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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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No end in sight for Nam, Botswana borderline feud

27th July 2021
Namibian-report

Despite the President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi and his Namibian counterpart, Hage Geingob giving an impression that the borderline security disputes are a thing of the past and that diplomatic ties remain tight, fresh developments from Namibia suggest otherwise, following Geingod’s close confidante’s attack on Botswana and its army.

Giving a Zambezi region state of the affairs last week, a Geingob-appointed governor of Zambezi region, Colonel Lawrence Ampofu, a retired Colonel in the Namibian Defence Force, former plan combatant during the liberation struggle of Namibia, in a written speech, charged at the BDF and condemned their killings of the Namibians as unacceptable.

“The security situation within our borders remains calm. The incidence of the Botswana Defence Force shootings and wanton killings on the Nchindo Brothers on 05 November 2020 and other 37 Namibian lives lost since independence remain a serious challenge with our neighbor, Botswana.

Our residents living along the Chobe, Linyanti and Kwandu rivers are living under constant threats, harassment, fear, intimidation and killings and such activities are condemned and not acceptable,” he said under the safety and security title.

The attack suggests that Namibia has not bought Botswana’s story. Ampofu was part of the entourage that accompanied Geingob to the three Nchindo brothers and their cousin who were gunned down by the BDF, and is reported to be privy to the details of the unpublished Botswana-Namibia joint investigations report about the killings as a governor or political head of the region which has eight electoral constituencies.

The report contains the sensitive details of how the three Namibians referred as poachers by the BDF – and Fisherman by the Namibian government were gunned down on 5 November last year along the Chobe River.  They were Tommy (48), Martin (40) and Wamunyima Nchindo (36), and their cousin Sinvula Muyeme (44).

His views are not really in contrast to his President’s views who also described the BDF as trigger happy in a scripted report to his cabinet.

The Zambezi region is located in the extreme north east part of Namibia and covers a total of 14,667.6 square kilometres. “We share borders with Angola, Zambia to the north, Zimbabwe to the east and Botswana to the South,” he said.

Sampofu was first appointed governor of the former Caprive Region in 2010 by the former Namibian president, Hifikepunye Pohamba and was reappointed as Zambezi governor by President Dr.Hage Geingob in 2015, a term running to 2025.

37 Namibia residents killed by Botswana army so far

Sampofu is a man who continues to insist that Botswana has killed 37 residents of his region. A video posted by the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) shows him alleging that at least 37 Namibians were killed by the BDF, after he met with the community at Impalila.

“It is true, the BDF started long ago. As we speak 37 lives have been lost here in Impalila along the Chobe river going to Linyanti and Kwado rivers up to Lizauli. All those families lost their loved ones,” Ampofu said in the video posted by NBC.

It is not known how the BDF, which has maintained their position that the Namibians were engaging in illegal activities of poaching, treats the constant attacks by the Namibian authorities, but they have repeatedly vowed to continue protecting the country’s sovereignty and natural resources.

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Masisi gives KBL the “middle finger”

27th July 2021
President Masisi

Botswana’s premier brewer and leading distributor of beer, Kgalagadi Breweries Limited (KBL), this month dragged the government of Botswana to court after President Mokgweetsi Masisi imposed an alcohol ban with immediate effect. KBL labelled the decision as unjustifiable, irrational and that it overrides the rights that are enshrined in the constitution.

This week, Masisi through attorneys representing the government disparaged the case in his written affidavit of KBL’s application, referring to it as frivolous and that it ought to be dismissed with costs on a punitive scale.

In his court papers, Masisi reminded KBL that Botswana is a Republic whose laws find validity from the constitution, and in terms of Section 17 of the constitution the President is empowered to declare a State of Emergency and that it is a common cause that Botswana is under such state.

“It is common course that there is in existence emergency powers (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 as amended from time to time which is solely designed to regulate the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

Masisi pointed out that he denies that the application before Court is proper such as to challenge the lawfulness and validity of a regulation made and a notice published in the exercise of a legislative function in accordance with the Emergency Powers Act which empowers the President to make regulations as appear to him to be necessary and expedient for securing public safety.

