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Happy Tourism Month! 

Today we get to know an award-winning founder of two travel brands, Zulu Nomad and in Africa. Among her multiple roles, Phakamile Hlazo is also a consultant. Some of her clientele includes World Bank Group, Stanlib, ABSA, and Telkom. She is currently a scrum master. 

Phakamile made some time for us to speak about her passion for technology advancement in the African continent, and how she integrates personal and work life to achieve success.

Here’s how her conversation with Olwethu Leshabane went… 

Olwethu’s intro:

This career’s blog explores the journey that Phakamile Hlazo has traveled in her career, the challenges that women in tourism face, the role that technology plays in the advancement of careers within the industry, pertaining particularly to women and how she integrates her personal work, as well as her family life to achieve this success. 

Q. What is it about the tourism industry that ignites your passion, and when did you decide to get into this business?

It used to be about travel itself. I was inspired by the opportunity to experience different destinations, the different cultures around the world, and the different ways of approaches towards life. 

I’ve always been an experiential traveller, staying in youth hostels, and backpacking. You get to meet so many different people that way, and those are the types of experiences I wanted to share with other people. I wanted other South Africans to have these types of experiences, because I believe them to be very transformative & enriching. 

Thankfully that passion collided well with my entrepreneurial interests, and over time I was able to develop it into a business. When I say at the time when I came back to South Africa full time in in 2014, I carried on travelling and I just started getting so many questions around where I was going how I was affording to travel so much etc. but through that I then learned where the gaps are and the current tourism value chain, and where the opportunities are for young people. 

I think during that process or over the process of not being a business owner in the tourism sector what now drives me, is the truly transformational potential of this sector. It is one industry that has low barriers for entry, you don’t need a master’s degree or PhD, you just have to be well equipped with the right knowledge and tools to get up & going in this sector.

In a country like ours, opportunities are important. In the sense that, people need to be aware of any or all opportunities, and the government needs to know what to do with them to try and help fix the current situation.

The alignment between passion and business has now merged with my purpose, which is to now make a difference.

Q. Having had the opportunity to extensively travel, what gaps have you particularly seen within the South African, and African context and what gaps did you want to close?  

Before I left the country for the first time, this was before “social media” when MySpace was still popular. I didn’t know a lot about what it was to travel, so we were guided by magazines and what we saw on television, which created a conditioned/certain idea of what it was to travel, which didn’t come from us or those we knew.

When I first arrived in the UK, I started engaging with other young travellers from across the world and seeing how they travelled. It wasn’t about being in the biggest city and fanciest hotel, they would stay in basic places, where you can build relationships and really engage with the destination.

I remember for my 30th birthday in 2015, I did a month-long “Euro trip” on my own. I visited and stayed with old friends from business school, which helped me stay on budget. All the experiences that were part of my itinerary were things I was excited for, and had saved up for, but the rest of the trip was experiencing the city with friends. Going out for drinks or visiting a rooftop swimming pool, these are quite basic stuff but can really get you immersed in a destination. 

I also had quite a few people following me on Instagram at the time, and I didn’t want people to think that kind of experience is only available to you in Europe, because I knew by then that would be a false assumption. 

I didn’t want African people to think that they need to aspire to travel Europe, which is fine, but they should look at our neighbouring countries that also have so much to offer, and that’s the gap I tried to fill in immediately. 

Basically, just saying, “hey guys, before saving up in our stokvels etc. to travel Europe how about we go to the Berg, Free State, Limpopo or Mozambique.”  Then by the end of 2018 we were in Mozambique every week with a group of young South Africans, which showed how much of a need there was for that type of experience.

Q. You started Zulu Nomad around 2015, which one could say was a movement. It seemed like you guys travelled to a new destination every day…

It was mostly young women & professionals, who were drawn to the brand and these types of experiences. We would just go out and have the most extremely enriching experiences, whether we were doing yoga in the Free State looking over the mountains or road tripping through Botswana and bumping into a herd of elephants, it was truly an amazing experience.

These types of experiences are what basically drive me because now being involved in the bigger value chain, discussions, and forums in the industry, it is a lot different now. I am unable to organize & host experiences anymore, the joy of traveling and meeting new people is gone. I at least have the knowledge that that is our source and where we come from, and I want all people to experience that. 

Ultimately, we want more guides and more storytellers to be available to host all these young people that are yearning for this tourism product that is currently struggling to find room for itself in the tourism sector. 

