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The Untold Story of Ram

The 4th of September 2019 will likely be marked as a day of reckoning for Botswana’s corporate sector. Choppies shareholders will congregate not only to decide the fate of the country’s largest retailer but that also of its founding CEO Ramachandran Ottapathu.

The man who built what is arguably the Southern Africa region’s most ambitious retail brand will plead his case in front of shareholders to be reinstated as its head. With the expected fire works, it’s important to establish how Ram and Choppies story begins. In most cultures, there comes a time where every young man has to leave his mother’s embrace, his father’s house to make a living, and put food on the table for the family. Some dreams are captured and realized within shores where the human eye can see; some have a third eye that sees beyond current horizons to the unseen.

Many books have been published, many movie scripts crafted in order to understand that unique mentality that creates from nothing, nurtures and grows success. How do the successful people succeed?  How can one create wealth from nothing? What is the meaning of success? Are we born with the spirit of enterprise or is it thrust upon us from some Divine force as a favour, only to a few? How many brands at home grew organically to become a regional thrust creating an economic fulcrum that spread across diverse industries in the region?

When Geoff Bezos started Amazon at the back of a garage, the name of the brand suggested the scale of his ambitions. ‘As big as the Amazon’ he always said aloud. Today it is. At a time when putting credit card details online were deemed irresponsible he did it. There are many stories like this across the Atlantic but we do have our own. There is a story that is rarely told. In many instances high poverty levels have led people traveling thousands of miles for greener pastures leaving their families behind and only return after a long spell of hustling.

Retail magnet and founder of Choppies Ramachandran 'Ram' Ottapathu has an inspiring story, which has gone to inspire a number of people from across the world. Today we try and understand his flaws within the context of the scale of his vision. It is critical to understand his background and appreciate his achievements in order to understand his shortcomings and possibly usher a new era for the retail giant now synonymous with both the man and country.  

The 55-year-old retail mogul hails from Kerala, a tourist destination in India. He took the long trip to Botswana close to three decades ago when a relative had found him a job as an accountant after graduation in India. Being the oldest in a family of five children Ottapathu had to help his parents to put food on the table as they were not making much from their monthly wages. Ottapathu’s father was a handloom weaver, while his mother a housewife who did odd part-time jobs at a construction company.

“We suffered a lot. We were never able to make ends meet. The family had three full meals only about once a year. My aim was to get a job, it didn’t matter what job, to earn any income, and take care of the family. For me, everything revolves around family. There is nothing beyond giving a decent living to one’s parents and siblings,” Ottapathu previously said to the media.

It was only in the late 1990s when he moved to Botswana to work for Mazars as an accountant. He quickly found his feet and adapted to the new environment, which was very far from his native home of Kerala. The young Ram could feel the positive energy and that the young man from the dusty streets of India was doing something to make his parents proud. With him the every touch was personal. He needed to ensure he was part of every detail. He believed that with all the efforts may be one day his mother would be proud. “I wanted to make her proud of her son. That’s why I worked so hard. The strong work ethic came from my parents. The unceasing ambition and zeal came from the hunger of making a difference,” he says.

His hard work earned him some shares at Wayward Supermarket, which was then located in Lobatse. Premised on finding solutions for the average shopper for basic grocery needs Choppies found a unique value frontier that established brands had left wide open. Any viable local farmer with produce knew that Choppies was good option to supply their hard earned harvest. The intricate network of value for suppliers, countrymen alike grew thus creating numerous entrepreneurs along the way. The Accountant turned entrepreneur had done what few have ever imagined. He created a multi billion-pula enterprise, expanded it from Lobatse to a regional thrust with a presence at home here in Botswana, in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya with prospects to grow beyond.

As he looks across his offices he reminisces about his life back in the day, in his younger days. As someone who grew up in poor family Ottapathu had that hunger and wish of seeing poverty eradicated, communities liberated and prospering. At some point in his youth days he was one of those young lads who would walk around the cities of India carrying political placards written “Free Mandela”.

Having arrived in Botswana with P200 from India, Ottapathu hustled his way to the top to build a multi- billion pula enterprise that broke the record in 2014 making a turnover that had crossed P5 billion. The group currently operates more than 200 retail outlets in Southern Africa in countries such as Botswana, South Africa Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya.

“When we reached the 10 000 employee mark, we set our next goal to achieve the P10 billion revenue mark and I am pleased to report that we are almost on target. This is a watershed milestone for the company and for me, personally, as it marks the realisation of a long-held dream,” Ottapathu once stated in a statement in the 2017 integrated annual report.

