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Els Botha

Entrepreneurial thinking key to return to business growth

As the hospitality industry emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, entrepreneurial creativity will play a crucial role in the return to growth. Els Botha, owner of Lion’s Guest House and The Buck & Lion Restaurant in Groblersdal, Limpopo, provides a hopeful example of how a single good idea can go a long way to heal some of the damage caused by the crisis.

Back in 2012, soon after Els and her husband Cornel had bought the guest house and opened the accompanying restaurant, she tried hosting a farmer’s market on the property, but drew exactly four stalls, so she shelved the idea as a failed experiment.

But recently, when the easing of the Covid restrictions allowed it, she tried it again in the hope of drawing local clients back to the restaurant. She reckoned that the open-air nature of a farmer’s market would put people at ease and that there was pent-up demand from both the buying and selling members of the public for such a social event.

She was right. Els had to squeeze no fewer than 36 stalls into the lush gardens of the guest house and the crowds kept coming.

Now the farmer’s market seems to be fixed on the town’s social calendar as a seasonal event, with one held every three months. On the most recent market days Els had to turn aspirant stall-holders away simply because there is no more space in the garden.

Lion’s Guest House makes no money from the market itself, apart from filling the restaurant on the day. The idea was to show the townsfolk that the restaurant was open, and to brand it as a great local meeting place. A raffle held on each market day also raises a few thousand rand for a local charity.

Els believes that it is this kind of entrepreneurial thinking of hers that helped to convince Business Partners Ltd back in 2014 to approve her application for finance to buy the property on which their guest house stood.

Els and Cornel had already bought the guest house business from the elderly owner who still lived on the property, but did not have enough of their own capital to buy the premises. The banks were only prepared to finance half of the selling price, so Els approached Business Partners Ltd, who sent a team of its investment team members from its offices in Nelspruit to visit the guest house, which at that stage had nine rooms.

Els says they must have liked what they saw, not only the premises and the business, but she also got the sense that “they were looking for a certain kind of entrepreneurial personality” – someone with a realistic approach and the ability to plan.

Business Partners Ltd financed the full purchase price of the property in return for a 30 percent shareholding, of which Els has already bought back about 15 percent.

Els believes she always had an entrepreneurial streak in her and had decided early on that she wanted to run her own business one day. She remembers a school trip at the age of 11 for which her mother gave her 20 Belgian francs as spending money. She came back with 50 francs, having rented out her handheld video game to her classmates.

After studying speech therapy, she came to South Africa at 22 as an au pair for the children of a Dutch doctor who was running the Ndlovu Care Centre, a community clinic near Groblersdal. “He realised I was not au pair material and soon I was managing an HIV and TB programme for him,” says Els.

This gave her the grounding to become a project manager for Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) in Nigeria together with Cornel, a journalist whom she had met in Groblersdal. The couple also spent a year in Zimbabwe before returning to Groblersdal where Cornel started his own community newspaper, the Sekhukhune Dispatch.

She joined Lion’s Guest House as manager at first, but with the option of buying it.

Els’s project management work at the Ndlovu clinic and for MSF must have prepared her well for the challenges of growing a business. “At the remote MSF sites you are far away from your head office, so I learned to take difficult decisions and to deal with risks,” she says.

Els and Cornel started transforming the guest house even before they bought it, replacing old mats with tiles and upgrading the rooms.

Having bought the business and the property, they sold their own home in Groblersdal and moved onto the guest house property, established the restaurant and added three extra rooms. Revenues have been growing well every year until the pandemic, and this year income is again at record highs, says Els.

Groblersdal is a regional agricultural hub, and their guests are mostly business people who come to the region for work, while 70 percent of the restaurant’s customers are local.

Els says the guest house probably cannot accommodate more than the current eleven rooms, but the next growth phase will entail the upgrading of the quality of the rooms and generating income from the unused areas of the property by installing, among other things, a pizza oven to fulfil the town’s demand for quality pizzas.

For this next part of their adventure together, Cornel is selling his newspaper to join Els fulltime in the business.

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