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Was the Choppies boardroom fight worth it?

A wise man once said when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers meaning that the weak get hurt in conflicts between the powerful. In most cases ‘the elephants’ do not even notice the catastrophic consequences on the weak.

A year ago, the country witnessed one of the biggest corporate fights which involved the Choppies founding Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ramachandran ‘Ram’ Ottapathu and the then board that was led by former President Festus Mogae who was the Choppies Group Chairman. September is the anniversary of the historic Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) that left Botswana in awe of unprecedented legal and corporate drama.

The fight was mainly catapulted by the suspension of Choppies from the local bourse and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) on account of the company’s auditors PwC’s inability to finalize the 2018 financial statements due to alleged ‘irregularities.’ This led to Ram getting suspended as the Choppies CEO and was immediately followed by an EGM where Ram won against the board that had suspended him.

For over a year the business stewed in quagmire during the CEO’ suspension. Value tumbled, millions evaporated in value. Business was torn apart in the court of public opinion. Its once grand and mighty appeal shrunk into oblivion.

A former states man was in one corner with the colossal Botswana Public Officers Pensions Fund (BPOPF) with other fund managers, Ram and his trusted lieutenants on the other. It was a true battle of corporate’s high and mighty.

On the 5th of September 2019 Ram was cast into a nightmare, a marathon of presentations had no Ram sympathizer. However how he won is still a mystery to many who had a cast of his entrepreneurial tombstone ready. Given where we are now, the company lost value. Huge expenses were incurred too as a result of a huge spike in board fees for the case – investigations, payments of consultants for forensics legal and financial, suspension of CEO with no clear retail experience in the board. Was it worth it?

Shareholders voted to oust almost all of the former board members, who had pitted themselves against Ram after a series of investigations into alleged business malpractices at the retailer.

The boardroom fight was epic to watch, it was even documented and packaged as a film documentary titled the Ram- fication but the result exposed a fundamental flaw in the strategy of the outgoing board. How could they lose after 10-hour long presentations to shareholders? Ram speech did not even last more than five minutes. Keith Jefferies is quoted in Rami-fication documentary saying that there is a growing demand for more from board members when they are performing their fiducial duties on behalf of shareholders for listed entities.

One might say they were quick to turn on Ram when it was convenient. Wy didn’t institutional investors ask for a succession plan before the huge investments? Why would the allegations seem new yet they were murmurings on Choppies form the general public years before the investigations?

Giving expert opinion on a clip of the film documentary economist and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of Botswana Keith Jefferies stated that the board put too much reliance on Ram which is dangerous for a board to do especially on a big entity such as Choppies, “the board put too much reliance on Ram to run the company single handedly, it is dangerous for a business to rely one person. Investors and shareholders should have been more active. Board members have a serious responsibility to hold management accountable and read documents thoroughly,” said Jefferies who spoke of activist shareholders being a growing phenomenon of accountability.

Another economic expert who is a senior partner at one of the leading auditing companies in the country stated that the boardroom fight was not worth it mostly because it wasted the public’s time and number of people lost their job in the process only for Ram to win the case against a board that had suspended him and had engaged a number of legal proceedings that found him innocent.

This expert opinion visibly shows what was not done, what needed to be done properly and who was not actively working when they were supposed to be. The question still remains, was the fight worth it after so much resources where utilized?

Some independent investigations and other experts revealed that Ram was suspended as a consequence of personal differences with some members of the board and retaliation for his proposal to introduce a much-needed governance change within Choppies.

With a fresh board Choppies has returned on the Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE). Succession seems to be on track. The hurt from the past may force the current board to dig deeper and ask the right questions on behalf of shareholders and Choppies’ business constituents. May be, just may be everything was for the right outcome. Ram will be measured in his expansion and ambitions and will not want to repeat the inconvenience and the shame that his business attracted. As the majority shareholder, he has a lot to lose and so do pensioners who are represented through institutional investors.

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Botswana still weighing in on Maseko’s assassination

27th January 2023

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Lemogang Kwape says Botswana has not taken any position regarding the killing of a renowned human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, who was gunned down at his house in Mbabane, Eswatini.

