Sep 2022 Interview with Gys Joubert, Managing Director, Gondwana Collection Namibia
Prisma Reports (PR): Gondwana Collection Namibia is the nation’s largest private tourism operator in the country, with outstanding lodges located throughout the country. Could you introduce the group and reveal why it stands out?
Gys Joubert (GJ): The ethos and the backbone of Gondwana are very distinct. The group was born 25 years ago and, since then, has always revolved around three key areas: planet, profit and people. Our heart has always been in the right place. Brand Namibia is also very important to us — Gondwana is proudly born and based in Namibia. Giving back to nature is another a priority for us. We were born down in the far south of Fish River Canyon where we had three lodges, but the more important part of our story is the canyon park. It’s a huge area that we rehabilitated from old sheep farms, which is incorporated next to the national park.
Gondwana is the biggest investor in communal land and, as a group, we walk the talk in terms of inclusivity. We have eight joint-venture lodges with local communities in order to bring the benefits of tourism to the Namibian people, especially in rural areas. Having said that, we understand that sustainability starts with profitability. We’re very proud of our business model, financial discipline and that we’re still around after the last two years. Due to our ethos and the way that this company has been managed for 25 years, we could make difficult decisions, like not retrenching a single person as a result of COVID.
We have a strong presence throughout Namibia when it comes to tourism offerings. What makes our presence unique is that every Gondwana lodge has its own story and is different — that’s important to us. We’re not a copy-and-paste company and are determined to establish a sense of place in terms of landscape and culture. We have a golden thread when it comes to our quality, culture and values, and that remains constant. These are things that we’re very proud of.
Overall, we have 47 accommodation offerings around Namibia, and we’ve extended our offering both in terms of product, market segment and value chain to include camping, car rental and so on, in order to become a one-stop shop. We have just over a thousand employees and that should significantly increase in the next three years. Again, employment creation is very important to us as our presence is mostly in rural areas.
We’re the largest tourism company within the private sector in Namibia and our branding is very strong. It doesn’t matter how you measure it — property, product offering, employees — we’re the largest. We don’t measure ourselves against competition, we like to see development and investment within our industry, and we’re proud of the quality and investments of some of our peers.
PS: How did Gondwana Collection survive the pandemic and has the group emerged from it in a strong position?
GJ: We’ve always adopted a conservative approach in terms of our balance sheet and we’ve kept our balance sheet strong. That’s why we had longevity when tourism shut down as a result of COVID-19. There were so many local and global unknowns, but we went back to basics, stopped worrying about the uncontrollable and focused on what we could control — like how we reacted to the pandemic.
In good times, it becomes such a cliché to say that people are your biggest asset. When the pandemic hit, these assets suddenly turned into an expense for the industry and that’s when people lost their jobs. But we refused to do that. We decided to stick to our ethos and values, and we retained our people. We all made major sacrifices like pay cuts — our executives took the largest pay cuts and in that lies a very big lesson. Being who and where we are, our impact is so much more than just being an employer. We really become part of the communities that we operate in and we have a major impact on the livelihoods there. That’s both a big responsibility and a big compliment, and the role that we play in our community families was reiterated through the pandemic. Our employees depend on us and in rural Namibia, especially during the pandemic, this dependency dramatically increased.
Ultimately, we protected our capacity in the best interest of Gondwana. We had to incur a lot of debt to keep our people, but having gone through this pandemic and after making these difficult decisions, we can see the impact that it has made on our brand when it comes to the loyalty of our people, internally and externally.
Nowadays, people want to support responsible companies and we’re really proud of our track record. In addition to our employees, we also kept paying our communities the guaranteed minimum fee for our lodges in order to keep them going. We didn’t stop our environmental work such as waste management and water recycling either. It was very difficult then, but we were able to protect our capacity during the crisis and, with the uptake in tourism, we’re ready to serve with positive and capable employees.
PR: Tourism is bouncing back quite strongly in Namibia, with 38% growth in arrivals in 2021. What’s your outlook for the 2022/23 season?
GJ: We started 2022 with Omicron, were forced shut down unnecessarily and that really hurt us, as we had to start from a small base. But since then, this year looks really positive. It won’t be as good as 2019, but the speed of recovery is something that we’re thankful for. Going forward, we’re really bullish both in terms of Gondwana and Namibia. We feel that Namibia offers something that the world is longing for. The tourist has become the traveler and, if you want time and space, Namibia has got you covered — it has vast open spaces of untouched nature where people can have a really soulful experience.
PR: With so many outstanding tourism assets in Namibia, do you think enough is being done to develop the sector in the country and what more could be done in your opinion
GJ: One of our major opportunities lies in our national parks. Roughly 40% of Namibia is under conservation, which is something that we’re extremely proud of — Namibia is one of the top countries in the world when it comes to offering untouched nature. There’s also a massive opportunity for cooperation between the private sector and the government to unlock opportunities in those areas, in a very sensitive way, without destroying them. Ultimately, it’s about the development of our country.
