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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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Civil Service volatility: Democracy vs Bureaucracy

19th April 2021
President Masisi

Here is how one Permanent Secretary encapsulates the clear tension between democracy and bureaucracy in Botswana: “President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s Government is behaving like a state surrounded with armed forces in order to capture it or force its surrender. The situation has turned so volatile, for tomorrow is not guaranteed for us top civil servants.

These are the painful results of a personalized civil service in our view as permanent secretaries”. Although his deduction of the situation may be summed as sour grapes because he is one of the ‘victims’ of the reshuffle, he is convinced this is a perfect description of the rationale behind frequent changes and transfers characterising the current civil service.

The result of it all, he said, is that “there is too much instability at managerial and strategic levels of the civil service leading to a noticeable directionless civil service.” He continued: “Changes and transfers are inevitable in the civil service, but to a permissible scale and frequency. Think of soccer team coach who changes and transfers his entire squad every month; you know the consequences?”

The Tsunami has hit hard at critical departments and Ministries leaving a strong wave of uncertainty, many demoralised and some jobless. In traditional approaches to public administration, democracy gives the goals; and bureaucracy delivers the technical efficiency required for implementation. But the recent moves in the civil service are indicative of conflicting imperatives – the notion of separation between politicians and administrators is becoming blurred by the day.

“Look at what happened to Prisons and BDF where second in command were overlooked for outsiders, and these are the people who had sacrificially served for donkey’s years hoping for a seat at the ladder’s end. The frequency of the changes, at times affecting the same Ministry or individual also demonstrates some level of ineptitude, clumsiness and lack of foresight from those in charge,” remarked the PS who added that their view is that the transfers are not related to anything but “settling scores, creating corruption opportunities and pushing out perceived dissident and former president, Ian Khama’s alleged loyalists and most of these transfers are said to be products of intelligence detection.”

Partly blaming Khama for the mess and his unwillingness to let go, the PS dismissed Masisi for falling to the trap and failing to outgrow the destructive tiff. “Khama is here to stay and the sooner Masisi comes to terms with the fact that he (Masisi) is the state President, the better. For a President to still be making these changes and transfers signals signs of a confused man who has not yet started rolling his roadmap, if at all it was ever there. I am saying this because any roadmap comes with key players and policies,” he concluded.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness seems to be the most hard-hit by the transfers, having experienced three Permanent Secretaries changes within a year and a half. Insiders say the changes have everything to do with the Ministry being the centre of COVID-19 tenders and economic opportunities. “The buck stops with the PS and no right-thinking PS can just allow glaring corruption under his watch as an accounting officer. Technocrats are generally law abiding, the pressure comes with politically appointed leaders racing against political terms to loot,” revealed a director in the Ministry preferring anonymity.

The latest transfer of Kabelo Ebineng she says was also motivated by his firm attitude against the President’s blue-eyed Task Team boys. “The Task Team wants to own the COVID-19 pandemic and government interventions and always cry foul when the Ministry reasserts itself as mandated by law,” said the director who added that Masisi who was always caught between the crossfire decided on sacrificing Ebineng to the joy of his team as they (Task Team) were in the habit of threatening to resign citing Ebineng as the problem.

Ebineng joins the Office of the President as a deputy Coordinator (government implementation and coordination office).The incoming PS is the soft-spoken Grace Muzila, known and described by her close associates as a conformist albeit knowledgeable.

One of the losers in the grand scheme is Thato Raphaka who many had seen as the next PSP because of his experience and calm demeanour following a declaration of interest in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Secretary post by the current PSP, Elias Magosi.

But hardly ten months into his post, Raphaka has been transferred out to the National Strategy Office in what many see as a demotion of some sort. Other notable changes coming into OP are Pearl Ramokoka formerly with the Employment, Labour and Productivity Ministry coming in as a Permanent Secretary and Kgomotso Abi as director of Public Service Reforms.

One of the ousted senior officers in the Office of the President warned that there are no signs that the changes and transfers will stop anytime soon: “If you are observant you would have long noticed that the changes don’t only affect senior officers but government decisions as well. A decision is made today and the government backtracks on it within a week. Not only that, the President says this today, and his deputy denies it the following day in Parliament,” he warned.

