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Thakadu Reserve: Albert Segoe & John Ditsele

A unique community-owned lodge breaks new ground with its innovative business model

Juliet Pitman

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Albert Segoe & John Ditsele of Madikwe

Henry Ford, inventor, innovator,entrepreneur and founder of the Ford Motor Corporation once said: “A businessthat makes nothing but money is a poor business.” Although at first glance thisstatement might appear to fly in the face of capitalism, it can be argued thatwhat Ford was getting at is that business can be rich in all senses of the word– rich in profit, in development, in growth and in people – if it addssomething to the world around it instead of simply focusing on making money.And he should know – after all, this was the man who gave the world the modernassembly line that makes mass production possible today. 

On the banks of the Marico River in a gamereserve called Madikwe there is living proof that Ford was right. A uniquepartnership has lead to the development of a luxury game lodge that is whollyowned and run by the local village community of Molatedi. Of the 33 staffmembers at Thakadu, only six had ever previously been employed. Their learningcurve has been steep enough to induce vertigo. And yet they have beenprofitable from the first month. From the second month they were completelybooked out and in month three they were awarded a five-star grading by theTourism Grading Council. They continue to attract guests from all over theworld who, almost without exception, comment on the ‘special something’ thatexists at this lodge, setting it apart from the countless other luxury gamelodges on offer in South Africa. The interesting thing is that mostof these guests don’t know that Thakadu is community-owned and run. They comeexpecting world-class service in a luxury establishment and judge theexperience against the same standards they would for any other venue.

The story begins when Madikwe Collection –a company that markets and manages bookings for a group of private lodges inthe reserve, and Mafisa – a facilitating company that had already helpedestablish the first Madikwe community-owned lodge, Buffalo Ridge – saw anopportunity to develop a new lodge in the Madikwe Reserve. And while thecommunity aspect was important, the move made good business sense for Madikwe Collectionas well. Says Carl Trieloff, Madikwe Collection director: “The idea is for theMadikwe Collection portfolio to cover the full range of lodges, fromself-catering to ultimate luxury, and Thakadu happened to fill a gap in theportfolio.” Madikwe Collection leverages the strength of an already establishedMadikwe brand to market all the lodges in the collection. All the time thatwe’re involved there is skills transfer and capacity building to ensure thelong-term sustainability of the business,” adds William Stephens, also adirector.

So although this is a story about socialdevelopment, it is also a story about business. In particular, it’s about how aunique business model is proving incredibly effective at helping a businessgrow, arguably more effective than any other model in the hospitality industry.In simple terms, because staff own Thakadu, they work harder at creating aspecial experience for guests. This provides a solution to one of thehospitality industry’s biggest challenges – how to motivate staff, who worklong hours for little pay serving demanding clients, to smile and be welcomingand friendly at all times.Albert Segoe, general manager, explains howownership has made all the difference: “I can tell staff to treat guests as theywould visitors to their own private homes.” While this might have a hollow ringto staff who derive no benefit from an establishment, it has direct and potentrelevance for Thakadu staff members who, along with Segoe and assistantmanager, John Ditsele, own the lodge. Service excellence means guests return,generating profit that goes into a community-run trust to help build schools,infrastructure and healthcare facilities.

This is not to say, however, that therehaven’t been challenges. Segoe is committed to intensive training and ongoingimprovement to ensure Thakadu remains profitable. Although it was a realchallenge to train staff who had never worked before, Segoe believes it workedin the business’s favour in the end. “But what made it easier is that peoplehere have passion. They are proud to be part of something. And that makes upfor lack of experience.”Segoe and Ditsele both display tremendousentrepreneurship and drive. Segoe started at the bottom in hospitality, workinghis way up from the kitchen scullery to management. Ditsele, previously awaiter in Johannesburg, was selected as one of eight candidates out of 300applicants to do a field guides qualification. He too has worked his way up.Today they run a business with a turnover of around R6 million that is not onlyprofitable but holds the future of an entire community. 

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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