ebogo Mogashoa (45) is not your conventional entrepreneur and business leader. With a diverse commercial portfolio that is anchored in his passion for sustainability, he is focused on long term growth as opposed to short term gain. While he has a variety of business interests and is well acquainted with a variety of sectors, his passion lies in the ‘biodiversity economy’. He spent two days with Leadership’s editor, Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane, from which an illuminating conversation about his personal journey and perspectives about the South African economy came to the fore.

We were privileged to be hosted by the founder and CEO of Talis Holdings, Tebogo Mogashoa, at his wildlife farm, Babirwa Golf and Bush Lodge, just outside Bela-Bela in Limpopo. It is a vast 2 000 hectare farm that boasts expansive rolling hills and savannah that are hallmarks of the gorgeous Waterberg landscape, accommodating an 18-hole golf course and hosting abundant wildlife.

It was a fitting backdrop to the topic of the ‘biodiversity economy’. As we are driven around the beautiful property, soaking in the serenity of nature, I am naturally in awe about how a black businessman (under 40 at the time) was attracted to the wildlife business and eventually came to be elected as the president of Wildlife Ranching SA, back in 2018. The answer is simple. As a natural leader, he harnessed his deep love for South Africa and its natural resources and focused it with his vision to build a sustainable business. In doing so, he ventured into the biodiversity economy, which was a diversification from his otherwise extensive business interests. The attraction of an R11 billion per year industry, previously largely untapped by black entrepreneurs, was not lost on Mogashoa. This also forms part of his love of nature and the outdoors.

He describes, with characteristic ease, his commitment to simplicity in his business philosophy, which is underpinned by the goal of sustainability. He speaks passionately of how a commitment to the growth of the biodiversity economy can, in fact, be a catalyst to transformative change in the South African economy. One of the things that he believes is of strategic importance is being involved in the parts of the value chain that are the sources of production and trying to find ways to simplify the route to market. To illustrate his point, he draws the distinction between trading in commodities, such as beef, where you need abattoirs and retailers (as middle-men), as opposed being at the source of the value chain, such as his wildlife farm, where he trades in wildlife directly with his customers. “If you want a zebra hide we can find it for you right here and deliver it directly to your home.”

Besides the breeding programme on his farm, he has a boutique hotel that can accommodate 12 guests who can take advantage of the game drives, a 50 km cycling route, hiking trails, and the 18-hole professional golf course. He sees the establishment as a serious investment for the future. “I won’t lie that this is making money right now, but a few years down the line, this will yield fruit as a worthy investment.” He cautions that the biodiversity business is not for those looking for overnight success. It requires a great deal of planning and hard work, with an ability to simultaneously understand and build the long term strategy and take on the details that bring ideas to fruition. To add to this passion, he also tells me about his interest in the business of export agriculture. He is the owner of a table grape farm in the Western Cape and he mentions that South Africa is yet to invest seriously in the export business for fruit, such as the one he produces. “We only have four countries competing with us in the production-window that we have, when the entire northern hemisphere is in their deep winter hibernation.”

He is very passionate about agriculture as the answer to South Africa’s economic recovery. He owns 25% of The Fruit Farm Group South Africa, a fruit export business, which is in partnership with one of the largest fresh fruit suppliers in Europe. This, he believes, will anchor him firmly as a leader in the fruit export industry.

His views on the biodiversity policy of South Africa are unconventional—certainly, another intellectual path less travelled. A lot of people, he believes, assume wrongly that the policy to ban rhino trade is obviously right. Not Mogashoa! He maintains that the current position of ‘Protecting the Rhino’ through a blanket ban is not sustainable. His view is amongst a growing chorus of voices which point to the need to conceptualise conservation differently in order to preserve nature as we know it. Rather than taking an extreme and hawkish pro-business position, true to his commitment to sustainability, he speaks of practical measures and regulations that could achieve the aim of safeguarding the rhino in a way that is economically sustainable and practically possible. While his views are at variance with the government’s position on the trade in rhino horn at the moment, he is not one to lay blame at the feet of any stakeholders within the sector. His position, which is sorely lacking in today’s polarised world, is that it will take a collective effort to resolve the major issues facing our country and humanity at large.

Mogashoa believes that South Africa’s stance on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ought to be adapted to promote the trade in rhino horn in an environmentally sustainable way. Thus, the government’s policy, as embodied in the existing legislation, needs to be amended to facilitate this position.

