Choppies Enterprises Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ramachandran Ottapathu has said the retail giant is regaining its feet after tumultuous spell which saw the company being suspended on the stock exchange as well poor performance of its operations in some countries.
Choppies returned to trading on the Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE), where it is primarily listed, on the 27th of July 2020 subsequent to release of its 2018 and 2019 financial results which have been backlogging for the past two successive financial years.
BSE suspended Choppies in 2018 after the company failed to publish its financial results pending “changes in auditors as well as the legal and forensic investigations” hence a subsequent boardroom fracas played before the media.
For the same reason, Choppies shares were also suspended in its secondary market, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). Choppies remains suspended on JSE.
Speaking to WeekendPost on Thursday, the Choppies supremo said they have learnt numerous lessons over the past few years relating to operations expansion, expressing confidence that the strong financial performance that the company posted recently is a testament to creation of a new path.
“The company had few loss making units that have been disposed of. The remaining places where we operate [Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia] are solid performers from all the four regions in spite of high inflation in Zimbabwe, we still continue to make money. Zambia is growing well and Namibia is also in strong footing,” Ottapathu said.
Choppies recently decided to cease its operations in South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania owing to poor performance. Despite this divesture Ottapathu is confident other regions will be key in the growth of Choppies in the next few years.
“We will get some growth in Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe depending on what the country is going through. We are not going to be in a hurry to expand in Zimbabwe but other countries we will do expansion in a phased manner,’’ he said.
Asked on what went wrong in other regions Ottapathu said: “It was too new in those countries. Nobody had the patience to wait, we had to go with a new tide that people have to make money immediately.”
Ottapathu could not rule out the possibility of returning to the markets where they exited, indicating that only time will tell.
“It is too early for me to make a comment on that. We will be expanding in a cautious manner and we will do an expansion programme in a very thoughtful process,” he said.
In the latest financial results, Choppies indicated that it is in the process of restructuring its debt. The Debt Restructuring Plan will allow the Company to repay the lenders in smaller tranches than the previous structure which will release some cash to the Company and improve the cash flow going forward, the statement stated.
The Choppies board is of the view that the buffer that has been provided by lenders coupled with improved profitability levels will go a long way in keeping the Company as a going concern for the short, medium to long term.
“That is one of the lessons we learn in the whole thing, debt is a killer. We want to reduce the debt. We will repay the debt even if dividends are delayed by a year, we will rather pay the debt,” Ottapathu said.
Despite events of the past few years, Ottapathu is self-assured that shareholders are confident about the future of the company.
At the height of Choppies saga, Ottapathu was suspended as the CEO of the company pending investigations resulting from allegation of wrong doing that have been raised by one of the previous auditing team members.
“Majority of them are confident, that is why they put us back in the driving seat. We brought in new board members and they are working well with us,” said Ottapathu.
As he previously indicated, Ottapathu said his suspension followed his proposal to the then board led by former President Festus Mogae to have the company board “refreshed” to bring in people with relevant experience in the retail business.
After garnering support from majority shareholders, the board was refreshed, with Mogae and other board members comprising of Dorcas Kgosietsile, Heinrich Stander, Ronald Tamale and Wilfred Mpai resigning their seats in September 2019.
During the year under review there has been changes in the Board of Directors of Choppies and the current board, which is led by Uttum Corea and comprises of among others; Farouk Essop Ismail, Ramachandran Ottapathu, Carol Jean Harward, and Tom Pritchard.
CHOPPIES FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE
Choppies negative equity increased from P80.1 million at June 2019 to P467.1 million as at June 2020. The main contributor for the increased negative equity is the P469.6 million loss from discontinued operations.
Group revenue, for the year ended June 2020 comprising of sale of goods, from the continuing operations, increased by 1.1 percent to P5 421 million (2019: P5 359 million).
This increase was inflation driven in Botswana and Zimbabwe against a backdrop of negative sale volumes in Botswana and Zimbabwe due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Group’s continuing operations revenue is estimated at P190 million.
The Board has considered it prudent to not declare a dividend for the period under review.
The Botswana business continued to show strong resilience in an increasingly competitive and disruptive market due to Covid-19. This year was a period of consolidation, rationalising and balance sheet management with only 3 new stores opened totalling 91 stores.
Revenue grew by 2.7 percent to P4 260.1 million (2019: P4 147.2 million) despite sale volumes reducing by 4.7 percent. The gross profit margin improved to an impressive 24.4 percent (2019: 24.1 percent) with increased consumer demand in an economic environment of low interest rates and a weak Rand. In addition, improved buying and further addition of house brands contributed to profitability.
Financial services and value-added segments contributed well to the bottom line with significant effort and resources placed behind these to improve the service delivery and profitability.
EBITDA (i.e. before accounting for IFRS 16) grew by P58.2 million or 22.5 percent to P316.6 million (2019: P258.3 million).
Choppies is becoming a significant player in the Zambian market and is currently number 2 in its market segment with a total of 21 stores (2019: 21). Revenue grew by 3.5 percent to P604.1 million (2019: P583.5 million) and the gross profit margin to 17.6 percent (2019: 17.2 percent). In the rapid declining currency situation, input costs are not sufficiently recovered by sales proceeds in Kwacha. This situation is made worse by some overheads like rent which are normally fixed in US dollars, a situation currently been re-negotiated.
EBITDA losses (i.e. before accounting for IFRS 16) reduced significantly by P33.6 million to a P4.4 million loss (2019: P38.0 million loss).
Zimbabwe is one of the most challenging markets to operate in, with hyperinflation in three digits, concerns surrounding the economy, changes in the money market and public disturbances. Revenue declined by 18.6 percent to P414.1 million (2019: P508.5 million) resulting from an 87.5percent weakening of the local currency against the Pula during the previous 12 months.
Gross profit margins improved slightly to 19.0 percent (2019: 18.8percent) with EBITDA on a comparable basis (i.e. before accounting for IFRS 16) at P15.7 million (2019: P15.1 million). The abrupt changes and volatility in the currency makes operating in Zimbabwe extremely difficult. This resulted in all the gains obtained at country level getting eliminated when converted at group level due to the weak currency when compared to the Botswana Pula.
Despite all these issues, the business remains self-sustaining without any cash flow constraints. However, repatriation of profits to Botswana will continue to be difficult until the economy undergoes a structural change.
The Namibian operation is still relatively small, with five stores (2019:5), and is yet to reach a critical mass needed to generate sustainable profitability levels. Revenue increased by 18.7 percent to P142.1 million (2019: P119.7 million) with gross profit margins improving to 18.3 percent (2019: 16.6 percent).
The trends in sales growth and substantial improvement in gross profit levels are indicative of the future potential of the region. Based on the trends and similarities this market has to Botswana, the Namibian operation is expected to be a substantial contributor to the profitability of the Group in the longer term.
EBITDA losses (i.e. before accounting for IFRS 16) increased to P11.3 million (2019: loss P9.2 million) due to the rental payment of three non-operational stores.
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.
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.
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.”