Dr Nimrod Mbele hosted in his weekly show, “Beyond Governance”, on 101.9 Chai FM a trailblazer in the commuter bus service, Olivia Tlou Maponya – CEO of Kopanong Bus Service. With them in the studio was Saul Molobi, GCEO of Brandhill Africa™. This is a transcript of their conversation…

Dr Nimrod Mbele: I am delighted to see some rains as they make a huge difference in containing the excessive heat and drought that we’ve experienced in some parts of the country. We are also delighted that as the year is headed towards the end, I am sure you are ready to recharge your batteries. We’re glad this year is coming to an end as it has been challenging and dramatic – emerging slightly out of the COVID-19; we have got the state capture reports; we have had industrial actions; we have had palace upheavals also characterised by all the former presidents expressing their views on a very worrying development in the country. Yes, a lot of interesting developments have been taking place. We just have to proceed with our business as usual. 

I certainly cannot wait to have a moment of deep reflection that can only be afforded by the serenity of the bush life. In this show, we are deliberate in presenting or showcasing success stories here at home and in the continent as a whole. We have a responsibility to enhance and promote stories which change the negative perceptions people harbour about the continent. If you want to hear more of these stories, and you miss our live broadcast, do not worry, simply visit our website on www.chaifm.com, and look for “Beyond Governance” on the menu, feel free to download any of the podcasts and share your views with through the contact details provided.

And of course, you do know that October is celebrated as “Transport Month” here in South Africa, so we assess and showcase transport infrastructure services in aviation, maritime and public transport sub-sectors. Given this ethos, I thought it was important to align today’s conversation with businesses in transport and more precisely women-driven businesses in the sector. To this end, I am joined by Olivia Tlou Maponya, who’s the Chief Executive Officer of Kopanong Bus Service in Limpopo – South Africa’s northernmost province.

I’m also joined by Saul Molobi, the Group CEO and Chairman of Brandhill Africa™. The question I suppose I should start with is what is the role of transport infrastructure in promoting continental integration from both passenger and commuter perspectives. This conversation is grounded in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which is a beacon of hope in transforming the continent from being an importer of goods to exporter or value-added goods as it would without any waste of time. Now that I’ve made the foundation for our conversation, let me take this opportunity to thank my guests, Olivia and Saul, having joined us. 

Saul Molobi: Good evening to you and the listeners.

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Good evening Dr Mbele and the listeners.

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Thank you very much. Without any waste of time, let’s get to know who Olivia Maponya is before we get into the nitty-gritties of the business of the bus company you’re running.

Olivia Tlou Maponya: I am in the transport sector – specially in the bus commuter transport section. I was born and bred in Limpopo province. As you mentioned earlier, I am currently the CEO and the shareholder of Kopanong Bus Service.

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Thank you for that very brief introduction which is quite useful. I’ve seen very interesting profile of Kopane Bud Service. Take us through the profile of the company in terms of its over ten years of existence.

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Let me just give you a brief background. The company was founded in 2000 and started operating in 2001 as a black economic empowered company with a 100% black shareholding. I can say it wasn’t easy but as we believed in the vision that we had as the shareholders of the company, we knew that one day we will be a flagship public transport company. We now have 112 employees and majority of whom are bus drivers – and males of course as this is a male dominated space that we are in. But we are about to change that as well. So we are running a fleet of 60 standard commuter buses – mostly the 80 and 65-seater buses. 

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Well thank you very much. It’s quite a sizeable company and once again congratulations in breaking the ceiling as you have correctly pointed out that the sector is a male dominated industry. So, I mean occupying this high position which you are does suggest that you are gradually minimising male domination and I believe that if you bring in more women you’ll likely transform this sector of this economy. But having said that what have been your greatest challenges in establishing the company? 

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Thank you so much. I remember the worst challenge in 2001 during the formative stages of the company was having ten shareholders. This posed serious challenges in terms of efficiencies – including issues such as decision making. I want to cite this as one of the This posed serious challenges in terms of efficiencies – including issues such as decision making. The diversity of thinking and opinions among the 10 shareholders in one organization delayed the decision making processes. But in terms of that, I think as much as it was a challenge where our thinking was not aligned, given the background that we are coming from, we always forged a way to develop a common vision of where we wanted to take this consortium of companies. But another big challenge for me as a female leader in the transport industry is that we don’t just lack female leaders in the transport industry but also female employees – for example, out of  112 employees, less than 30% of them are women in the company. 