During his tenure as president of Wildlife Ranching SA, he was saddened by the lack of black people’s participation in the biodiversity economy. “I would like to encourage wildlife ranchers to expand their scope; focusing on the full value-chain that the wildlife industry has to offer. We also need to focus on supporting new entrants and driving transformation.”

The biggest focus in all his businesses has been skills development—hence he takes the empowerment of locals seriously. On this point, he elaborates on the anthropocentric versus bio-centric approaches to the biodiversity economy. The anthropo-centric approach is to utilise resources for the development of the human population of the country. However, due to the economic imbalances inherent in developing countries, the benefit accrues mainly to developed countries once the value chain is viewed as a whole.

Conversely, the bio-centric approach is focused on protecting and conserving the biosphere of a particular country. However, due to the increased levels of inequality and poverty of the human population of developing countries, who are locked out of the current conservation system as designed by developed countries, they have become increasingly disconnected from reality and economically and practically unsustainable.

He raised an added dynamic to the conservation policy issue. Developing countries are led to believe that they will engender good will and soft power by putting in place conservation policies that are tailored to satisfy the sensitivities of governments and NGOs in developed countries. They are loath to attract the wrath of these institutions lest they lose some ground in the globally competitive tourism market and be seen as a ‘pariah’ state. In many cases, however, the resultant policy formulation is prejudicial to the poor and disenfranchised, which creates natural antagonism to the conservation of the natural habitat that these policies are designed to achieve.

He closes this fascinating portion of the discussion on the point that policies and business models must be developed that create a natural harmony between humankind and the environment in which we live. This will achieve buy-in from all members of society, which is the first step to environmental and economic sustainability.

Mogashoa believes that the South African approach that has allowed people like him to breed wildlife, and to beneficiate here at home, is the most progressive option. It plants a competitive seed for huge returns and sustainability. In countries that follow the biocentric nativist policy position, there is little investment in wildlife opportunities, making the South African model of allowing ownership the best one in growing such an economy. Without direct private ownership of wildlife, investment opportunities are limited and there are no opportunities for downstream industrialisation.

To bring it home a bit more, a horticulturist, Dr Schoeman, has been given the huge task of maintaining the golf course at Mogashoa’s game farm. But Tebogo is very clear: Schoeman must continue his training of the locals to understand how to maintain the pristine fairway so that in future they can run it successfully themselves. Mogashoa believes that this is a small but significant contribution to skills development. He is proud that with this strategy of empowerment they have raised the golf course from the ashes, literally. He is particularly proud that this is one of the few golf courses where you can see wildlife while walking the course.

At this time of the year, the fairway is under construction and maintenance. He walks around the fairway and gives orders in preparation for the hosting of a regional golf tournament in early November. He wants it to look pristine and spotless. It must be in balance and be ‘good for the Par’—the number of strokes a golfer is expected to need to complete the play of one hole on a golf course.

The future of logistics

The business of logistics that his company, Talis Logistics, is in remains a big debate with his mentor, Mr Thami Ntenteni, who joined us for dinner after a sunset visit to the man-made lake that sits in the middle of the farm. The debate heated up immediately—could it be possible that parastatals are weakened so that someone in the private sector can pick them up for a song? “The Durban harbour has been ranked by a World Bank report in the bottom three of the world’s 351 competent container handling facilities. Just recently, Transnet had its IT systems compromised. How did that happen?” asks Ntenteni.

Mogashoa has strong views about the lack of capacity of the government in the logistics business. He is clearly very knowledgeable in this area and cites numerous challenges that seem to support his assertions. While I am quick to dismiss this as a conspiracy theory and a charitable explanation for incompetence, Ntenteni agrees with his observation and almost takes offence at this being dismissed as a conspiracy.

The jury is out on this, however. Mogashoa’s logistics business leases rolling stock from Transnet and through the inter-continental movement of minerals and other commodities, “in one transaction, it removed more than 40 trucks from the national roads of more than six countries”. He plans, in future, to have his own rolling stock. Clearly, something has to give. He decried the fact that private cargo owners are making moves to simply acquire the whole rail network so that they no longer have to depend on the capacity of the state to serve them. That dinner debate: coming full circle!

Small business focus

One of the leadership challenges that Mogashoa experiences is the absence of institutions to take care of the needs of small businesses for working capital. He is of the view that development funding institutions (DFI), such as the IDC and NEF, can do much more than they are currently doing to fund the development of small to medium enterprises, which should in fact form the backbone of the economy. He is of the view that the DFIs are geared towards a conventional commercial banks thought process and skewed towards big business, which often leave SMMEs having to meet unrealistic expectations.

