Mamothe and Phano Mohapi living their dream 20 years after venturing into the country’s hospitality sector
Ha-Molengoane is known for its wild horses and breathtaking scenery, both of which continue to draw tourists to the village, which lies about 40 kilometres from the capital Maseru.
Located in Nazareth, the village of Ha-Molengoane is home to a vibrant community always hungry to succeed and be masters of their own destinies.
Many of the area’s enterprising and hardworking farmers consider their village part of the city due to its proximity to the capital, although in reality, Ha-Molengoane is peri-urban or a rural/urban transition zone.
With serious investment, this is an area with the potential to become an autonomous town with the capacity to complement or even rival the capital Maseru, in terms of service-provision and employment-creation.
However, some entrepreneurs have since realised this potential and invested in Nazareth, citing its strategic location between the city and some of the country’s most sought-after tourist destinations.
The vast, foggy-blue mountains that lie above Ha-Molengoane village draw visitors to the mystical Ha-Baroana Caves and Molimo-Nthuse Pass, which is known for its treachery whenever people were high up and found they were unable to go to the other side of the mountain, as legend has it.
It is this rich and enthralling natural environ on the foothills of Thaba Putsoa Range (the blue mountains range), which attracted Mamothe Mohapi (55) and her husband Phano Mohapi (57), to establish Molengoane Lodge and Conference Centre here 22 years ago, setting the foundation for a thriving home-grown enterprise, whose service is however, of international standard.
According to Ms Mohapi, who is also the vice-president of the Lesotho Hotels and Hospitality Association, the couple first decided to rent an accommodation establishment in Ha-Molengoane in an effort to generate enough capital to help them establish their own lodge.
Mr Mohapi had to quit his job, a difficult decision then but one which marked the beginning of a journey into the unknown.
Twenty-two years later, the couple not only owns one lodge but has generated enough capital to build another talk-of-the-town Guest House, Kapitseng in Teyateyaneng (TY).
Over the years, the Molengoane Lodge has developed into a place for many activities, and since 2005, has become a favourite spot for participants and fans of the Roof of Africa off-road motorcycle event, which is widely considered the most challenging motorbike race on earth.
The Molengoane Lodge is also famously known for its uniquely-prepared baby-chicken, which is grilled to perfection and one of the draw-cards for the facility.
This week, Ms Mohapi proudly explained how the striking scenery in Ha-Molengoane helped the couple identify opportunities that have since transformed the outlook of the village.
“I used to admire this rugged and enchanting environment each time I passed through with my husband on our way to and from Molimo-Nthuse Lodge, where he was working at the time, and this was when this dream to own our own lodge, was born. We strongly believed in this dream, mainly because my husband had worked in the hospitality sector for 20 years and had the necessary skills to run a first-class hospitality accommodation facility. Over the years, I had noticed his passion for his work and how he developed various brands in the hospitality sector. I didn’t see anything that could stop us from making it if we could merge our skills and strengths and start something for ourselves,” Ms Mohapi said.
A mother-of-three, Ms Mohapi was then working for a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), which had afforded her the opportunity to interact with many people from different countries.
“I knew with my vast experience, I would be able to play a critical role in marketing the rented facility, which despite accommodation and conference limitations, did well in just a few months.”
After noticing the huge potential, the couple had to prove to themselves that they meant business by constructing their own lodge. In the meantime, Ms Mohapi had decided to remain with the NGO and only help her husband during weekends and holidays.
With a bit of savings and part of her salary, the couple constructed six thatched huts before embarking on major infrastructure developments.
“We were lucky to be among the first group that benefitted from financial support provided by the Lesotho National Development Corporation’s Equity Fund in the late 1990s,” Ms Mohapi said.
In 1999,the Mohapis opened Molengoane Lodge and Conference Centre with an accommodation capacity of 70 adults, a conference facility that could accommodate 100 people, bar, restaurant, storage rooms and two offices.
Ms Mohapi said although the conference facilities were an immediate hit, the lodge had since become a preferred venue for weddings, parties and other company get-together activities, over the years.
“What kept us going was the fulfilment we got from knowing that we were providing a service appreciated by both domestic and foreign tourists.”