In 2017, the company went on to generate revenue of P9 billion, which led the group to be a very competitive giant retailer. On Botswana alone Choppies uses over 1,200 local suppliers for different aspects of its business. His vision and democracy mind is one of the reasons why the retail magnet developed Choppies, let it spread all over the country and the region so as to create employment. The presence of Choppies in the country contributed to the country’s economy as it created employment and also got listed on Botswana Stock Exchange in 2012.

Prior to Choppies’ existence the level of unemployment was high but Ram and his management have gone to employ people with different qualifications from accountants, IT specialists, till operators, chefs and fashion designers. A number of jobs have been created in the past 10 years,” says one of the Choppies employees who refused to be mentioned by name.

Despite his success and fortunes that the father of two has accumulated over the years Ottapathu’ does not forget his humble beginnings of coming from a poor background which is why he has fought for young Batswana to get employed at the various Choppies outlets. “He has not only created employment in the country but through Choppies a number of events and organizations have received financial assistance from the retail magnet who considers this as a socio- economic development. Remember Choppies played a huge role during the Botswana Africa Youth Games in 2014, My Star and even sponsored local athletes when they went overseas,” noted a local print editor.

With all this glory, what went wrong? A local investment expert who is closer to the current matters highlights that Choppies and Ram are a sensitive issue at the moment and he can only comment on condition of anonymity. “From the time of the listing there was no succession plan. As institutional investors we looked the other side or assumed it will be sorted over time but it never was. Choppies has given everyone a learning curve from its board whose oversight roles is questionable, institutional investors who let the entity list without a clear succession policy, one of the critical components of sustainability in governance, to shareholders,” the expert says.

Ram was running the business within the realm of his contract with the trust from all that he is the man and he is the brand. “The truth of the matter is that there is no Choppies without Ram. If he is out of the picture institutional shareholders and general shareholders will reap a storm that will turn into an uncontrollable disaster. They know it.”

“The best solution moving forward will be for Ram to continue as the CEO with an understudy to takeover in the next five years. The founder of Letshego did that and the business has been stable ever since no matter who is in charge. Given that the forensic report exonerates any illegal activities like money laundering Ram should continue and clean house where issues of governance are concerned,” he says.

Ram in his quest for greatness driven by zeal and ambition that drives men and women of his caliber, with only five multi-millionaires in the country created a giant that outlived his management methods. No matter how much he could try or desire Choppies could not be run in a way in which he is the epicenter of it all. It has grown into a retail beast of over 200 stores in the region. In such circumstances governance issues under the strict watchful eye of listing become a concern. The board has something to learn here, institutional shareholders know better, succession is critical for any business.

In the next EGM, a lot is at stake, whatever his flaws, Ram has a role to play in the future of Choppies and with all parties involved there is a possibility of a great success if they all work together for the good. Tighter governance structures, a clear succession plan and an alert board should serve justice to Botswana’s most beloved brand.

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Travel ban unfair and unjustified – Masisi

7th December 2021
President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi

For the past two years, the world has been at combat with various COVID-19 variants. A new variant of concern which is considered to have a combination of the greatest hits (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta) has sent alarm bells around the world.

Botswana’s COVID-19 genomic surveillance, which actively monitors COVID-19 variants in Botswana, picked four samples that were concerning and discovered a completely new variant. In accordance with international obligations, as a responsible member state under the International Health Regulations of 2005, Botswana submitted the suspected new variant for the entire global scientific community to respond to this early finding. Shortly after, the Republic of South Africa, also submitted a similar concerning variant.

The new variant, ‘Omicron’ is named after the 15th letter of the Greek Alphabet to avoid public confusion and stigma.
The news spread like wild fire which resulted in European Union member states, the United Arab Emirates and United States of America imposing travel bans on Botswana and other sister SADC nations, resulting in drawing a wedge between nations.

In his address on the occasion of an update on Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi has shunned the response by some countries to Botswana’s detection of the Omicron variant stating that it is unfortunate as it appears to have caused unnecessary panic amongst the public across the world. He considers it defeating the spirit of multilateral cooperation in dealing with this global pandemic.

“The decision to ban our citizens from travelling to certain countries was hastily made and is not only unfair but is also unjustified while remain confident that reason and logic will prevail, the harshness of the decision has the effect of our shaking our belief in the sincerity of declared friendship and commitment of equality and economic prosperity for us,” he said.

President Masisi has appealed to the nations that have imposed travel restrictions on Botswana to reflect and review their travel restrictions stance against the Southern African region.

African leaders and heads of state are in agreement on a matter. Some stating that the travel bans are ‘uncalled for, afro phobic, unscientific, strict, unfair and unjustified’. They have come out to bash the unilateral travel bans and request immediate upliftment of the restrictions imposed on SADC member states by European Union member states, the United Arab Emirates and United States of America.