But given that as a challenge, I always see challenges as opportunities for me not really being the problems that I will sit with without having some innovative thinking in terms of addressing that as we’re speaking. Now I’m about to address that one because I currently have only two female bus drivers in the entire organization and I’ve given a background earlier on that. In all our fleet establishment we have 90 buses. A challenge for me has been how do I go about changing the mindset of people in terms of always seeing a bus driver being a male person. And some of the passengers will even say they lack a sense of security and safety if they are driven by a female bus driver. We have a programme of empowering young female graduates and even those who don’t have formal qualifications between the ages of 18 and 35 with skills in the transport sector.

We want to give them an opportunity of learning how to drive. We’re starting them from nothing, from having no learner license up giving them skills of driving – including defensive driving expertise. We want women to be the majority players in the industry as they form the biggest section of the general population. So our intention is that once these females have completed their skills programme in terms of acquiring their relevant qualifications and satisfying requirements for them to drive the buses – and the heavy duty trucks, by the way – then we will definitely give them the opportunity to fill up the gaps and to fill up the spaces in the transport industry and also be counted amongst those that will be on the road competing for the economic opportunities that are there in the transport sector. 

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Interesting indeed. Let me just bring in Saul here based on that anecdote that you shared with us. We should give it to Olivia and company that they’re making  such huge strides for women to participate in a male dominated sector. I mean it’s quite interesting to see the number of fleet which they’ve accumulated as a company. What would your take be in terms of harnessing the existing opportunities in a broader continental drive for I believe the role of transport in continental integration is predominantly from a commuter perspective. But let me also indicate I’m glad that she made reference to the ecosystem that includes bringing in women as truck drivers. If you’re talking to truck drivers you more likely to expand your networks across the continent covering logistics for cargo.

Saul Molobi: Let me start by commending Kopano Bus Service especially on them being led by a woman chief executive. And this reminds me also that nationally our transport utility, Transnet, is led by a woman, Portia Derby. It means that indeed women are making inroads into the transport sector. But I think let’s also reflect on what are the opportunities and the challenges the sector is facing in South Africa and continentally. The African Union’s strategic blueprint, “Agenda 2063”, speaks about the free movement of people and goods. I think when it comes to the free movement of people, we are basically then looking at Olivia and her company enabling this because that’s her key competence. But then we may also look at the taxi industry. We may also look at the airline industry. But to a large extent, when we talk about the integration of Africa, the free movement of people and goods, we have to recognise that transport plays a very critical role in us achieving these noble ideals. 

And then nationally we look at one of our key foreign policy principles as South Africa, which is “people-to-people contact”. So in this instance, we are talking about people traveling from their localities to other cross border destinations and ultimately that will result into sociocultural integration. But beyond just free movement of people, the free movement of goods speaks to us developing road and rail infrastructure and even developing our airline industry because right now if I was to fly to Niger, I will first fly to Paris and back into Africa to land in Niger. But also then we also need to look at the development of our rail and road infrastructure, especially for offloading of cargo from road onto rail because if we are talking about boosting intra-African trade, then mode of transport has to be affordable so that the cost of ferrying goods doesn’t translate into higher prices for consumers. Investment in transport infrastructure development should be our priority because historically we know that the colonial powers across the continent developed infrastructure which was geared towards transporting commodities from source to the harbours to other continents. 

Now if we are talking about deepening intra-African trade, it’s about building and developing linkages between African countries. We are talking about building interconnectivity among African countries and that’s where transport plays a very critical role. In fact the African Union through “Agenda 2063” speaks about developing rail and road infrastructure connecting Cape Town to Algiers – and, fortunately, the Algerian government is now in the process of constructing the Algiers to Cairo road, which means the African Union should now prioritize Cape to Cairo route. This is intended to facilitate the movement of goods which will translate into goods produced and manufactured in Africa being able to reach other African countries cost-effectively and cost-efficiently. But, obviously, this also speaks to developing efficiencies in border management so that ultimately if a cargo leaves one country it should be able to reach its destination within days as opposed to what is happening right now. I think along the way we’ll also look at the challenges that also arose from the Transnet strike which was causing our economy up to R6 billion a day. So these are the challenges that we should be looking at. 

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Yes indeed. We are talking all things transport in the context of regional integration as espoused by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). I just want to go back to Olivia as I would imagine as in any other business environment competition is quite stiff and the fact that you are woman-led in fact it’s almost like a double-edged sword. There is the issue that you raised which you need to address from a woman-led business perspective. But the question is what has the role of government in supporting this particular initiative? 