Q. You mentioned that you are not hosting anymore, where are you now, and how has that journey been to get to where you are now? And what are some obstacles you faced when establishing yourself and starting out? 

We have been able to fully pivot into a technology enabled service provider in the tourism industry, how that came about was because of the popularity & growth of our brand through 2018 Mozambique trips. 

We knew the next step was to secure funding to scale the business, as I was initially funding the business through my salary, from corporate consulting jobs that I would do in-between. So, to scale we need to secure funds, which is a struggle, because I might be good at a lot of things, but raising funds is not one of them. We then came across an opportunity with “Booking.com” through their “Booking booster program,” and there I got to work with start-ups.

I had applied for the program, and I could tell through the process that they were very keen on this product, it being a woman owned business with fresh ideas and new experiences. We never made it into the program, which made us take a breather, evaluate the feedback. The feedback kind of shocked us, as it was centered around innovation, which kind of led me the following year to a conference in Bangkok.

It was hosted in July 2019, the “Arrival Conference” which is an international conference for destinations. That’s where I came across really incredible German, American, and Asian start-ups. I also had the opportunity to engage with the founders of “Get Your Guide,” who at the time had just raised 500 million US dollars for their marketplace, some key speakers were from “Klook” an Asian start-up that had also raised 500 million US dollars through tours & attractions.

It was the look at the technology enabled solutions that start-up and the rest of the world were developing, and getting funded. That’s when it hit me, like “okay this what they meant by innovation.” 

Then I came home and regrouped, and through my years of experience as a “change management consultant” and experience with managing “digital transformation projects,” we worked out how to develop the solution. So, I started looking at how to build a local marketplace that is going to connect travellers with this awesome tourism product that we already know exists, because we’ve travelled 35 000km of this continent by road and every country we visited, we had an amazing experience, great places to stay, good food, drinks and music. 

The general perception is that the product doesn’t exist, that people just go to Africa for safaris, which is a faulty perception because the product does exist. It then became about how we can use technology to bring this product to the foreground and connect travellers who want an authentic, immersive experience on the continent with the suppliers of this tourism product, who often are communities in some of the most rural of places without much infrastructure. They don’t get much tourism as they are usually on the way to attractions, so we’ve built relationships with them, and we know we are onto something great if we can use technology to connect these two groups of people.

Q. You mentioned this was a 2018-2019 kind of planning, and then Covid hit.

What has been the impact of covid in all of this and getting things moving?

It’s been absolutely devastating, in the true sense of the word. When Covid hit in March of 2020, I was in a WhatsApp group with a bunch of speakers, and on my way to Berlin. I had a plan since we couldn’t get funding, that once I was there I’d “crowd fund” the whole thing as I know and millennials across the world would make it happen, and the whole thing just fell apart.

However, understanding the gap between the idea of a marketplace that we want to build and where the market actually is, and now through Covid period, the real day to day challenges that small business owners are going through in the tourism sector and our ability to leverage technology to solve certain problems. 

We decided to shift our focus a bit, June-July of 2020, we had our online learning platform up, and we developed the custom training on the Covid 19 protocols which were developed by the “Tourism Business Council of South Africa” and “Department of Tourism.” We took those and digitised them and put them on our platform and gave them out for free for business owners to train with/on, and about 70 business owners used them and gave feedback.

We started using that time to build relationships within the sector, engage with business owners as we now have opened up lines of communication, and figure out where they are struggling and how they plan to recover whether it be a relief fund etc. In our experience there might be relief funding, but who ends up receiving that money, what does it end up going towards and what are the actual needs of business owners.

That’s what we wanted to understand and that’s why we started using the covid period for, really showing the tourism sector what is possible to do when trying to leverage technology and trying to solve some of the smaller manageable problems, that can hopefully be solved with what little money there is to go around.

Right now I think that platform is the only platform I can say, for sure, how many tourism businesses have been trained on the Covid 19 protocols in all of South Africa. It’s really been about showing the industry the value that we can create for the entire value chain, so that when things do recover it becomes a lot easier for us to be able to service the tourism industry, as a technology enabler. 

Q. Can people still enrol in this?

We have 2 training programs that are currently available on the Zulu Nomad training platform.