Some observers have blamed the turmoil in the civil service partly to lack of accountable presidential advisers or kitchen cabinet properly schooled on matters of statecraft. They point out that politicians or those peripheral to them should refrain from hampering the technical and organizational activities of public managers – or else the party (reshuffling) won’t stop.

In the view expressed by some Permanent Secretaries, Elias Magosi, has not really been himself since joining the civil service; and has cut a picture of indifference in most critical engagements; the most notable been a permanent secretaries platform which he chairs. As things stand there is need to reconcile the imperatives of democracy and democracy in Botswana. Peace will rein only when public value should stand astride the fault that runs between politicians and public managers.

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Morupisi fights for freedom in court

19th April 2021
morupisi

Former Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, is fighting for survival in a matter in which the State has charged him and his wife, Pinnie Morupisi, with corruption and money laundering.

Morupisi has joined a list of prominent figures that served in the previous administration and who have been accused of corruption during their tenure in office. While others have been emerging victorious, Morupisi is yet to find that luck. The High Court recently dismissed his no case to answer application.

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Pressure mounts on Biden to suspend Covid-19 vaccine patents

19th April 2021
Joe Biden

United States President, Joe Biden, is faced with a decision to make relating to the Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property after 175 former world leaders and Nobel laurates joined the campaign urging the US to take “urgent action” to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines to help boost global inoculation rates.

According to the world leaders, doing so would allow developing countries to make their own copies of the vaccines that have been developed by pharmaceutical companies without fear of being sued for intellectual property infringements.

“A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic. It must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly,” the signatories, comprising more than 100 Nobel prize-winners and over 70 former world leaders, wrote in a letter to US President Joe Biden, according to Financial Times.

A measure to allow countries to temporarily override patent rights for Covid related medical products was proposed at the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa in October, and has since been backed by nearly 60 countries.

Former leaders who signed the letter included Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister; François Hollande, former French President; Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the USSR; and Yves Leterme, former Belgian Prime Minister.

In their official communication, South Africa and India said: “As new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 are developed, there are significant concerns [about] how these will be made available promptly, in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand.”

While developed countries have been able to secure enough vaccine to inoculate their citizens, developing countries such as Botswana are struggling to source enough to swiftly vaccine their citizens, something which world leaders believe it would work against global recovery therefore proving counter-productive.

Since the availability of vaccines, Botswana has been able to secure only 60 000 doses of vaccines, 30 000 as donation as from the Indian government, while the other 30 000 was sourced through COVAX facility.  Canada, has pre-ordered vaccines in surplus and it will be able to vaccinate each of its citizens six times over. In the UK and US, it is four vaccines per person; and two each in the EU and Australia.

For vaccines produced in Europe, developing countries are forced to pay double what European countries are paying, making it more expensive for already financially struggling economies.  European countries however justify the price of vaccines and that they deserve to buy them cheap since they contributed in their development.

It is evident that vaccines cannot be made available immediately to all countries worldwide with wealthy economies being the only success story in that regard, something that has been referred to as a “catastrophic moral failure”, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The challenge facing developing countries is not only the price, but also the capacity of vaccine manufactures to be able to do so to meet global demand within a short time. The proposal for a patent waiver by India and South Africa has been rejected by developed countries, known for hosting the world leading pharmaceutical companies such US, European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

According to the Financial Times, US business groups including pharmaceutical industry representatives, have urged Biden to resist supporting a waiver to IP rules at the WTO, arguing that the proposal led by India and South Africa was too “vague” and “broad”.

The individuals who signed the letter, including Nobel laureates in economics as well as from across the arts and sciences, warned that inequitable vaccine access would impact the global economy and prevent it from recovering.

“The world saw unprecedented development of safe and effective vaccines, in major part thanks to US public investment,” the group wrote. “We all welcome that vaccination rollout in the US and many wealthier countries is bringing hope to their citizens.”

“Yet for the majority of the world that same hope is yet to be seen. New waves of suffering are now rising across the globe. Our global economy cannot rebuild if it remains vulnerable to this virus.”
The group warned that fully enforcing IP was “self-defeating for the US” as it hindered global vaccination efforts. “Given artificial global supply shortages, the US economy already risks losing $1.3tn in gross domestic product this year.”

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