Furthermore, the President revealed that the decision to ban alcohol sales was not arrived at willy-nilly, but rather that there had been careful considerations that the risks posed by Covid-19 had increased and therefore it was expedient and necessary to suspend all liquor licenses.

Moreover, Masisi denied that the decision to reinstate the ban should be made by the Director of Health Services as indicated by KBL in their nature of the application, “the Director is to cause the notice to be published in the Gazette after consultation with the President.”

Masisi indicated that the role of the Director of Health Services is to publish a regulation made by the President.

He further, reminded KBL that the power to make regulations in a State of Public Emergency in accordance with the EPA lies with the President, “such power includes the amendment of any enactment, suspending the operation of any enactment or modification of an enactment.”

According to Masisi, his decision to ban alcohol sales was based on evidence provided by the Director of Health Services who indicated to him that there was a sudden spike in the transmission of the Covid-19 virus following the reinstatement of liquor licenses.

Another piece of advice tendered by the Director of Health to Masisi was that bars and other liquor outlets were some of the major hotspots in the sense of such being high-risk areas at which the virus spread rapidly.

“Alcohol was one of the major causes of non-compliance with the health protocols that were put in place to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Further, there was an indication that more arrests were made on people failing to adhere to Covid-19 protocols more particularly at places where there were gatherings,” he contended.

He pointed out that therefore, it was expedient and or necessary to preserve lives and to reduce the risks of transmissions of the virus to reinstate the suspension of liquor licenses.

Moreover, the President says that it must be noted that he avers that the Director of Health Services is a credible source on matters of public health of which he also accordingly gave due weight to the Director’s advice on deciding to reinstate the ban through the impugned notice.

“I am aware and was always aware at the time of promulgating the regulation complained of that it shall negatively affect some sectors of the economy. However, after due consideration and receipt of advice, I decided to give priority to the safety and health of the nation,” Masisi said.

He presaged KBL that it would not be prudent and in the best interest of the nation to ignore a health emergency such as Covid-19 and gave preference to trading and making of profits by the applicant. “The results would only be catastrophic to the extent that when we emerge from the scourge we would be left with a depleted and ailing nation from Covid-19 and its side effects.”

Furthermore, his written affidavit further pointed out that the decision to reinstate the ban on alcohol was taken notwithstanding understanding and appreciation of the economic hardships that would befall the country.

However, he said he deliberately made the decision based on the evidence provided to him by the Director of Health, whose evidence he believes to be credible to give public/safety and health priority over economic considerations in some sectors.

In making the decision, Masisi states that he was and considered different options including allowing for sale of alcohol consumption off premises, however the evidence he had been provided with suggested that such other alternatives would not achieve the overall objective of securing public safety and health by reducing the risk of the spread of the virus.

“By the time I imposed the ban, alcohol was already being sold for consumption off-premises. This did not work. The information provided to me by the Director and the Presidential Task-Force team demonstrated that consumers purchased alcohol and then loitered and consumed it within the peripheries of bars and other liquor outlets,” he said.

Attached to the affidavit as emphasis, were photographs and videos of Gaborone West, Phase 4 in mid-June 2021, which he explains circulated on social media and was brought to his attention.

“I need not say much about the photos as they depict a crowd exceeding 50 gathered at the parking area of a bar. There is little or no regard to Covid-19 protocols. It was clear to me and my advisors, including the Director of Health Services and members of the Presidential Task-Force team that the total ban of alcohol was necessary to manage the risk of increase in infections, to understand what seems to have led to an increase in the risk of infection when alcohol is present I was advised by the Presidential Task-Force team that scientifically there has been evidence that alcohol narrows physical distance,” he argued.

Masisi says that allegations made by KBL are serious allegations of infringement of fundamental rights yet they fail to state how imposition and reinstatement of the suspension of liquor licenses out of necessity and expediency of the health of the nation infringes on the rights as alleged.

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Gov’t gives parallel statements on COVAX

27th July 2021
COVAX---lelatisitswe

In  an embarrassing turn of events that depicts disintegration in government communication on the fight against COVID-19, President Mokgweetsi Masisi and Assistant Minister of Health & Wellness, Sethomo Lelatisitswe gave two conflicting statements on the same matter, same day, just minutes apart.