Given this story, and his feelings about what needs to be done, Mogashoa has funded a credit facility that helps businesses that do have government work, but have no money to implement the projects that they have been awarded. His business also takes unpaid invoices off the hands of the businesses that the government simply won’t pay on time and it chases the government up on them—sometimes all the way to court, to pay these suppliers. This has often put his business at odds with the government, but he would rather stand in the gap for the small guy. He admits that he has a big challenge to balance engaging with the government positively and being critical where necessary. The phenomenal growth of his business has helped him to thrive. As a result, he agrees that he should perhaps maybe reach out to the new minister of small business in regards to the plight of the small businesses he has been working with.

Dealing with the government is clearly not for the fainthearted. Mogashoa has had to pull the plug on municipalities that wouldn’t pay his fleet business. There is always a sense that the wheels of the government turn very slowly, which can result in perpetually delayed payments without consequences.

Property: The future

At breakfast, we were joined by the Grass Doctor, Dr Schoeman, so, naturally, the discussion was swung back to the maintenance of the pride of his establishment—the 18-hole golf course. A full lecture ensued about the state in which he had found the entire property and the strategies he has had to employ to make its renaissance sustainable. He also touched on involving locals in the project, rather than by outsourcing such services.

So, now we are invited on a mini game-drive to go with the Grass Doctor to the fairways, where he explained his plan to ready the course for the upcoming golf day we had spoken about earlier.

After we took leave of the Grass Doctor, we embarked on a long walk under the blistering sun of Limpopo for Mogashoa to show off the 18-hole golf course, while giving Ntenteni and I some golf lessons.

He reckons that amateur golf is worth pursuing. I dropped out of golf lessons back in 2005, so I listened carefully as golf notes were being exchanged. But the real conversation to end off the weekend was what Mogashoa called his “true love”: Property.

He bemoans the recent riots in another heated debate. “Was this really an insurrection? A failed insurrection?” He praises Sasria Insurance—half of his claim for the riot damage has been paid. He, however, bemoans the fact that many of his small business counterparts are yet to have their claims processed.

This brings us to the big question: How did he succeed in the property industry where the stakes are so high? I mean, how does a youngster get to own 30% of the SA Atterbury Property Fund (APF)—which owns some 130 properties in SA, including a 20% stake in the likes of the Mall of Africa and the headquarters of numerous corporates? (The APF is a real estate development growth fund, underpinned by Atterbury Property seed assets and a strong development pipeline).

The trick, believes Tebogo, is partnerships with big businesses. He cautiously underlines the fact that the response of the credit lenders was a different ball game when he arrived on the scene in the company of established partners. Suddenly, he didn’t have to explain himself too much in order to be extended credit to grow his portfolios.

This generated quite a lot of discussion on the golf course walk-about. Was this not what BEE was created for—collaboration amongst South Africans to feed off each other’s strengths, capacities, and networks?

“Or does this make the painful point that the economy continues to be firmly in white hands?” queries Ntenteni, who had been listening quietly to our discourse on the economy, while also enduring the blistering sun in the long walk across the fairways.

Mogashoa concedes that, because of the kind of clients he has in his property business, there has been no decline in his business, even during COVID-19.

Big corporates don’t have rental issues as a big expense at all. He reckons, though, that the pandemic is forcing many businesses to innovate and he believes that the future is in warehousing.

“The future is not another shopping centre.” Many have migrated their shopping online. Hence, the warehousing of the goods that will be traded online, and delivered direct to the consumer, is the future.

Instead of a conclusion…

Mogashoa has clearly achieved what many have not. Through a thriving logistics business, a passionate participation in wildlife, a focused investment in the agri-business, and property development, he is building an empire that seems poised to keep on growing and make him one of the most influential young, gifted, and black business leaders of our time.

The business advice he can share is that you have to focus and believe that you will succeed. He concedes that, without being negative, “Everything checks out on Microsoft Excel” but, in reality, something is always bound to go wrong. It is about your resilience: dust yourself off and soldier on.

He recalls days when the going was tough and he had to find the resolve to carry on. He believes in the potential of this current South African economy and thinks that a dedicated focus on the diversity of the economy, in particular, can tip the scales of the economic future of this land.

Final leadership lessons—take care of your staff and they will guard your business with their lives.

My own-lived experience at Babirwa in conversation with this exceptional leader ticks all the boxes of true empowerment. A project started from the ground up, and living up to high standards, it lays the success on a road less travelled.