In a brief interview with WeekendPost, Dr Kwape said Botswana has not yet taken any position regarding his death. He said the purported incident should be thoroughly probed before Botswana can form an opinion based on the findings of the inquiries.

“Botswana generally condemns any killing of human life by all means,” says Dr. Kwape. He wouldn’t want to be dragged on whether Botswana will support the suspension of Eswatini from SADC.

“We will be guided by SADC organ Troika if they can be an emergency meeting. I am not sure when the meeting will be called by Namibian president,“ he said.

However, the Namibian president Hage Geingob notes with deep concern reports coming out of Eswatini about the killing of Mr. Maseko. In a statement, he called upon the “Government of the Kingdom of Eswatini to ensure that the killing of Maseko is swiftly, transparently and comprehensively investigated, and that any or all persons suspected of committing this heinous crime are brought to justice.”

Maseko was chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum which was established as a coalition of non-State actors to advocate for a process of national political dialogue aimed at resolving the security and political challenges confronting the Kingdom.

“SADC expresses its deepest and heartfelt condolences to the family of Mr. Maseko, his friends, colleagues, and to the people of the Kingdom of Eswatini for the loss of Mr. Maseko. In this context, SADC further calls upon the people of the Kingdom of Eswatini to remain calm, exercise due care and consideration whilst the appropriate structures conduct the investigations and bring the matter to completion,” the statement says.

Geingob reiterated the need for peaceful resolution of the political and security challenges affecting the country.

Meanwhile political activists are calling on SADC to suspend Eswatini from the block including the African Union as well.

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Kopong Murder: Accused interferes with witnesses again!

27th January 2023

State prosecutor, Seeletso Ookeditse revealed before the Broadhurst Magistrate Jobbie Moilatshimo that the third accused involved in the murder of Barulaganye Aston, has interfered with the State witnesses again.

The second and third accused (Lefty Kosie and Outlwile Aston) were previously accused of interference when they were caught in possession of cellphones in prison. They were further accused of planning to kill the deceased’s brother, who is currently the guardian to the children of the deceased.

Ookeditse indicated that Outlwile had earlier went to challenge the magistrate’s decision of denying him bail at the High Court before Judge Michael Motlhabi.

“The third accused approached the High Court and made a bail application, which was dismissed on the same day,” Ookeditse said.

However, even after the High Court verdict on their bail application, the duo (Kosie and Aston) has once again applied for bail this week.

Ookeditse plead with the court to stop the accused from abusing the court process.

“Yesterday, Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) received papers of his bail application filed before the Broadhurst Magistrates Court. However, the papers do not speak to changed circumstances, therefore this back and forth about bail must be put to a stop,” said the State prosecutor.

While giving evidence before court, the Investigations Officer, Detective Inspector Quite Zhalamonto, said his investigations have proved that there is interference continuing regarding the accused trio.

He told the court that on the 12th of January 2023, he received a report from Thato Aston, who is the son of the accused and the deceased. The son had alleged to the Investigation Officer that he received a call from one Phillip Molwantwa.

According to Zhalamonto, Thato revealed that Molwatwa indicated that he was from prison on a visit to the Outlwile Aston and went on to ask where he was staying and where his siblings (Aston’s children) are staying.

“Thato revealed that Phillip went on to ask if he or his siblings saw their father murdering their mother, and he was referring to the crime scene. Thato told me that he, however, refused to answer the questions as he was afraid especially because he was asked about where him and his siblings stay,” said Zhalamonto.

Zhalamonto alluded to the court that he then went to Orange to confirm the communication between Thato and Molwantwa where he found the case.

“I have arrested Philip yesterday and when I interviewed him, he did not deny that he knows Aston and that he has indeed called Thato and asked questions as to where him and his siblings resides even though he failed to give reasons for asking such questions,” Zhalamonto told the court.

He further revealed that Molwantwa indicated that he had received a call from an unknown man who refused to reveal himself.

“Phillip told me that the unknown man said he was sent by the accused (Aston), and that Aston had instructed him to tell me to check if there was still some money in his bank accounts, and he also wanted to know where the kids were residing, the unknown man even asked him to meet at Main Mall” the Investigation Officer told the court.