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Thank you. Let me share with the listeners that public transport bus service system is subsidised by the state. We’re working hand in glove with the Department of Transport to deliver these services on their behalf. Of course the challenge that we always have is that the rates payable are not really sustainable. So we have to be creative, we have to be innovative in terms of coming up with other ways of generating revenue to augment what is currently being paid by the Department of Transport. That is one challenge now because the nature of our service is to cater for the poorest of the poor in the country. So expecting them to pay more for their services I think is not really possible. So sometimes we find ourselves being caught between the rock and the hard surface because what government is paying us as a subsidy is not really sustainable and the only place to go is to go to the passengers increasing their rates, which is also not sustainable for them. 

As we are living with these communities and we understand the challenges that they’re going through and over that we are operating our services in Limpopo, a province which is one of the most rural provinces in the country and we understand poverty, unemployment and all that, these other challenges that our communities are faced with, we are trying to be creative in terms of other ways of generating extra income through other streams. Touching the issue of competition, one would think that our main competitor here will be the taxi operators. We don’t see it that way. We don’t see the taxi industry being our competitors because we believe that the passengers that we are ferrying every day, they do have choices of how do they want to reach their destinations. 

And, secondly, we do have a very good relationship with the taxi industry in the province where in most cases we will have programmes that we run with them as both believe we are not competing with each other, we are actually complementing one another. And also understanding that we operate the services other competitors of which are the people who are using their own private vehicles from home to work. That to us is a serious competitor because what we are intended to do is to move those private vehicles off our roads to lessen traffic congestion as often you will find only one driver or maybe a driver and one passenger in that car. We want to move them off the road and try to bring them into the public transport services because that will help us deal with the challenges of having so many vehicles on the road during peak hours. But of course the challenges in the transport public transport sector are so many but this is just to mention a few of them.

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Thank you very much for that insight which makes a lot of sense because we know the war in Ukraine has extensively increased the cost of fuel, which is one of the cost drivers for any business operating in the transport sector and I’m quite happy to hear that you are in a process of diversifying your portfolio to generate or to secure other income generating streams which may not necessarily be easy for a small company such as yourself. But having said that, let me bring in Saul here. During “Transport Month” we also look at the extent government is playing its role in providing infrastructurethat would enable bus services that operatesin provinces such as Limpopo because the wearing and tearing of the buses as a result of the poor road infrastructure is a worrying concern. May you please then give us insight based on your own personal observation on how this particular issue can be dealt with by government.

Saul Molobi: I think Olivia said something very important that we need to discourage people from using the private vehicles into embracing the public transport system. We should also be mindful of the fact that when as many vehicles consume more petrol which the country procure through a weak currency against the US dollar, its price is bound to go up. So if we are to get many people into the public transport system, the demand for petrol is to go down and as a result the prices will come down. Then we also need to remove many trucks on our roads so that we opt for transporting our cargo through rail. And if we are to do this it will increase the lifespan of our roads, therefore government may save more money from roads construction and maintenance to reinvest that funding into other social services. 

But again the sector itself is very attractive to investors. If you look at the feedback from the African Union Heads of State and Government Assembly held in February this year in Ethiopia, it was indicated that the continent as whole needs to raise about $345 billion dollars to buy over 2.2 million trucks to ferry goods in order to deepen intra-African trade. And they also indicated that the continent needed over $25 billion dollars to procure the aircrafts; about $36 billion dollars to buy rail wagons; and $4 billion dollars to buy vessels so that ultimately all the goods that are manufactured or produced in the continent could be able to penetrate the continental market. Now what’s happening is that here at home the signs are quite positive. If we were to listen to what government is saying they are talking about revitalizing, reviving our rail infrastructure, particularly in the townships where the infrastructure was vandalized and to a large extent motivated by the scrap metal industry.

And my advice to government could be that they need to regulate the scrap metal sector and also ensure that what is sold to the scrap metal traders wasn’t stolen from state assets. And beyond that we also need a mass awareness campaign amongst our people where we get to inform our people that all state assets are our assets as citizens because the state uses the taxes we pay to procure such assets, therefore we need to protect them. And simply because we also know in our communities who are the people who are stealing state infrastructure, who are vandalizing state infrastructure and we should be able to be the eyes and ears of the police on the ground so that we expose such criminal elements. So Africa is on the rise and it’s an investment opportunity that all of us should be chasing instead of us waiting for investors from other continents to come in and grab all these opportunities that are available to us. 

