By Morongwa Phala The Reporter (Gaborone) 11 June, 2004n
He could have been a pilot but switching controls in a cockpit seemed to be something that Odirile Merafhe, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) was not cut out for.
He sensed this and decided that it was a destiny not carved out for him. Cautious in his stance, Merafhe weighs his words as he gives insight into his life, the aviation industry, and the tourism industry.
"I was studying to be an airline pilot, but I got bored and changed majors. I found it monotonous after a year of flight," he recalls, in an interview with Mmegi.
His passion for the aviation industry, however, did not allow him to stray from the airline business. Fresh out of Prescott, Arizona, USA's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where he earned his colours as a Bachelor of Science graduate in the Aviation Business Administration in 1991, he joined Air Botswana, as an Industry Development Trainee.
In his three years as a trainee, he spent two years in a training and development programme specifically tailored for participants to get exposure to the airline environment.
He then shot his way up to being the airline's operations service superintendent in 1994 for five months. Within six months, he was appointed executive assistant to the general manager, Joshua Galeforolwe who happened to be the first Motswana general manager of Air Botswana.
"At the time, except for Michael Mzwinila (MP for Gaborone North), I was the only one with those qualifications," he says.
During parts of 1996, 1997, and 1998 he was appointed Air Botswana's acting board secretary, and before then during 1995 and 1996, he acted as secretary to an Aircraft Accident Investigation Committee for an aircraft incident that involved Air Botswana's 146 aircraft in Lanceria, South Africa.
In 1998, as marketing manager of the national airline service, he assisted and advised the commercial manager. As marketing manager, he was responsible for issues related to profitability of the airline. Merafhe had the task of enhancing profitability, market share and brand image of the corporation locally, regionally, and internationally. "Part of my responsibilities were to identify niche market opportunities, to develop products and services with synergies to the airlines' core business activities, and initiate market research surveys and cost benefit analysis," he states.
After spending close to ten years at Air Botswana with two years of those as marketing manager, he decided to leave the country, to join South African Express Airways. At South African Express Airways, Merafhe was in charge of 15 of the airline's outstations, which had a total of 120 complimentary staff.
"I decided that I needed to give myself a lot more experience in the airline industry, so I left Air Botswana for South African Express Airways. For me to prepare myself and broaden my knowledge elsewhere, I become commercial manager there, responsible for all commercial functions," he says.
After a year and a half with South African Express Airways, he applied for the job of general manager of Air Botswana in 2002. He found himself pitted against Willy Mokgatle, the current Air Botswana general manager.
"My good friend Mokgatle got it and I didn't. He beat me to the post. After that I found no reason to stay with South African Express Airways because my main purpose when I joined them, was to broaden my knowledge and apply those skills in Botswana," he says.
He made a quick transition into the tourism industry and joined HATAB in the same year. After he took a strategic review of the association and set a target that could help diversify the economy while building strong relationships with core stakeholders, he began lobbying government and other key stakeholders to create "an enabling environment for tourism to thrive and prosper".
"I looked at where I wanted the association to be in the next two years," he says. Merafhe said that even if they do disagree with government on various issues, their common interest is to see Botswana diversify its economy using tourism as an avenue.
"I am genuinely and truly passionate about making a difference, not just for the tourism industry, but for the country as well, to also see young people being part of the many people driving the development of our country," he says.
He said that it is a good thing for young people to be taught at a very early age about economics, and tourism, and diversification related issues because they can easily be trained to go for opportunities that are before them.
Merafhe finds that it is only perception that keeps Batswana from achieving their potential. He backs his statements when he says that the tourism industry is not white dominated. He adds that 37 percent of the businesses are Botswana owned, while 33 percent of the tourist businesses are foreign owned, and 30 percent are joint ventures between foreigners and Batswana.
"Unfortunately, it is a perception that is not true. The tourism industry here is not white dominated. These businesses are not conventionally advertised as entities of South Africa, but most of them do have reservation offices in South Africa therefore it might seem that they are being advertised so," he explained.
He asserts that government has made facilities available and he argues that owning a hotel or lodge is not the only thing to do with tourism.
"Tourism is across the board, whether you drive a mokoro, or weave baskets," he says.
He claims that all the allegations about Batswana employees in tourism sector being exploited are just hearsay. He added that even if there are such incidences they never get to hear about them. Furthermore he said that they are never even reported, though there are established channels to have these allegations raised.
He may be the son of the minister of foreign affairs Mompati Merafhe, but it is his own ambition and passion that got him to where he is today.
Money, power, and respect seem the least of his motivations as he admits HATAB is not particularly a rich organisation. He only joined it to make a contribution.
He sits on a number of boards, which include Junior Achievement Botswana, of which he is chairman. His crowning moment in supporting youth involvement in tourism was when Nozie Tlhong finally launched her company, Youth Travel Tours. He is also a board member of Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM), Botswana Business Coalition of AIDS (BBCA), the National Advisory Council on Tourism, and member of the Training Fund Management Committee.
"Our main challenge is to still eradicate the scourge that is seriously affecting the tourism industry," he says.
Though Merafhe seems to be an overachiever, his life is not all about his work.
He has two children, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl.
"They are the sunshine of my life," he says with fatherly pride but stresses the fact that he does not have a woman in his life.
"I am single," he emphasises.
Merafhe is smart, talented, and highly ambitious and is confident that he will live up to the legacy of his predecessor, the late Modisagape Mothoagae.
"I am glad that I had him to create that foundation for me to step in and support his previous causes," he says.