Botswana Railways: The right track to continuous improvement

Whilst most of the world was enthralled by the Olympic Games in London, Botswana Railways was immersed in its own sporting competition. The organisation had no peers during the recent Southern African Railways Sports and Cultural Organisation (SARSCO) Games at Kwaluseni Sports Emporium, winning gold medals in chess, morabaraba, volleyball, long tennis and athletics, amongst other disciplines.

botswanarailThere are perhaps many parallels to be drawn with the competition across the sub-Sahara region in the race to build railway infrastructure that will transport natural mineral resources and build economies and strong communities.

Botswana Railways’ (BR) Freight Service is the country’s leading transport operator of bulk goods. The service was established way before the 1987 handover to Botswana Government by the National Railways of Zimbabwe.

BR’s strategically laid rail network and long-developed good relationships with other rail operators in the region, including Transnet Freight Rail in South Africa and the National Railways of Zimbabwe, have fostered more than sporting prowess. BR’s freight service is the most convenient, reliable and cost effective mode of transport to use for moving bulk commodities. This does not only apply to imports and exports but also for transit freight within the SADC region and through to sea ports.

The Freight service targets bulk commodities that may be “operationally challenging” for transporting by road; with mining contributing a significant proportion of cargo. Commodities like copper (from BCL mine and Tati Nickel), soda ash and salt (from Botash), coal from Morupule Colliery and fuel (from fuel companies into Botswana) play an ever increasing role in helping to develop Botswana’s economy and the companies extracting these precious minerals rely heavily on the rail supply. With the ongoing mineral explorations taking place in Botswana and the discovery of various mineral deposits in certain parts of the country (mainly coal), opportunities are there to grow the business.

To underline the critical role of the railway, earlier this year Sandton-based coal developer CIC Energy stated its willingness to export coal from Botswana but said that the government urgently needed to make a decision concerning the implementation of the Trans-Kalahari railway line project, as the coal industry needs to know how to plan for the future.

The lack of transport infrastructure, in particular railway lines, is one of the biggest challenges hindering progress in the country’s coal sector. The Trans Africa Rail Consortium, of which CIC Energy is a member, has been investigating the development of a railway line from Botswana to the Waterberg coalfield, in Limpopo, South Africa, and to a port in Namibia.

An alternative high-speed heavy rail route going east from Botswana through Zimbabwe to a port in Mozambique is also under discussion.

“There is no question that the Botswana government is feeling the pressure to make a decision on the railway line, with high-level meetings being held by both Botswana and Namibia,” stated Greg Kinross, President at CIC. “It is imperative that a new rail line is built and whether it goes east or west is not of consequence to us; we are route agnostic.”

Of course such projects require vast funding, something which has been in relatively short supply since the economic crisis began to bite in the sub-Sahara region. BR has used its initiative to introduce creative ways of financing projects: one such venture has been the new Rail Park Mall.

botswanarail14671681Opened on April 23rd, the Mall has created employment and has introduced commerce and prosperity to an area adjacent to Gabarone Station. The eight hectare site owned by Botswana Rail site is very accessible employs approximately 2,000 people, bringing much-needed retail revenue to BR’s coffers.

Initial interest in the development from South African-based retailers was very strong and this is evidenced by the centre being over 80 per cent let well in advance of the opening date.

A move such as this will diversify BR income base, help BR to realize its turnaround strategy objectives, and hopefully reduce dependence on government funding.

At the official opening, Vice President Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe hailed Botswana Railways (BR) as a desirable economic enabler that has managed to convert a barren 8 hectares into a lucrative business venture that now hosts one of the leading shopping centres in the country. The move will ease the burden on government to finance BR and thereby avail funds for other national projects.

Efficiency and operational excellence are other areas where BR has made big inroads in recent times. As part of its endeavour to bring best practice Business Excellence solutions to the organization, BR in conjunction with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) had attached two employees to Malaysia on the JICA program to learn the basics of Kaizen, a programme of operational continuous improvement. Kaizen is a system of continually improving quality, technology, business process and company culture, productivity, safety and leadership.

The Kaizen Concept was introduced in Botswana Railways as part of the Turn Around Strategy, mainly focusing on the Internal Business Pillar. In October 2010 BR secured the services of a Japanese Senior Volunteer, Mr. Masato Shibata to assist in implementing Kaizen.

botswanarail45974764Sharing her experience of kaizen after attending the training in Malaysia, BR Strategy Implementation Manager Gakepeo Masike said the training has helped put a lot of things about Kaizen in perspective. Narrating how the training came about, Masike said JICA has a number of training programs that it offers to the Botswana Government. “This time around they had a program that was specifically targeting organisations in select countries in Africa that have started implementing kaizen”, said Masike. The training was held under the theme “Third Country Programme on Enhancement of Productivity and Competitiveness for Trade Promotion through TQM and Kaizen Approach” was attended by 14 participants from different African countries.

Masike said she strongly believes the training introduced her to key drivers of kaizen, mainly housing-keeping, waste elimination and standardisation and felt that the common sense approach instils a culture of discipline and cost saving. Once fully trained, Masike will share her knowledge across BR.

Education remains very firmly on the minds of BR and its relationship with the University of Stellenbosch has seen the creation of a Management Development Programme (MDP).

The programme through its three staggered Study Schools covered a variety of Management topics that inter alia included People Management, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Increasing Excellence in Operations and Supply Chain Management, Finance Management and Economics.

On the programme, groups of delegates look at a variety of important business issues including investigating the impact of team work, the use of technology, the impact of staff morale on the performance of the organisation, the impact of the current methods of project appraisal in the profitability of BR and the impact of shortage of rolling stock on BR revenue.

In April Dominic Ntwaagae began his role as Chief Executive Officer for a three-year period initially. Mr Ntwaagae originally joined Botswana Railways in August 1, 1990 as a trainee Engineer and rose through various positions of responsibility within the engi­neering cadre, before gaining promotion in 2004, to the position of Assistant General Manager Technical Services. After the 2005 restructuring, he was appointed Director Engineering Ser­vices.

Building new rail lines to support Botswana’s mining revenues and the economic benefits remains a key objective for Ntwaagae. Undoubtedly BR’s enduring relationships with fellow rail companies will play a large role in its future – and winning gold at the SARSCO Games builds team work, boosts morale and reinforces links that will build a bright future for the country.