  1. Covid 19 protocol training – It is completely free and still available. So please any business owners in the industry, and especially bo-mama who own B&B’s, please go on there and get it for free.
  2. Tourism 101 for experienced entrepreneurs. We developed this one later in 2020, also online and currently for free. Research has shown that the tourism product that attracted a traveller in the 1960’s to early 2000’s, when they were coming to the African continent is not the same as what a millennial or gen-z traveller is looking for. 

Therefore, we created this online course that is going to take a young person through the process of understanding basics like, understanding what’s a “food tour” like where to start if you would like to host one, a “walking tour” and understanding how people make money from free walking tours, how is it possible and how does it work etc. How can we leverage our history, and use our ability to tell our stories to generate an income for ourselves, and create this new tourism product that is desperately needed in the market right now.

These are the 2 training courses that are available on the Zulu Nomad learning management platform at the moment, and hopefully we’ll add more over time.

Q. How do you then adapt to the different cultural norms that we deal with, and the language barriers that we have when doing business across the African continent?

What has helped me is a strong foundation, in terms of being able to build relationships with other African people. I’m from a younger generation so when I left South Africa at 20 years old to attend business school in the UK, it was the first time in my life I interacted with people from Gabon and Gambia.

I remember the ideology I used to have about Nigerians, before being plucked from Durban and being dropped in such a diverse cosmopolitan city in the UK, that allowed me the chance to meet young people from all over Nigeria, and had I not had that experience, I wouldn’t be able to understand and appreciate African people for all our vast and amazing differences. 

I recall also living in Shanghai, and it was the biggest African community that I’ve lived in, outside of South Africa. We had several different countries with all their vast & varied languages, but whenever meetings were held with all these African people, we’d all speak Mandarin, because that was the common language. 

Having those types of experiences, aside from just wanting to do business with someone, has created that foundation in my life for being able to engage across borders & cultures in the African continent. 

I didn’t stop studying French after high school and continued studying French religiously which I can say has helped a great deal.

Q. Africa is deemed to be one of the fastest growing regions for 5G, according to the 2019 Ericsson mobility report. How is Zulu Nomad and inAfrica able to operate digitally also strategically when the majority of Africans still face a digital challenge? 

For us, we have now proven the case for the tourism product, and we know for a fact as far as millennials are concerned and their travelling, if you are not online you are basically irrelevant. It now becomes in the different countries best interest to make sure that every single tourism product owner is online, and is visible online.

We have chosen to pursue the solutions that are within our means, in terms of developing and putting out there but we rely on partnerships and opportunities for collaboration with your Telco’s. All of the telco’s right now are focusing on increasing connectivity in the rural areas, and it is now up to the individual or business to research and prepare themselves and their tourism product for the marketplace as soon as connectivity happens.

From a skills point of view, we are collaborating and working with “Digify Africa.” To make sure that the digital skills training that is currently available for free through Digify Africa, is able to reach even bo-mama in the rural areas. We are also having a free training session for tourism business owners with digify Africa on the 27 of September, specifically for this purpose.

In September we are launching a campaign called “Lets innovate tourism & hospitality,” the aim of the campaign is to highlight and bring awareness to the Owners of technology solutions and try to get them involved. Like the company’s/guys who do accounting software, provide some accounting software, HR payroll software, marketing services, and or, data, fiber, connectivity etc. Whatever services I as a business owner need to thrive and generate revenue in the digital economy, I need to understand what the product is, and how it fits in and then get upscaled to be able to apply that in my business. From there a person who can make sure that you are applying everything effectively, to be able to assist in the creation and growth of the ecosystem.

Q. Can we say that when it comes to women’s advancement, can it be accelerated through more access, skills upliftment, and ownership?

Absolutely, one of the biggest stake-holder group/s that excites me in the tourism sector right now, are all of the women who have been retrenched through this covid period. You currently have thousands of women who were employed in some capacity in the tourism value chain, who are now sitting at home with a wealth of knowledge as far as the operations. 

If you can take this person and partner them up with a digitally skilled young person, software engineer, or entrepreneur, and engage and coach this person about what they saw/thought to be some of the flaws in their job and trying to figure out solutions. There’s so much we can solve.  

I believe we’ll transform the tourism industry by focusing on accelerating opportunities for young people and for women in the sector. 

