South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry took the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown, with tourism numbers down by 72.6%, according to Statistics South Africa’s 2020 Tourism report.
International and provincial borders closed and, with no income for months, many private game reserves and tourism agencies didn’t know how they would pay their employees’ wages. An entire industry stopped in its tracks, and the people in it were left to fend for themselves.
However, one veteran tour guide refused to give up or let COVID-19 take away what he and his community had taken so long to build.
Inspired by community
Khimbini Hlongwane is passionate about animals and dreamt of one day becoming a veterinarian. Although his dream didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, he was determined to work with wildlife. So, he started as a cattle herder and eventually found his calling as a wildlife tour guide.
In 2014, Khimbini started his entrepreneurial journey when he founded Vomba Tours & Safaris, a tour operator company near Skukuza in Mpumalanga, South Africa.
“I reached a point where I wondered how many lives I could impact as a tour guide. I wanted to start something that would create job opportunities and exposure for the village,” he says.
But it wasn’t easy. As a predominantly white-owned industry, wildlife and guiding proved difficult for Khimbini to enter as an independent tour guide. So, he started with village tours, taking tourists to the community where the villagers displayed and sold their crafts and performed traditional dances. However, he soon realised that he couldn’t run a business solely offering village tours.
“It was a matter of really wanting to make an impact in the community. Starting my business was easy because I already had customer service and wildlife experience; it was the business part and finding ways to get new clients that I needed to learn,” says Khimbini.
Let passion be your guide
Although Khimbini tried to save as much money as possible to fund his new venture, he still needed to secure financing for a company vehicle to transport guests.
“I had to look at creative ways to buy my first vehicle, so I joined a taxi operator association. It was the only way the bank would give me financing,” says Khimbini.
Once he had his vehicle, though, Khimbini had one more hurdle to overcome.
“I thought that because the resort owners where I worked let me take their guests on eight-hour guided tours every day for 23 years, surely they’d allow me to fetch their guests from the airport and drop them off at the lodge. But they didn’t, and I had to build my brand and reputation as a professional driver to gain their trust.”
And, with few black business owners in the industry at the time, Khimbini also had to prove himself as a businessman.
“Entering the market and convincing people that I was different to what they’d experienced with other local tour operators was the most difficult part of starting my business.”
Undeterred, Khimbini was determined to make his passion work and found clients online and by reaching out to international prospects.
“I owe most of what I’ve achieved to my previous employers, and they invested their time and money to help me become a guide. Today, we’re all connected and boosting each other’s businesses, which is incredible,” says Khimbini.
Keeping the wheels turning
Before COVID-19, Khimbini had built a profitable business offering guided tours and shuttle services transporting lodge employees to and from work.
But like many tourism businesses, Vomba Tours & Safaris had a tough two years.
Khimbini now had eight employees and an entire village who depended on his business to support their families.
“Before Vomba Tours, it was my family and me, but the moment I started my business, I had to worry about my employees’ families as well. When COVID-19 hit, the worries multiplied. Sure, my family could survive with what we had, but what about my employees and the villagers?”
To add insult to injury, Khimbini had doubled his income the year before and bought a new company vehicle just before COVID-19 hit. So, with new car instalments, eight employees, and many families to support, Khimbini needed to think on his feet.
He got a payment break and a bank loan, and continued his employee shuttling services to keep his head above water. Khimbini and his team also transported COVID-19 test samples from the lodges to town in Nelspruit to earn an extra income.
Today, Khimbini has settled his car repayments and is back on the dirt road. Inquiries have started picking up, and bookings are coming in.
“The biggest lesson I learned from COVID-19 is the importance of staying connected with the community and clients. Even if it means calling them to keep them updated or asking them how they’re doing.”
A cut above the rest
For Khimbini to succeed, there was no room for mistakes. Coming from humble beginnings and feeling like he had much convincing to do, he had to equip his business with the best possible resources.
“Things like the type of vehicles I use; they have to be of the highest possible standard to compete with other operators. I constantly tell myself that I cannot dare fail because it’s not just me, but an entire community depending on me.”
As a result of his resilience and dedication to building a career, Khimbini and Vomba Tours & Safaris have won several awards and are role models in the community.
Although the industry was a difficult one to enter for Khimbini, he kicked through a wall that opened a world of opportunities for the youths in his community. He regularly visits high schools and villages to inspire more young people to join the tourism industry.
“I want to continue finding creative ways to make an impact. For example, we took some of our students to the Kruger National Park for an educational tour. We took them in open safari vehicles and taught them all about the environment and the wildlife around them.”
Khimbini’s dream for Vomba Tours & Safaris is to become a travel agency, hire more tour operators, and have a bigger impact on the community.
“I would like to get involved in some kind of foundation that focuses on teaching children about wildlife, tourism, the environment, making a living, and how to protect animals for the next generation.”
Khimbini’s top advice for entrepreneurs
As a Sage Business Cloud Accounting user, Khimbini knows how important it is to differentiate between business and personal finances. He has a separate business account from which he pays his employees and himself.
“Where it took me 23 years to earn the salary I did as a senior tour guide, it took me only four years to match that salary with my own business,” he says. “Sage has had a huge impact on my business. Not only do I have complete clarity on my finances and how the business is going, but it also makes me look more professional when sending invoices to clients.”
Khimbini taught himself everything he knows about running a business. He shares his learning with aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Connect with your community: “You often find that people in your community and industry are facing the same problems you are. Create environments that allow you to connect with the communities around you and learn from each other.”
- Communicate: “Keep communicating with your clients, old and new. It doesn’t have to be a sales pitch; just keep them updated on where you are and what’s happening in your business.”
- Stay active: “Always stay active on social media and email communications, even if things get difficult. It shows clients that you’re still there and keeps them connected.”
- Focus on your clients: “Worry less about your competitors and more about your customers. Think of ways in which you can make their lives better.”