What started as a Zimbabwean banker’s informal initiative to ride out tough times has bloomed into a corporate venture that is now a player in the tourism industry with continental and global ambitions.
By Tafadzwa Ufumeli, bird story agency
An imposing billboard arrests the attention of passers-by in an upmarket residential suburb in the northwest of Harare, with images of plush tourist resorts and the lure of travel to exotic destinations.
The travel mode suggests road rather than air – the ad sports minibuses, or vans – and the destinations are all domestic. As are the potential customers. The advert is by Pamushana Africa Group (PAG). It’s a firm that has successfully – and profitably – negotiated a rising tide of domestic tourism – a sector that has flourished across Africa since the start of the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“We deliver happiness!” the bold tagline screams.
The ad is a reminder that even in the hardest of times, people still like to get out, explore and have fun. Increasingly, they are doing so at resorts that were once the domain of foreign tourists only.
Hardlife and Clarissa Chipika are the brains behind the company which has grown to succeed in a sector that few people associate with Africa and even fewer with Zimbabwe. The growth of local tourism – and the return of foreign tourists post-COVID – has allowed the company to spread its activities across transport, farming and security, with a footprint that extends overseas.
Pamushana in ChiShona, a local Zimbabwean language, means “under the rays of the sun”.
The four youthful staffers receiving visitors look like that’s where they get to spend plenty of time – they are all clad in khaki outfits embroidered with the firm’s logo and look like they’re ready to head out on another adventure.
Other staffers are glued to their laptops engaging clients, both local and foreign.
When Hardlife Chipaka walks in, the energy level in the room goes up a notch as he greets the team and engages them in some light, football-related, banter.
He loves the ambience of his office, he said.
“We like to keep our environment casual. Everyone must feel free to express their opinion. This is why our team is always coming up with innovative ideas,” he explained.
Innovation has been at the core of the business ever since he and his wife sat down to work out how to raise cash for a fledgeling agriculture business that seemed to constantly drain their cash reserves.
“If you had told me we would be planning trips to the Maldives today, I would have laughed at you.” Chipaka, a banker-turned-businessman, said when describing the early days at the company, often referred to by the couple as a “baby born out of necessity in tough times.”
Hardlife Chipaka and his wife could not have chosen a harder or more rough-and-tumble business in which to find a new source of ready cash.
Run on a semi-regulated fleet of vehicles known as Kombis in Zimbabwe, matatus in Kenya, taxis in South Africa and danfos in Nigeria, the minibus industry is, almost ubiquitously, a law unto its own.
In some countries, sporting a riot of colourful designs and even obscene language and images and playing loud music, minibuses are variously seen as symbols of disorder and chaos and as the cultural and even musical heartbeat of Africa. Whichever it, is, they remain a critical cog in the transport sectors of most African cities.
In 2010, the couple bought a used Toyota Hiace minibus to start a kombi business. Although the vehicle had changed ownership several times they believed that, despite the risk, it would supplement their finances.
And with that move, transport became a key part of their company.
“Pamushana Africa was incorporated in the Companies Act of Zimbabwe in 2008. By then it was Pamushana Agriculture. We were a broker between farmers and the market. We were specialising in horticultural produce, especially broccoli, pepper and cauliflower. We would have agreements with farmers across the country,” Chipika explained.
“Two years down the line, we managed to get land near Bhora, about 90 kilometres East of Harare go into full-time farming, which we later discovered was capital and labour intensive. Farming has got cycles, there were times when we would run out of cash flow to finance the day-to-day running of the business. That is when an idea came, for us to look for a business which would be the bridging gap between farming returns.”
At the time in Zimbabwe, minibus taxis were the side hustle of choice and many working people who saw themselves with extra money would invest in them. However, while the minibus taxi business showed promise, their near-rundown vehicle was something of a liability.
“If I was to advise my younger self, it is always better to start with your own, new vehicle. That bus we bought was cheaper compared to a new one, or a recent import, but it had problems. The money we used to repair the vehicle could have imported a better one,” he said.
Also, routes were congested, and the City-Warren Park route in Harare that they had chosen was no different. The couple realised they would have to come up with something that would help them stand out.
“When we entered the transport business, there were a lot of other players. Then we said we want to differentiate ourselves,” he said.
A route anomaly was an easy target. Other operators were avoiding the last part of the route as the roads were in poor shape, forcing commuters to walk the last two kilometres.
“When we came in, we saw a gap and decided to be the operator which goes all the way to the Police Bus Stop. It made us become a preferred operator by the commuting public of Warren Park,” said Chipika.
Having seen that innovation could provide an edge, they started exploring other methods to increase customer affinity.
“As a way of giving back to our customers, we said they could board our vehicles for free on their birthdays. We also introduced Whatsapp groups, where our commuters would be able to interact with our drivers. Those groups would be used by our crew to inform people of schedules,” he adds.
Their next challenge was how to get more vehicles to cater for the increasing number of clients. To meet their target of buying two matatus annually, they approached banks for finance.
“As the fleet grew, more challenges arose; there are expense lines that one cannot move away from. It took the support of our bankers to be able to buy some of the vehicles. I remember at one time we took a loan to buy three vehicles at once,” Chipika said.
Matatus in Zimbabwe are a cash business, so when the crews cash up, most operators do not bank their money. This stems from distrust in the banking system, born out of a 2008 economic downturn. With his banking background, Chipika did things differently, depositing their earnings regularly.