He further informed the court that he is working tirelessly to identify the “unknown caller” and the route of the cell number.

Furthermore, the fourth accused, Kebaleboge Ntsebe, has revealed to the court through a letter that she was abused and tortured by the Botswana Police Services. She wrote in her letter that she suffered miscarriage as a result of being beaten by the police.

Ntsebe is on bail, while a bail ruling for Aston and Kosie will be delivered on the 6th of next month

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Ngamiland Cattle Farmers Gain Green Zone Revenue

27th January 2023

Cattle farmers from Eretsha and Habu in the Ngamiland district, supported by the Community Based Trade (CBT) project, recently generated over P300 000.00 for sales of 42 cattle to the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) in Maun. This milestone was achieved through support from various stakeholders in conservation, commodity-based trade and the government, in collaboration with farmers. Ordinarily, these farmers would not have made this direct sale since the area is a designated Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Red Zone.

Traditional livestock farming contributes toward livelihoods and formal employment in the North-West District (Ngamiland) of Botswana. However, primarily due to the increase in FMD outbreaks over the past two decades and predation by wildlife, the viability of livestock agriculture as a source of income has declined in the region. This has led to a greater risk of poverty and food insecurity. Access across the Okavango River (prior to the construction of a bridge) restricted access for farmers in Eretsha. This lack of access hampered sales of cattle beyond Shakawe, further discouraging farmers from investing in proper livestock management practices. This resulted in negative environmental impacts, poor livestock health and productivity.

To address this challenge, farmers are working with a consortium led by Conservation International (CI), with funding secured from the European Union (EU) to pilot a CBT beef project. The project focuses on supporting and enabling communal farmers to comply with standards and regulations that will improve their chances to access markets. An opportunity to earn higher income from cattle sales could incentivize the adoption of restorative rangelands management practices by farmers.

These collaborative efforts being piloted in Habu and Eretsha villages also include the Pro-Nature Enterprises Project for the People of Southern Africa, funded by Agence Française de DĂ©veloppement (AFD) and Le Fonds français pour l’environnement mondial (FFEM). This complementary funding from AFD and FFEM supports the implementation of the Herding4Health (H4H) model and Rangeland Stewardship Agreements across four rangeland sites in Southern Africa, including Habu and Eretsha, to incentivize best practices that could offer sustainability in the long term for livelihoods, conservation and human-wildlife coexistence.

“We spend a lot of money getting our cattle to Makalamabedi quarantine site, the herder spends on average two months taking care of the cattle before they are taken into quarantine – that needs money. All these costs lead to us getting less money from BMC,” said one of the farmers in the programme, Mr Monnaleso Mosanga.

Farmers that participate in the project agree for their cattle to be herded and kraaled communally by fulltime professional herders (eco-rangers). At the core of this pilot is the use of predator-proof bomas (cattle kraals), planned grazing systems and mobile quarantine bomas (electrified enclosures) for the cattle, facilitated in support with the Department of Veterinary Services. The first successful exit from the mobile quarantine bomas in the Habu and Eretsha villages, in December 2022, saw cattle quarantined on-site and directly transported to BMC in Maun. Farmers received almost double the average sales within this region, as costs including transportation to quarantine sites, herder’s fees and other associated costs incurred before qualifying for BMC sales were no longer included.

“This pilot mobile quarantine is leveraging the techniques and protocols we are using at our current permanent quarantine sites, and we are still observing the results of the project. The outcome of this pilot will be presented to the World Organisation of Animal Health to assess its effectiveness and potentially be approved to be used elsewhere,” said Dr Odireleng Thololwane, the Principal Veterinary Officer (Maun).

Through co-financing of almost P1 billion from the Botswana government and Green Climate Fund, these interventions will be replicated, through The Ecosystem Based Adaptation and Mitigation in Botswana’s Communal Rangelands project, across the country. Both projects aim to improve the economic benefits of cattle owners and multitudes of Batswana households, while contributing to land restoration and climate change efforts by the Botswana government

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