Tourism has a competitive advantage. We create many employment opportunities as we are in the service industry and, in my opinion, these aren’t mindless jobs, these are purposeful jobs where people get to interact with other people and cultures. It’s an industry where we really invest in the development of our people. Having this cooperation with the public sector and having this access to national parks, we do have a space for niche offerings like hiking tours alongside mainstream tourism. There’s a lot that this country still has to offer.
PR: One key feature of the group is its focus on nature conservation and sustainability, as well as its social commitment. Since its foundation, the group has financed nature conservation with the proceeds from its eco-friendly hospitality business. What are some of the initiatives that you’re most proud of?
GJ: We’ve done a lot that many other companies have also done when it comes to conservation. We have Gondwana parks, for example. The one thing that we always pride ourselves on is the less glamorous part of sustainability: our employee accommodation, waste management and water recycling, for instance. We had the first water recycling facility in tourism in Namibia and you’ll find those in every one of our lodges. We manage waste by bringing it back to urban centers for recycling. It’s easy to glamorize the front-end of sustainability, but the areas that are not so easily seen by the public — like the way in which you treat your employees, communities and the environment — are also very important to us.
The social aspect and commitment to our communities are vital. Our largest single investment was a $5.7-million lodge that we built on communal land. That’s our commitment to our communities: we put our money where our mouths are by bringing the benefits to the people of Namibia. On top of that, we also have our Gondwana Care Trust, which is something that’s very personal to us and something we’re very passionate about. It’s a separate trust and is audited independently. Together with donors and the resources from Gondwana, we invest in projects across Namibia such as MealForTwo, where we donate a meal to someone in need for every dinner sold at a Gondwana lodge. Another example happens every December, when we run our Back-to-School Christmas Bag Project in which we give children a little Christmas bag with stationery in it. We also support and provide world-class education that is technologically driven to the rural communities. There’s a lot that we do but the most important thing is our track record.
PR: Upskilling is another critical topic in the tourism industry. How is Gondwana working to train its staff and ensure Namibia delivers the highest standards of hospitality?
GJ: We’re one of the pioneers when it comes to training — ten years ago, we started the Gondwana Academy. Namibian culture and experience are crucial to us and, while technical skills are important, the soft skills, authenticity and confidence of our teams are more important to us. As Gondwana, we don’t want guests to visit us and have a 5-star Swiss experience, because we’re not Switzerland, we’re Namibia. We want them to have an authentic and a warm Namibian experience. That’s why we place a huge emphasis on developing our employees’ soft skills, confidence and authenticity.
PR: What potential do you see in the Namibian economy?
GJ: We have a country with many resources and a lot going for us, in terms of stability, infrastructure and resources. We have a population of 2.5 million people and really have an opportunity to change the destiny of this country within one generation. As a Namibian, I firmly believe in that. We’ve not got everything right since our independence 30 years ago, but we did get a lot right. We have all these tailwinds now and must get it right at all levels — we have a well-functioning private sector working together with the public sector and we can completely change the destiny of this country.
We can then change the narrative around sub-Saharan Africa. We can bring prosperity to our people not just from a Western perspective, but from a collective, sustainable and inclusive African perspective, where it’s not about individual wealth, but our Namibian collectiveness and building a better future for our children.
PR: You’ve been in Gondwana’s CEO seat for five years now. What have been some of the biggest management decisions that you’ve made for the group?
GJ: To me, the company’s biggest asset and attraction has always been the culture. As a proud, passionate and idealistic Namibian, the culture was always attractive to me, and maintaining and building on that culture is really close to my heart. I’m a big corporate rebel and my goal is not to build an ivory tower of corporate offices — making sure that we have the confidence to make decisions on the ground is super important. If we’ve made a lot of profit at the expense of our culture at the end of my time at Gondwana, it would be a disastrous failure for me. The bottom line is not unimportant, but it’s not the main driving force — maintaining, strengthening and building on that beautiful culture is most important to me.
In terms of strategy, the whole value chain expansion from just offering accommodation has been integral. There’s been a shift in tourism from more bus groups to self-drive and Namibia is an amazing destination for self driving, which is why we’ve invested in offering car rental and other services that make us a one-stop shop. Our company has been built on that value-for-money, mid-market offering, but we’ve also gone into a variety of other segments.
PR: Do you have a final message for our readers?
GJ: Come to Namibia — I promise, you will not leave our country untouched. By visiting our country, by visiting Gondwana you will experience Namibia as her beautiful and colorful authentic self, while having a positive impact on our world.