While Batswana are banned from international travel, locally as at 26th November 2021, a total of 195 068 COVID19 cases and 2 418 deaths had been reported since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We have been steadily witnessing a decrease in the number of new cases and deaths in the last three months. We are currently reporting an average of less 10 infections per 100 000 people compared to 648 cases per 100 000 people at the peak of the third wave. We have also observed a gradual decline in hospitalizations across the country with an average of less than 10 patients at a time at Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital (SKMTH) and our other health facilities countrywide,” pointed out President Masisi.

Masisi encouraged Batswana not to despair as to date, all the nations’ key indicators remain stable. “This is comforting although it still does not warrant any complacency on our part in terms of behaviour and other attitudinal patterns towards this dreadful disease. We are actively monitoring the evolving situation in view new variant of concern,’’ he sternly advised.

Government through the different Ministries leading the different sectors, has been working tirelessly to prepare for potential outbreaks and a fourth (4th) wave. This will be achieved through; installing oxygen generating plants and increasing skilled human capacity.

With regards to the vaccination programme; as of 29th November 2021, an estimated One Million and Fifty Three Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty One (1 053 361) people translating to 75.7% of the target Batswana citizens and residents over the age of 18 years have received at least 1 dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. A total of Nine Hundred and Fifty Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventy Three (950 973) people translating to 68.4% have been fully vaccinated. This number exceeds the 64% target Botswana has set to achieve by end of December 2021.

Masisi enthusiastically revealed that; “We are one of the three countries in Africa that have achieved the World Health Organisation target of vaccinating at least 40% of the entire population by December 2021. We are committed to ensure that all is done to reduce the transmission of the virus in the country.

More vaccines are being procured to ensure availability for those who have not yet received any dose. Government is also considering booster doses for those who may be identified as qualifying for them.”

President Masisi urged Batswana to continue observing the COVID-19 health protocols of social distancing, washing hands or sanitizing and wearing masks and avoid unnecessary travelling.

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China pledges a billion vaccines to Africa

7th December 2021

As COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake the world, China has promised to donate a billion coronavirus vaccines, advance billions of dollars for African trade and infrastructure, and write off interest-free loans to African countries to help the continent recover from the coronavirus pandemic. All these promises emerged at the Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Senegal at the end of November 2021.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China will provide one billion doses of vaccines to Africa when delivering keynote speech at the Eighth Ministerial FOCAC via video link on 29th November. Of those, 600 million would be via donations and the rest would be produced jointly by African countries and Chinese companies. In addition, China would send medical teams to help the continent deal with the pandemic.

President Xi also announced nine programmes that China will work closely with African countries in the next three years. He mentioned the medical and health program, the poverty reduction and agricultural development program, the trade promotion program, the investment promotion program, the digital innovation program, the green development program, the capacity building program, the cultural and people-to-people exchange program, the peace and security program. President Xi hailed China-Africa relations as a shining example for building a new type of international relations.

Furthermore, Xi said Beijing would pump US$10 billion into African financial institutions for onward lending to small and medium enterprises. He promised to extend another US$10 billion of its International Monetary Fund allocation of special drawing rights, which would help stabilise foreign exchange reserves. In addition, China will write-off interest-free loans due this year, to help the economies that had been ravaged by the pandemic. Last year, China also promised to write off interest-free loans due at the end of 2020.

Beijing pledged US$60 billion to finance Africa’s infrastructure at the forum in Johannesburg in 2015, and a similar amount when the gathering was held in the Chinese capital in 2018. But in the past few years, Chinese lenders, including the policy banks – Exim Bank of China and China Development Bank – have become more cautious and are now demanding bankable feasibility studies amid debt distress in the continent.

Besides seeking more money for projects, Xi said China would encourage more imports of African agricultural products, and increase the range of zero-tariff goods, aiming for US$300 billion of total imports from Africa in the next three years.

China would also advance US$10 billion of trade financing to support African exports into China. He said the country would also advance another US$10 billion to promote agriculture in Africa, send 500 experts and establish China-Africa joint agro-technology centres and demonstration villages. African countries are pushing to grow exports of agricultural products into China. At the moment, Beijing maintains an enormous trade surplus over the continent. African imports from China include machinery, electronics, construction equipment, textiles and footwear.

Meanwhile, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi summarized FOCAC achievements when meeting with journalists ahead the 8th FOCAC Ministerial Conference. Wang said that the FOCAC is a crucial platform for collective dialogue between China and Africa and an effective mechanism for practical cooperation.

He said since the inception of the FOCAC 21 years ago, Chinese enterprises have built over 10,000 kilometers of railways, nearly 100,000 kilometers of roads, nearly 1,000 bridges, nearly 100 ports, and over 80 large-scale power facilities in Africa.