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Well, thanks for that insight. So I mean you’ve touched on a number of critical issues but may be just to hone down on the issue at hand particularly in respect to the value chain of the bus services which Olivia has raised which I want to reflect on that is of changing the mindset of ordinary commuters or the owners of private vehicles for them to opt for bus services because of the efficiencies and cost effectiveness. But that is a momentous task. We all know that people would rather enjoy the convenience of using their cars and sacrifice on any other expenses. So this is a huge challenge in which I don’t even think we’ve got an immediate solution. Perhaps maybe celebrating the Transport Month is an attempt by government to try and change the mindset. Perhaps Olivia could give us a sense of whether that mindset is changing and if it’s not changing, what will it take for it to change?

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Thank you. Thank you so much Dr Mbele. I think slowly we are getting there. We haven’t made as much progress because I think people get so much comfortable in their vehicles but providing buses, taxis or trains that can be comfortable, that can be safe, that can be reliable to the commuters, I think we’ll be taking at least two steps towards the right direction. Because if we want to get these people out of their comfort of using their own vehicles, we need to put a sweetener for them to say okay, come to our services and this is what you will get. But as commuter transport service, we are believing in a system thinking approach that whatever that we are implementing, whatever strategies that we’re putting in place, it’s not about our company alone, it’s not about pushing the strategies of our company or achieving the goals of our coming alone, but it is about making an impact on our industry for the betterment of our communities. Yes, it is about making a contribution in efforts intended to grow our economy.

But we also have to put ourselves into the shoes of those that are using our services and we therefore believe in collectivism rather than individualism. We believe that if we do things together with the communities as part of our stakeholders, getting their buy-in before we can even implement certain programmes definitely we’ll go a long way because we’ll even have some of the community members influencing others inti supporting the decisions and initiatives that we are coming up with. I want to touch on what is currently talked about in terms of our transport infrastructure as the bus sector as well. We are very much affected by the current national transport infrastructure operating services in the most rural areas of our country where the road infrastructure is not up to standard and this costs us so much in terms of the mechanical repairs and maintenance of our vehicles. 

But then the other challenge we should consider is the pricing. Unfirtunately looking at the demographics of our commuters, we are unable to increase the fares to higher levels as they will be unaffordable. So we appreciate the subsidies that we get from the Department of Transport but they are not enough. We only effect the escalation of fares only once a year but unfortunately the price of petrol and diesel increase many times in a year. This year we haven’t even received any annual escalation in subsidies from the department because unfortunately their budgets are too low. The war between Ukraine and Russia had prices of oil going sharply high unaffordably. But on the side of government the rates are still as they were even before those price hikes on the fuel. But the innovation that we want to come up with, I would call an innovation because we haven’t as yet implemented it, is to try explore the options of the electric buses because we want to move slowly away from diesel powered buses to the electricity powered buses. But the challenge that we have is that we don’t have infrastructure to support that good initiative. Yes we can agree with the OEMs that please supply us with these buses as per our specifications. But the questions remains are we having enough electricity if we cannot sustain this little electricity demand for us to cook our meals at home? How about having that electricity to power the buses? So that is still a challenge and this really is not a solution for us. And I heard many a times even from government side that we need to try moving from the diesel powered buses to the electric powered buses because we’re also addressing the issue pertaining to the green economy and redressing the problems of carbon emission. 

But the solution that I have rests in solar energy. I visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in April and it happened that I visit this smart city, they built quite a very beautiful smart city in Abu Dhabi where everything in there is powered from solar. When I came back home sitting and sharing the experience with my business partners, I said no, we do have a solution in Africa, not only in South Africa but only if we can get a buy-in from our government. Only if we can get a buy-in from our OEMs to understand why we are bringing this to our buses. We can have, instead of having the electric buses, the solar powered buses. I’ve already taken this discussion to Scania. I met with the Scania CEO. I’ve already explained to him that this is now our dream to have the solar powered buses where in the top of the buses we can put the solar panels there which will generate energy that will be stored in the batteries for the buses to be powered. 

And we will be doing away with so many issues pertaining to carbon emission and electricity challenges that we are currently sitting with in South Africa. So those are some of the challenges that we’re having which we are trying to solve. And now another thing going back to the issue of the challenges that we have pertaining to our poor road conditions which force us to service our buses every second day. We have to do safety checks every single day because of the nature of the rules that we are following. Passenger safety is our cardinal responsibility.

Dr Nimrod Mbele: That’s certainly a very useful initiative that you have come up with. However, it will take time for a policy shift to a point where government could endorse that better proposition, which I think it should. It is capital intensive. It would require a lot of investments and I think you’ve hit it on a nail that you may talk of a shift from diesel powered buses to electric buses. But that remains a pie in the sky given the current energy crisis that you have correctly alluded to – such as loadshedding. So some of these initiatives will be integrated in future where there is a diversification in our energy mix that will enable operators such as yourselves to leverage on the experience and exposure that you have generated in places such as the UAE. So those are some of the things that hopefully the government is taking note of and in the near future we’ll begin to see those kind of upstream innovations being pursued.