The Commander-in-Chef told health practitioners and residents in Ramotswa that the COVAX facility has scammed African countries after billions were paid in a crowd funding effort to procure COVID-19 vaccines in bulk.

“We have pumped money as developing countries of the African continent into the COVAX Facility but the returns were not satisfactory, they cheated us,” the President said in Ramotswa.

According to President Masisi, the COVAX facility Vaccine only came in bits and pieces, frustrating the continent ‘s head immunity targets amid rapidly spreading Delta Variant which is currently reversing all progress made by Africa in containing the contagious virus.

“What we are getting is very small portions of the vaccine, they keep telling us that there is shortage of supply, this is not fair, but we have paid in advance, however what can we do, we have no choice but to spend more  money and look for other avenues of securing other available vaccines,” he said.

Meanwhile in Gaborone, Assistant Minister of Health and Wellness told Parliament that vaccine from COVAX facility is anchoring Botswana’s vaccination program.

“I am not aware of such information that COVAX facility is not delivering as expected, we are actually bolstered by COVAX facility in this country,” he said responding to a question from Mahalapye West Member of Parliament David Tshere who is also Chairman of Parliament Committee On Health and HIV/AIDS.

“We have received doses as ordered from the COVAX facility, and we are still receiving more, I have not seen that information which is purported to have been revealed by the President, unless its new information, we as the Ministry we are not aware of any frustrations by the COVAX facility,” he said.

COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi and the World Health Organization (WHO), alongside key delivery partner UNICEF.

Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

The facility is a global coalition that works to ensure fair and equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. So far, 190 countries have joined the COVAX initiative, including all 22 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region.

The COVAX Facility aims to have 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines available for distribution across the globe by the end of 2021, targeting those most at risk (e.g. frontline health workers) and most vulnerable severe diseases and death (e.g. elderly and people with co-morbidities).

On other vaccination issues President Masisi revealed, still in Greater Gaborone vaccination centre visits, that Botswana has placed orders with Pfizer, a United States vaccine producer noting that they have promised to deliver next year.

Meanwhile, government kick-started phase two of the Covid-19 vaccination program this week, opening up for ages between 30 and 54.

President Masisi revealed that this was done because some elderly were reluctant to be inculcated.

“We can’t take forever trying to convince people to take vaccine, we moved to the next age segments because we cannot afford to have vaccines-which are already in shortage supply to just lie there,” he said.

On Friday, Ministry of Health revealed that it was receiving large numbers of people below the age of 55 lining up to be vaccinated.

In a statement the Ministry of Health said it, “acknowledges the huge turnout that marked the commencement of the Phase two COVID-19 vaccination program”.

Given this high turnout, especially in the Greater Gaborone region, the ministry announced an extension of operation hours in order to serve the huge crowds that had come for vaccination.

Of the nearly 85 000 doses that were being doled across the country as first doses, the majority of the Greater Gaborone vaccination sites were already getting depleted by 1800hrs on 22 July 2021.

As a result of this development, the ministry took a decision to discontinue the extended hours of operation announced yesterday for vaccination sites in Gaborone.

This means that vaccination sites in Gaborone and elsewhere in the country which still have some vaccines, will offer them in the normal working hours and days of the week.

The Ministry says it appreciates the great desire to be vaccinated shown by thousands of citizens and residents of this country and wishes to assure them that it will continue to expedite their vaccination every time vaccines become available. As has been communicated in various fora, more vaccines are expected in August 2021.

As at July 2021, Botswana has so far received 62, 400 doses of AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD bought through the Covax facility, 30,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine donated by the Republic of India, 19, 890 doses of the Pfizer vaccine bought through the COVAX facility, 200, 000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine, donated by the Peoples Republic of China and another 200, 000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine bought through bilateral negotiations with Sinovac company in China.

“We encourage Batswana to remain hopeful that although it’s taking longer than anticipated, enough COVID-19 vaccines will eventually arrive in our country. We urge them to always strictly abide by all COVID-19 protocols so that they protect themselves and others from this deadly virus,” the ministry said.

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