In addition, they have assisted Africa in building over 130 medical facilities, 45 gymnasiums and more than 170 schools, and training over 160,000 professionals in various fields. Chinese medical teams have provided medical service to an accumulated number of 230 million, and China’s network service has covered around 700 million user terminals.

Yi said that the Eighth FOCAC Ministerial Conference was a great success. According to Yi, the success of the conference confirmed the strong will of China and Africa to work together to overcome difficulties and seek common development, and showed the huge potential and bright prospects of China-Africa cooperation.

Wang summarized the most important consensus reached at the conference as following: 1) both sides will promote the spirit of China-Africa friendship and cooperation; 2) China and Africa will work together to defeat the pandemic; 3) both sides will work to enrich China-Africa cooperation in the new era; 4) the two sides will work together to practice true multilateralism; 5) China and Africa will jointly build a China-Africa community with a shared future in the new era.

FOCAC, is one of the developments that came as a major shift in the dynamics of the China-Africa relationships came about in the 1980s when China embarked upon its “Opening up and Reform Policy” –a wide-ranging policy that gave birth to the new China. Economic and geo-strategic interests rather than the desire to export a specific political philosophy drive China’s current relationship with Africa.

For Africa though, the key problem is that our economies are weak in value creation. 
As argued by one economist, what workers and factories produce is produced more efficiently, with better quality and at lower cost, by other economies. “In such circumstances, making money is easier through rent than through value creation.

African governments should be capable of guiding their private sector towards value creation, a key factor for achieving a sustainable competitive edge in the global market. Furthermore, partnerships that Africa forges should be targeted to enhance such an environment”. The question remains as to whether China’s intervention in Africa will help address this challenge.

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COVID-19 has pushed cost of living up – report

7th December 2021

A report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU) has given its outlook for the rise and fall of living costs around the world.

The report is based on current and past trends impacting the cost of living, including currency swings, local inflation and commodity shocks. In addition, it compares more than 400 individual prices across over 200 products and services in 173 cities.

The Worldwide Cost of Living (WCOL) rankings continue to be sensitive to shifts brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have pushed up the cost of living across the world’s major cities. Although most economies are now recovering as covid-19 vaccines are rolled out, the world’s major cities still experience frequent surges in cases, prompting renewed social restrictions. In many cities this has disrupted the supply of goods, leading to shortages and higher prices.

The report highlights that “the inflation rate of the prices tracked in the EIU’s WCOL across cities is the fastest recorded over the past five years. It has accelerated beyond the pre-pandemic rate, rising by 3.5% year on year in local-currency terms in 2021, compared with an increase of just 1.9% in 2020 and 2.8% in 2019.”

However; supply-chain problems, as well as exchange-rate shifts and changing consumer demand, have led to rising prices for commodities and other goods. The most rapid increases in the WCOL index were for transport, with the price of a litre of petrol up by 21% on average.

Tel Aviv, a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast tops the WCOL rankings for the first time ever, making it the most expensive city in the world to live in. The Israeli city climbed from fifth place last year, pushing Paris down to joint second place with Singapore. Tel Aviv’s rise mainly reflects its soaring currency and price increases for around one-tenth of goods in the city, led by groceries and transport, in local-currency terms. Property prices (not included in the index calculation), have also risen, especially in residential areas.

The cheapest cities are mainly in the Middle East and Africa, or in the poorer parts of Asia. Damascus has easily retained its place as the cheapest city in the world to live in. It was ranked the lowest in seven of the ten pricing categories, and was among the lowest in the remaining three. While prices elsewhere have generally firmed up, in Damascus they have fallen as Syria’s war-torn economy has struggled. Tripoli, which also faces political and economic challenges, is ranked second from the bottom in our rankings, and is particularly cheap for food, clothing and transport.

“Over the coming year, we expect to see the cost of living rise further in many cities. Inflationary expectations are also likely to feed into wage rises, further fuelling price rises. However, as central banks cautiously raise interest rates to stem inflation, price increases should moderate from this year’s level. We forecast that global consumer price inflation will average 4.3% in 2022, down from 5.1% in 2021 but still substantially higher than in recent years. If supply-chain disruptions die down and lockdowns ease as expected, then the situation should improve towards the end of 2022, stabilising the cost of living in most major cities.”

“The survey has been designed to enable human resources and finance managers to calculate cost-of-living allowances and build compensation packages for expatriates and business travellers. It can also be used by consumer-goods firms and other companies to map pricing trends and determine optimum prices for their products across cities. In addition, the data can be used to understand the relative expense of a city to formulate policy guidelines,” highlights the report.

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