Q. What is the government doing to improve the plight of women in these industries, are they doing enough?

I feel that no, they are not doing enough. They are funding programs like the Tourism Transformation fund, Green and centred fund, and there’s also the Tourism Equity fund, but I feel like all of these just miss the mark. We have a Whatsapp group of young tourism business owner’s, and so I once went to check who applied for funding etc. A person responded that they applied to the last round of the Tourism Transformation fund, and they went through the whole process, but they kept on trying to get the individual to take a R30 million loan. 

We are not looking for or need R30 million loans, maybe along the lines of a R500 thousand working capital injection or a R30 000 grant. We’ve found the funds that are there are inaccessible to us, we don’t need enormous sums, we want funding solutions that speak to our business needs and are going to be realistic for us.

So, there is an intervention to be had on the subject, because there is funding, but it is missing the mark of where we are as women, and women business owners in the tourism sector.

Q. Emotions and experiences create memories when we’re traveling. How do you solve this and what kind of values do you apply or that you’ve learnt/taken away from traveling via Zulu Nomad in Africa? Can you walk us through some of the values, and some of the emotional experiences and memories created, and how you hope to advance this?

When I look at the tourism sector there’s just so much potential in South Africa, we went from being a country that the world was rallying behind, for our people to be free (Apartheid). Then 1994 came and we were free, and we kind of just went on with our lives. That for me was a huge, missed opportunity, in terms of tourism.

We had regular people from all over the world play a very important role in our freedom, whether they were protesting or marching, and we haven’t had the opportunity to really connect with and actually bring into our space and share our stories with them. What it was like being the person whose freedom you were protesting for, and just to let them hear the stories.

My best and most memorable experience was in Boracay, Philippines. Which was me with a family in the mountains 45mins out, we walked through the rice fields, and they told me about their lives as farmers out there, they showed me how to cook using bamboo over fire, and then we got in an amazing stone bath, and at the end of the day got in our little van and drove back to Boracay. 

We have such an incredible country, each and every province in South Africa is stunning and each has their own natural heritage that belongs to all of us as South Africans, and then on top of that we have our story, we have our cultures, we have one of the most exciting groups in South Africa, which I think are Coloured people. There’s a common misconception that they’re all the same, but if you talk with the elders, you will find some come from other countries like Malaysia. 

We don’t celebrate our own diversity, and I see it as tourism products waiting to happen, memories waiting to happen, and healing waiting to happen, because the more we talk about our experiences during apartheid. The better we heal as a country, and we acknowledge our past and we are able to move past it. Again, the technology, the platforms they just facilitate this process, they facilitate this growth, all these opportunities, all these memories, all these emotions and all of this growth that potentially then will take place and it’s terribly exciting.

Q. How do you marry your corporate life and this love for traveling and chasing adventure. In your corporate position you are called the scrum master – can you break it down for us and in your own words can you tell us how you marry the two worlds together? 

So, remember I was always consulting, and I have been consulting and back in the day I was using a method called “waterfall method” where you plan the entire project upfront and you go and apply according to that. The time has evolved with the implementation of digital projects where we now use ‘agile methodology’ where the scrum master is essentially someone who facilitates the implementation of digital projects but in an interactive manner, so you don’t plan for six months you plan for two weeks at a time. So, that is who a scrum master is.  

For me it was very intentional for me not to work in corporate full time, and I made that decision about 10 years ago that I did have an ambition to be a CEO or CFO or any C level in corporate. So, I structured my life and time in such a way that I am still able to use my skills within the corporate environment with that flexibility of being able to travel, like I said that in between the projects or if I have a quiet a week then I get to plan my time and then take my week to travel. There’s pros and cons in being intentional with what you’re going to do with your time and how you want to live your life. Now unfortunately with Covid-19, I definitely had to go back to work full-time which is still within the space I am in now. 

It’s been very difficult adjusting to full time employment after a long ten years of being independently consulting.  I think in the types of roles that I am in as well it is difficult for people who have been in corporate for 20, 25 years, 30 years now, have to learn doing things in facilitating digital transformation initiatives, that’s very demanding however and again knowing at the back of my mind just how bigger the impact we potentially have in this work we do in the tourism sector. It’s been quite important to keep that work going. However, I am like in gear 2 as opposed to gear 5, I have slowed down and know that I need to always prioritize my corporate job and make sure that I deliver on.  

I am helping with their products within their merchant network where we are potentially building, what are the opportunities to add even more value that I was hired for within the space. That is how I balanced it within the last few months.

