dream and not allow anything to stand in their way.
“It is not easy to succeed in business. There will be moments of self-doubt. But when you want to quit you should just keep punching harder.”
He says youths endevouring to get into business must also be prepared “to work extremely hard”.
“They should not be too afraid to fail. They should not listen to people who say they can’t do it. They should break the rules.”
That may sound maverick but it works, according to Sefika, as long as one’s business idea is really good and one is passionate about it.
“I would advise the youths to pick a really good idea that they are passionate about and go for it. The idea must differentiate you from your competitors. It must be distinct.”
He says even when he left the National University of Lesotho (NUL) to join his business fulltime in 2002, he had to deal with such negative individuals who tried to discourage him.
“They said I would come back and teach but that did not happen.”Computer Business Solutions (Pty) Ltd currently has 48 full-time staff and eight temporary employees.
It is a large company by Lesotho standards. The danger is that such big companies often become slow and unwieldly. Everyone could easily get lost somewhere in the maze of unaccountability.
With such a structure, how does Sefika make decisions?
He says while he believes in the wisdom of consultation, he prefers to take swift decisions to get things done.
“I seek advice from subject specialists, assess the quality of the advice and tests it. I believe in the motto: trust but verify. This means I do research where I am not satisfied.”
Yet even while he is consulting, Sefika says he does not “value decisions that are delayed too much because the value is often lost in the paralysis”.
With many young Basotho entering business, they have often complained they receive very little structural support from the government.
Their small businesses, battling to establish themselves, are often nudged out of the way by larger corporations. This reality has given rise to the call for a deliberate programme to empower locals in business through affirmative action.
But Sefika says he only supports affirmative action for Basotho businesses “only to the extent that it would help build local capacity and create a vibrant economy that would deliver jobs to the people”. “In the IT industry when big projects are awarded to the total exclusion of locals, we would miss an opportunity for job creation and wealth creation for Basotho. They must be allowed to participate in the economy of their country.”
He however adds that any Basotho companies awarded contracts on the basis of affirmative action “must deliver quality and respect project conditions for timely delivery”.
Sefika admits that the crop of graduates from IT schools in Lesotho “are not industry ready” adding there is need to align the curriculum from such institutions to the needs of industry.
“We need closer collaboration between universities and industry to deliver students that are market ready. Universities must change and adapt to close that gap in a win-win situation.”
For Sefika, the IT field was not his first love. Medicine was.
Like every young Mosotho boy growing up in the early 1970’s, Sefika dream was to be a medical doctor.
“My intention was to be a medical practitioner but I realised that Biology was not suited for me because it required too much memorising and reading,” he says.
“I preferred problem-solving and decided to swing completely to Mathematics with a little bit of computer programming.”
Between 1985 and 1989, Sefika studied Mathematics at the NUL. But a year after he graduated from the NUL, he went to the University of Illinois in the United States where he studied Computer Science. He was admitted into the PhD programme at the university based on his strong passes at undergraduate level.
He says he went into IT which he saw “as a good, fashionable field which also had huge commercial prospects”.
He also obtained a Masters degree in Computer Science with the same university in the US.
Sefika completed his PhD in 1996.
Mahao, PS in big fight
PRIME Minister Sam Matekane this week summoned the Basotho Action Party (BAP) executive committee in a bid to defuse simmering tensions within the party.
This comes amid fears that Professor Nqosa Mahao’s fallout with his principal secretary at the Ministry of Energy, Tankiso Phapano, could threaten the unity in the BAP and the government’s stability.
thepost can reveal that Mahao has hinted that he would resign if Matekane doesn’t fire or reassign Phapano.
But there are strong indications that Mahao doesn’t enjoy the backing of his executive committee and MPs in his fight with Phapano.
Inside sources this week told thepost that some members of the BAP’s executive committee and MPs are openly siding with Phapano and have been secretly lobbying Matekane to reshuffle Mahao from the Ministry of Energy to Sports.
A source said Mahao is aware of these manoeuvres, including a clandestine meeting in Maputsoe, and has said he would rather resign than be the subject of a humiliating reshuffle instigated by people he leads.
The source of the bad blood between Mahao and Phapano is not clear but it is understood that they have disagreed over tenders and the ministry’s direction.