Molengoane Lodge and Conference Centre employs 19 permanent staff, many of whom received on-the-job training.
Temporary workers are also engaged whenever the facility is expecting large groups of visitors.
Workers such as Tebatso Makhetha started off as a trainee cook before she got the opportunity to master all the operations of the facility.
Today, Makhetha is an Assistant Manager, who understands the principles critical for the further development of the lodge.
“The practical trainings helped me understand that the only way to succeed in this industry is through the consistent provision of top quality service. Although we serve different people, they all want the same thing – personal attention and value for their money,” Ms Makhetha said.
However, Molengoane Lodge and Conference Centre also does business with local farmers who provide food such as baby-chickens and vegetables.
Ms Mohapi said supporting local enterprises was the couple’s own way of stimulating economic growth for the country.
“I believe we all have to grow together, which is why we have this close relationship with the local community.”
And after contributing towards the growth of Ha-Molengoane village for over two decades with her husband by her side, Ms Mohapi said she has no regrets.
“I have heard of cases where couples started businesses together and when they were successful, the husband would run off with a younger woman. I think we are lucky to have shared something rare that developed from our love for one another. We have remained loyal to each other, honest and have always trusted and respected each other. This took both our marriage and business to greater heights.”
Ms Mohapi said it was that spirit to remain faithful and succeed together, which saw them collectively embark in other innovations, which include operating a rented restaurant in Katse between 1997 and 1999.
“After Katse, we rented two establishments in TY between 2000 and 2005 before we decided to invest in the construction of our own lodge. I think Kapitseng Guest House was hugely inspired by our customers who commented how we operated the rented establishments and encouraged us to start our own.”
The dynamic couple went ahead and constructed the 21-roomed Kapitseng Guest House, better known as ‘The House In Hiding’ due to its location deep at the foot of a hilly area which is a few minutes’ drive before TY town. The Guest House was opened in 2006.
The Guest House is also located 24 kilometres from the celebrated Kome Caves and a few kilometers from the manufacturers of the country’s best tapestry products, many of which are exported to Europe.
“I cannot say which one of the two establishments is the best because we put our all energies into providing the highest standards of service in both facilities,” Ms Mohapi said.
However, Ms Mohapi noted of late, business has not been looking good following a series of unsavory political events unfolding in the country.
“Foreign tourists care a lot about the status of where they are planning to visit. In our case, we are currently not the best country to be in, following the negative political news emerging on the international websites.”
Ms Mohapi said political and economic stability should come first before the implementation of strategic ways to improve the marketing of tourism as a whole.
“Over the years, I have noticed that our marketing package, as a country, has always fallen short of something. Sometimes, it’s inadequate funding to go full-scale and in other cases, it is lack of good organisation and not understanding the importance of making it easy for tourists to find Lesotho an attractive brand.”
Ms Mohapi said emphasised the need to reduce the $100 (M1070) visa paid by visitors from some European countries.
“I think we can gain more as a country if the issue of the visa can be dealt with as a matter of urgency. It is one of the reasons why some visitors shun Lesotho or spend a few hours in places like the Sani Pass in Mokhotlong. There is no tourism growth we can talk about if we cannot make our visitors stay for at least three days and spend money,” she said.
Ms Mohapi also cited the important role that could be played by tour-operators to help market local tourist destinations through websites and collaborations with operators from other countries such as South Africa.
“There is need for improvement in how they operate. Many seem not to understand how they can make themselves more useful. I think they can develop their own tourist destination packages to compel and excite tourists to want to see more places and stay more days in this country.”
She further explained the need for the hospitality sector to take the star-grading exercise introduced by the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) last year, seriously.
“I think some establishments, like ours, have already started to implement some improvements in order to become gradable. With stars becoming part of our package, we can enhance our marketing efforts. Through our association (Lesotho Hotels and Hospitality Association), we are also conducting a series of trainings to improve the quality of services at all establishments countrywide because it is not just about the upgrades but also the type of service.”
According to Ms Mohapi, the association decided to launch various training programmes after noticing some employees in the sector had not received professional hospitality training.