Saul Molobi: Yes in fact this also speaks to our climate change commitments as a country and we should then situate that within the context of a just transition that we are now propagating and where we could be saying that in fact when our government present budget mechanisms for a just transition that should also incorporate the transitioning of our public transport system into environmental friendly system where we can even begin to talk about solar energy. And for Limpopo, which is very hot, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be investors who could be putting up renewable energy plans and maybe they can even take the opportunity presented by China’s resolution to withdraw from coal useage – the resolution which may impact negatively on the future of the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone – where we can then say, it’s okay if you don’t go for coal fired energy, we have a replacement through solar energy. 

The same thing also applies to the Fetakgomo Special Economic Zone. This could be sold even to the Fiat plant here in Rosslyn which has made a commitment to increase localization up to 90% in their bud manufacturing This could be an opportunity for us to say to them, here are the specifications that we are most interested in. But as we head towards closure, I’ll also pose a challenge to Olivia because I have this soft spot for Limpopo because I designed their brand positioning statement that says the province is “the heartland of southern Africa.” So I’m posing this challenge to you that the best way to facilitate people-to-people contact in boosting subregional tourism, is through our transport sector in Limpopo tapping into these opportunities because this will present itself as  a new revenue stream where people are taken to Mozambique, Namibia Botwana, Zimbabwe and even to Malawi for vacation because I remember I tracked the distance from Polokwane to Xai-Xai through the Giriyondo border post within the Kruger National Park  to be 644 kilometers – which makes it a shorter trip for a holiday beach than Polokwane to Durban and with the former one may even go experience where Limpopo River originates. The trip from Polokwane to Durban is over 900 kilometers.

Dr Nimrod Mbele: That’s a huge opportunity. It’s amazing how time flies when you’re really having an interesting conversation on this glorious day. We are in company of Olivia representing Kopanong Bus Service who is really giving us very interesting insights on the extent to which they’ve been able to make inroads in the bus industry in Limpopo. Olivia comes across as a very powerful woman who has really inspired faith that we all have in women-led businesses. I’m sure we need an investment summit for the transport sector since you’re very much aware it is capital intensive based on some of the innovations that you’ve thought about which suggest huge opportunities which need to be activated. To what extent do you think the investment summit where you can bring not only national but international players under one roof to solicit the kind of investment that is needed to drive the economic growth of the province, the country and of the continent. What’s your take on it? 

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Yeah, thank you so much Dr Mbele. And I think what we need to look at are our lower hanging fruits in terms of getting what we can get now and the rest can follow later. But as I’ve indicated that our solution to our problem is on our supply chain and as bus service companies and the sector as a whole we need to work together as a collective, we can agree that even in limbo we can have a plant, that plant of which we can start piloting the solar power useage. But of course it requires quite enough investments for it to start. But as I’ve indicated earlier that if we can have the buy-in from government, then we will be able to attract other international investors to come and invest in this massive project which will also address the issue of unemployment in the province as we are currently sitting with high numbers of unemployed people and that could enhance and contribute to the economy of the province and of the nation. 

Dr Nimrod Mbele: Thank you very much. Unfortunately we have to end our conversation now although I see this as a beginning of a process to explore opportunities as a partnership in the immediate future.

Saul Molobi: Mine is just to congratulate Olivia on the many excellence awards – both nationally and internationally including in France – they’ve won. It’s an honour for me to finally have this conversation with her. 

Olivia Tlou Maponya: Thank you so much and let me share with the listeners that I think we are being recognized again this year. It has just been our year and I believe that it will be going on like this even in the coming years. So on 28 November we’ll be receiving another award in Dubai. It’s an international award in addition to the Standard Bank Top Women Award we received in August. And we have also have received three category awards given by PMR Africa. The biggest one will be received on 20 December in Oxford, United Kingdom, where we will also be recognized for excellence by the European Quality Assurance Agency. Thank you for hosting me.

Dr Nimrod Mbele: You. My goodness. Those are very interesting accolades indeed. I suppose those accolades are awarded in recognition of your excellence, which by in its nature, attracts investments as they speak to your reputation. Unfortunately we’re gonna have to end here since we have run out time. Once again, it has been absolute pleasure talking to you, thank you very much for coming through. 

*** To listen to an hour long podcast of this conversation, please click here ***