The source said Matekane was first briefed of the running battles at the ministry some three weeks ago just as matters were coming to a head.
It is the second briefing which revealed a complete breakdown in the relationship that triggered Matekane’s meeting with the BAP’s executive committee and MPs on Monday.
Three people who were in that meeting said Matekane told the BAP officials to deal with the crisis before it affected the ministry and threatened the coalition government’s stability.
The BAP’s executive committee, including MPs and Mahao, then had a marathon meeting to discuss ways to make peace between Mahao and Phapano.
A source who was in that meeting said “it was clear to Mahao that the majority of the committee and the MPs were on Phapano’s side”.
“Mahao quickly realised that he did not have the backing of the majority and took a conciliatory approach. It was clear that the committee would rather have him resign than get Phapano removed from the ministry,” the source said.
“In the past Mahao had flatly refused to reconcile with Phapano because of seniority. But this time he appeared to be open to a meeting to discuss reconciliation.”
Both Mahao and Phapano told thepost last night that their relationship was still cordial. ‘“We are still in good books with Phapano until further notice,” Mahao said.
“However, we cannot predict the future.”
Mahao denied ever discussing Phapano’s dismissal or transfer with Matekane.
Phapano also insisted that he was working well with Mahao.
“We are still on good terms,” Phapano said, adding that the allegation that they were fighting was “baseless”.
The fallout between Mahao and Phapano has been quick and spectacular.
The two had been almost inseparable months before Mahao agreed to join the coalition government.
Phapano would use his car to drive Mahao around. They would attend party meetings together. Some party insiders saw Phapano as Mahao’s right-hand man and adviser.
Mahao allegedly strongly pushed for Phapano to be appointed as his principal secretary when he became energy minister.
But sources said Mahao started having second thoughts days after recommending Phapano and tried to get his appointment reversed but it was too late.
A source says within weeks Mahao was telling cabinet colleagues that Phapano had captured the ministry and he was unable to function as the minister.
“He started pushing to oust Phapano within days because they were already clashing. It’s been war from the first days,” said the source.
How chicken import ban hit vendors
MALESHOANE Pakela used to work at small backyard chicken farms where she was paid with chicken heads, necks, legs, and offals that she would roast and sell to factory workers at the Thetsane Industrial Area.
Her job was to clean and pack chicken.
The profit wasn’t much but just enough for the 37-year-old widow to feed and keep her four children in school.
“It also covered her monthly rental of M150 for a room in Ha-Tsolo Sekoting.
Her life was however shattered last October when the government imposed a ban on chicken imports from South Africa following an outbreak of bird flu.
Without day-old chicks the farms quickly shut down, cutting Pakela’s supply of heads, necks, legs, and offals.
Within a few days, her family was starving.
Pakela had been struggling even for months before the ban. The closure of the factories and retrenchments of thousands of workers has severely hit her sales. She was behind on her rent and could barely feed her children.
The partial lifting of the chicken ban has not helped Pakela because her former employers still cannot import day-old chicks or live birds.
Pakela and a family were kicked out of their rented room in November when their arrears were about M1 000.
She has found another room nearby.
A ‘Good Samaritan’ has allowed her to use a room for free until she can afford the rent. But Pakela says she still feels obliged to pay something because she understands that things are hard for everyone.
“Here the rent is still M150 but the landlord accepts every amount that I give her,” Pakela says.
There are days when her children go to bed hungry.
“I have told them (children) that if I have nothing they should accept (the status).”
She now survives on handouts from neighbours and other well-wishers. Pakela’s poverty is apparent.
Barefoot and holding her small child in a seshoeshoe dress, Pakela says her two children usually go to school without eating.
The other child has dropped out of school because she doesn’t have shoes.
’Mako Lepolesa, 44, who has been running a chesanyama (meat grill) at the Maseru West Industrial Estate since 2018. The father of three says his clients are mainly taxi drivers and factory workers.
Chicken was her main product until last October when the ban was imposed. It wasn’t long before his business started wobbling.
“I thought it would be just a short-lived problem (chicken import ban) but it passed on this year,” he says, adding that it might take months for his business to recover.