Q. You’re also a mom and a wife. You are also trying to manage the balance of family and work and not allow the two things to clash.  You’re in business and travel a lot and you travel with your husband and baby. How do you manage to balance all these important roles?

I’ve been incredibly blessed to have married someone who values that type of lifestyle, so we are very adventurous as a family. We enjoy experiential, slow travel as a family, and so even when we are out somewhere, we plan. We are actually going to say that next month we’re going to work out of a cottage on the coast, probably we chill there for a month. Sometimes we’ll have the baby with us, or the baby will be off to Gogo and Mkhulu grandparents. 

Thankfully just being able to plan our lives again, just being intentional with what we’re doing with our time and how we’re spending our time as a family has helped but it is difficult [maintaining] that balance. So, initially when I started off, there was a lot of pressure to post, to just keep posting. That is the life we were living in Nomad. We were out and in the new place and were taking photos and writing, that is a lot of work! A lot of work you know! So, I had to say I don’t need to do this. I don’t have time for it, I’m going to put this down for now and focus rather on the business and the family and do such and such and such. So, it has always been that give and take and accepting help from those around you and being able to support that support system in our families and our nannies. 

Q. You’re also a board member and a board chair of the Access Inclusivity and Diversity of South Africa Tourism Association sector.  Can you tell us about the diversity issues you touched on, in the tourism industry in the Southern Africa region. One of the things we spoke about earlier is not as complex as we make it out to be where women need or black people need to buy into these, you know this little tourism of  ‘Koos’, it’s that vibe it’s literally up skilling.  What are some of the other diversity issues that we come across and we can pin-point and see where there are real points in turning over and having more inclusivity and diversity in our tourism?

Again, I think it’s a lot of stakeholders just speaking past each other  and maybe the government being so set in a sector in BBB codes and everyone must stick to this and transform.  For me again, it is more about what we are implementing today and where are the opportunities for young people and women in the tourism sector?  

Today my focus is very much on, and has been very intentionally so about what we are doing at a grassroots level, what can we do, what are the little initiatives that we can start putting into the ecosystem. So, when the opportunity came for me to join SATSA at that level and be coach of the Access Inclusivity and Diversity committee, it was immediately an opportunity for us to use this platform to facilitate tangible outcomes in the tourism sector.

Initial focus again, I started in that role in October last year and our initial initiatives were geared towards training and mentorship and in the last couple of months we have been piloting along with the tourism Business Council of SA sector and the Department of Tourism in mentorship program, which I am so happier with the SATSA community.  

When we made the call for mentors within 48hrs we had mentors with over 10 years of experience offer their service to mentor upcoming people in the industry.  For that’s not something that people do grudgingly and have to force you and try to manipulate you, people were willing, people came within 48hrs. So, that for me speaks to where the other side is, the other guys that we want to transform. Maybe it’s just the same, we’re not transforming them, maybe we focused on transforming the sector by bringing new terms and products, by bringing new skills in the sector to grow the sector as opposed to transforming the individuals or individual businesses. But again that can be controversial, we’re very excited about that mentorship program. It is a pilot program, it is national and right now we have 47 matched pairs between an experienced business, and an upcoming business and we’re looking forward to seeing the outcomes of that which would then be able to roll out nationally.

It’s just been working at the grassroots understanding what are the needs of the communities, what are the needs of community based tourism bodies as well helping them through the process of getting them formalised, and maybe preparing ourselves for when the industry is ready to open up again once the pandemic is better under control.

Q. Lastly, we are getting to tourism month in September,  what are some tips for us as South Africans travelling during this month?

Definitely continue observing the Covid-19 protocols, wear your masks, sanitise everywhere you go. If you come into an establishment and you see that these guys aren’t up to scratch as far as the protocols, please say something, to someone it is really that important. It may be that I think I have seen this in some of these smaller towns because they haven’t been impacted by covid-19 they can be a little bit laxed. The imperative is then on you as a traveller, you go ‘’Hi guys I’m from Jo’burg or come from such and such a place, let’s get the proper protocols observed.’ Then let’s take care of ourselves out there.

Olwethu’s final statement, outro.

Thank you, thank you so much,  I appreciate you, I appreciate the steps that you are taking in the tourism business, by ensuring that women lead in the tourism business and get the upscaling, accelerated, are revived during a time like this and can realise their full potential.

Thank you so much Phaka!