“We are grateful, we were one of the few companies who were running their businesses professionally. As a result, banks would extend credit lines based on the money we used to deposit,” he adds.
The other innovation was to leverage sports, especially football, which has a huge fanbase in Zimbabwe. As a Manchester United supporter, Chipika appealed to other supporters by branding all his matatus with specific team players. The response was phenomenal.
“We had set a target that by 2016, we should have assembled a full line-up of the same soccer team – that is, 11 players and four subs. By 2018, by the grace of God, we had the full line-up, including substitutes.”
When a player transferred from Manchester United, the vehicle apportioned to them would be repainted. Pamushana Africa also introduced onboard wifi, swipe machines and loyalty cards for their commuters. Then another avenue for growth opened up.
“At this point we started getting requests by corporates and companies, asking us to move their workers from one point to other. We also had individuals asking to hire our vehicles to go for holidays or family events. Then it dawned to us that this could be another revenue line we can pursue,” he said.
Traveltainment, a subsidiary focusing specifically on travel was born out of Pamushana Africa in 2016.
“I remember our first organised trip when we ventured into the tourism sector. It was in Nyanga in October, and that is when we sort of diversified from commuting transport now to tourism,” Chipika said.
“If you look at it, there are many players in the same industry, we made it a point to seek something that will differentiate us. We focused on our human capital.”
Asked what his secret to success in the matatus industry was, Hardlife says it was by being different from others. He, for instance, adds they used digital strategies, especially Twitter to communicate with their customers.
Also, they departed from the stereotype that defines most matatu crews; rowdy and unkempt. They went for a disciplined crew and trained them to be civil and courteous to the customers.
By the time they started to advertise their domestic tour services, they had already gained a significant standing on social media.
Again, they chose to innovate.
“If you plan a year in advance, it makes things easy. We also found that group travel is the best way to cut costs. I always give an example that if I have to drive from Harare to Kariba if I need 100 litres. If we are to travel as a group of ten, we are still using the same fuel. This is how we use group travel and how we save money,” Chipika explained.
“Travel is not just about reaching the destination. It is about the journey. We want to mix travel and entertainment. How we can entertain our customers from Point A to the destination is our main attraction. Also, if you look at it, travelling or vacation is taken as a premium event, or exclusive. We wanted to allow people to access travel, even with limited incomes.”
He said people can visit more places, even beyond their borders if they plan.
“We have a lot of people who travel not because they have money. The unfortunate thing we were seeing with most of the people, as you would see people coming a day before Christmas asking us to organise a holiday. That gets expensive,” he said.
Pamushana Africa started with day trips within the vicinity of the capital, Harare. Those grew into weekends away at major destinations, frequenting Nyanga in the Eastern Highlands.
Now they have broadened their horizons, taking their customers as far as Cape Town, Zanzibar, and most recently, Dubai.
They are now planning a trip to the Maldives, pencilled for August 2023.
“We give people enough time to pay slowly after making a deposit. They can pay slowly… we have a number of people who have made bookings,” said Chipika.
He credits its loyal customers such as Tafadzwa Mawire who has been travelling with Pamushana from the days they were still experimenting with the tourism idea.
“I have travelled with them for the day, weekend getaways and international trips. For day trips, it is less costly, you meet new people become more like family and we have tonnes of fun,” Mawire said.
On weekend getaways, Mawire said she just goes to a pickup point with her bag and does not worry about any level of planning.
“There is less worrying about planning, everything is handled including meals. I have had to revisit some places I have been to because the planning element has been removed. I went to Cape Town and everything was well organised. A year ago I had only been to a few places, now I am going international.”
The gratification extends beyond customers. Warner Gurure started out as a driver, then managed the vehicles as the fleet grew and now coordinates logistics on trips.
“I am just proud of the brand and how it has an impact on people’s lives. Each trip has its own perks and memories. I wish I had a notebook to jot down the good things we experience,” he said.
Gurure said he has seen the company grow from being just an idea.
“All businesses are expected to answer someone`s problem, we came in to solve issues with mobility. From a local level, up to international,” he added.
Pamushana Africa`s work has also caught the attention of the country’s tourism authorities. Zimbabwe Tourism Authority spokesperson Godfrey Koti praised Hardlife Chipika for growing the company into a truly homegrown firm, from scratch.
“They have been vital in the promotion of domestic tourism,” said Koti.
“We have worked with them during this course, and they have provided a bit of consultant. Their marketing consultant was very proactive in supporting ZTA programmes. We ended up grinding together to push ZimBho (domestic tourism) initiative, they are part of the many operators who pushed hard for us to have a successful campaign.”
When COVID-19 hit Southern Africa Zimbabwe responded by grounding and then banning privately owned commuter minibuses.
Pamushana responded by moving their vehicles across to their growing corporate shuttle service and franchising out others to similar operations.
“We now have 251 vehicles which are under Pamushana Franchise doing corporate shuttles across the country. Pamushana Africa has 14 permanent workers and there are 221 employed through the franchise, bringing the number to 235,” Chipika said.
In a 2019 report, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) indicated that domestic tourism already contributed 56 per cent of Africa’s overall tourism revenue, with international travellers accounting for 44 per cent of the total.
The foreign tourist flow shrank by 80 per cent due to the pandemic in 2020 but the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) asserts local tourism has softened the blow.
Pamushana is just one of the thousands of African companies working to grow the domestic tourism market across the continent. What started as a “matatu business”, meant to plug financial gaps has grown into a reputable player in the tourism industry – one that has “grown wings”.
bird story agency