Moshe Ramashamole, 42, who also owns a chesanyama in the Maseru West Industrial Estate, tried to remain in business by sourcing chicken from local farmers.
It was a stopgap measure that however lasted a few weeks because the farmers also ran out of stock. He resorted to bad chicken but they were double the price of a full chicken before the ban.
Yet Ramashamole thought he could make it work by increasing the price of his plate from M35 to M55. The customers however resisted the new price and Ramashamole had to take the losses.
The poultry ban did not affect street vendors like Pakela alone.
Former Minister of Communications, Khotso Letsatsi, is one of those poultry farmers struggling following the chicken ban.
He ventured into poultry in January last year. It was an audacious venture that included a M100 000 investment in a shelter and other equipment.
He started with a batch of 300 chicks and had reached 1 000 by the time the ban was imposed.
“The business was lucrative,” Letsatsi says.
“I had to employ two people permanently to assist me on a full-time basis,” he says.
When it was time to slaughter the chickens, Letsatsi says he had to employ seven casual labourers.
Since the ban was imposed he had released all his workers.
“I do not know where they are now. Maybe they are starving,” he says of the workers he released.
Letsatsi doesn’t know how he will revive his business.
The Director of Marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS), Lekhooe Makhate, says the ban has been devastating to farmers and businesses.
“Some big businesses are going to declare less tax to the government because there was no business,” Makhate says.
He says Lesotho spends M2.1 billion on the importation of chicken and its products from South Africa every year.
But that amount usually soars to M4 billion depending on the market forces of demand and supply.
Makhate says the M2.1 billion goes to South Africa where the chicken and its products are imported.
At the height of the scarcity of chickens in the country, Makhate says people were supposed to make initiatives to travel to villages to search for chickens.
“There is not enough production of chickens in the country,” he says.
“Economically speaking we rely on South Africa. We have to be self-reliant.”
Letseng fends off threat to sue
LETŠENG Diamond says it is under no obligation to advertise jobs for Basotho to provide certain services “where it has the capacity to undertake the same services”.
Letšeng Diamond boss, Motooane Thinyane, was responding to a threat to sue by a little-known political party called Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES).
Matekane’s company, the Matekane Mining Investment Company (MMIC), had been providing blasting, haulage and drilling services at Letšeng mine since 2005.
The deal with the MMIC was terminated in December last year with the mining company saying it was improper because Matekane had now become a politician.
Letšeng Diamonds announced that it had reached an agreement with the MMIC to acquire its mining equipment at the mine and offered employment to its current employees in line with operational requirements.
“This will enable Letšeng to continue with its mining activities,” the company said in its statement.
This infuriated opposition parties that argued that the mine should have called interested Basotho companies to bid for the contract, saying it is provided for in the Minerals Act of 2005.
The leader of Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES), Molefi Ntšonyana, wrote the mine last week threatening to sue for allegedly failing to follow section 11 of the Act.
Ntšonyana argued that the Act “does not grant the Letšeng Diamond 100 percent to mine with its good own equipment” but it should engage Basotho companies like it did with the MMIC.
Ntšonyana said Letšeng Diamond and the MMIC made the agreement to acquire the MMIC equipment so that the mine could continue with its mining activities “without any advertisement to seek qualified Basotho to provide such services”.
Ntšonyana said the agreement unilaterally denied Basotho a chance to tender for such services and ignored the fact that the government of Lesotho on behalf of Basotho own 30 percent in the Letšeng Diamond.
“It is advisable to reconsider your decision,” Ntšonyana said, adding that they would also write to the mining board requesting the resolution they made regarding this matter of insourcing mining activities.
He said the company should adhere to section 11 of the Mines and Minerals Act of 2005 and within 14 working days the matter should be reconsidered, “failing which we will have no choice but to drag the company to the courts of law”.
In his response, Thinyane said Ntšonyana must “revisit the section in question in full for its correct interpretation”.
“Letšeng Diamond is under no obligation to advertise to seek qualified Basotho to provide services where it is willing and has the capacity to undertake the same services,” Thinyane said.
He said the decision relating to the agreement referred to has been through the necessary governance structures and is therefore procedural.
Thinyane said Letšeng is a corporate citizen that is fully compliant with the laws of Lesotho.
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