Septi M. Bukula is the Founder and Director of Osiba Analytics, a boutique research firm and award-winning tourism venture that specialises in bidding for and hosting international business events. He is also the Founder of the Seeza Network (“see Southern Africa”), that channels a range of business opportunities to SMEs. The following is a summary of his interview with Sibs Sibanda.
“I certainly didn’t plan on venturing into tourism!” Bukula laughs. “I started out in accounting, and have always been passionate about small business development – not only the practical element of entrepreneurship, but the policy environment too. For many years I’ve been involved in conducting research on regulation and legislation as it pertains to SMEs, and this included attending conferences all over the world. Then in 2012 I decided to invite a large international conference to be held in South Africa.”
He continues, “After successfully hosting our first conference, we started hosting more, and this led us to establishing the Seeza Network (“see Southern Africa”) in 2017, in order to include local SMEs in the opportunities presented by international business tourism.”
Bukula’s journey serves as an encouragement to young people, who can often be unsure of their purpose in life, and sometimes have trouble committing to a particular career. He exemplifies the importance of being faithful with ‘what is in our hands’ – for it is as we take one small step after the other that we grow in understanding, skill and capacity, and God can move us into the right position at the right time.
Speaking of calling, Bukula touches on the hot topic of transformation in the tourism sector.
“Believers are called to play a redemptive role in their respective industries. We should pay attention to social justice, and in tourism this means that we should think about creating ‘shared value’. We all live in this beautiful country that God has given us, and tourism is built on our shared, national environment (natural beauty, wildlife, culture, and heritage). Historically however, the economic participation of the majority of the population was very limited. Social justice within the tourism sector therefore means ensuring that in the process of beneficiating the shared environment, we equitably share the value created.”
He refers to an iconic Big 5 game reserve as an example. “Our Kruger National Park is well-known around the world. Unfortunately, many surrounding communities were forceably removed to make space for the park (which covers more than 19,455 km2). We cannot rewrite history, but we should share the value created by capitalising on this tourism resource. Otherwise resentment grows among local communities, when they see a thriving asset on their doorstep and yet are excluded from economic participation.”
For this reason, the Makuleke Community Land Claim settlement in 1999 was hailed as a world-class agreement and a breakthrough for conservation in South Africa. Nearly three decades after the Makuleke community was dispossessed under apartheid laws, an ownership agreement was signed that empowered them to develop 250 km2 of land for ecotourism, and share in the financial revenues of these ventures.*
Transformation for inclusive growth is a priority at government level, but what role can Christian businesspeople play in bringing about positive change?
Bukula comments, “As believers, we should be at the forefront of driving transformation and economic inclusion. We should not be focused on doing the minimum to comply with legislation. We should pro-actively seek God’s will on this issue, and our actions should be based on biblical understanding.”
“In our own case,” he expands, “We want to support SMEs in our part of the sector, which is inbound business tourism. So when international visitors ask us to arrange add-on tours for them in Southern Africa, we pass those opportunities on to local businesses.”
“Also, students in the tourism and hospitality sector need to complete a period of work-integrated learning to complete their degrees, but many are finding it difficult to find placements. So in collaboration with employers in the sector we launched a new internship programme to provide these opportunities,” Bukula says.
“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we had to decide what we were going to do to survive the crisis. God reminded us about the ‘seven bountiful years followed by seven lean years’ (Genesis 41) and on that basis we decided to pay our employees from our reserves for several months, while they were staying at home. Our employees stood with us in good times, we needed to stand with them in bad times.”
These real-life examples show that ‘redemptive’ is not a rose-tinted term. Believers need to be realistic, as well as hopeful. We need faith and courage to make the tough decisions when necessary – trusting in God, rather than in conventional wisdom. Bukula agrees, “Being an agent of redemption means being an agent of change, and that means we will face challenges.”
He states, “Sometimes the very people whom you are trying to serve will not see what you are trying to do, and that can be very discouraging. Bringing about transformation requires patience and understanding – because you are asking others to experience their own mindshift, and they will not immediately embrace it. Sometimes the environment itself is not conducive to what you want to change. In tourism for example, the established players have entrenched international and local relationships, which can make it very difficult to break into the market.”
He makes the point that, “Even though you are trying to do good, you can find yourself in a situation where on the one hand you are dealing with an unfriendly environment, and on the other you are struggling to get buy-in from those who will benefit.”
He acknowledges that, “Sometimes, you do lose heart, and you ask yourself, ‘Why am I even bothering with this, when I can simply focus on my core business and make money for me and my family?’ I have been challenged by people who ask, ‘Why are you spending so much time and effort on this peripheral issue?’”
His answer is that, “When you put on a biblical lens, it redefines what is ‘core’ and what is ‘peripheral’ to a business. We believe that bringing redemptive change may be peripheral to the business activities, but it is not peripheral to the calling God has given us. God has placed us within a specific sector, to use this business as an instrument to build his kingdom.
*Note: For those interested in learning more about how the Makuleke agreement has worked in practice, Gezani Lamson Maluleke’s 2018 doctoral thesis “Rethinking Protected Area Co-Management In The Makuleke Region, South Africa” would be a useful resource.