THE principal secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, Monaphathi Maraka, is serving out a month’s notice after resigning from his post. His resignation follows the government’s decision to re-deploy him to a yet to be announced post at one of the country’s foreign diplomatic missions.
Ahead of his imminent departure, Mr Maraka (MM) sat down with the Lesotho Times (LT) editor Herbert Moyo and reminisced on his tenure first at the health ministry and his current position at the tourism ministry. Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: I learn that you could be one of four PSs who tendered their resignations in the past few weeks. What is the reason?
MM: I have been re-assigned and it is simply that I cannot take up one contract while on another one. I wouldn’t have resigned because I’m happy to serve Basotho here at home, but asked to take up a new assignment, I had to resign as PS. The government secretary is my supervisor and boss, so I complied. My new assignment hasn’t not been specified in writing but I expect official communication, while on a month’s notice until end February 2019.
LT: You have served as PS since the advent of the current government in the aftermath of the 3 June 2017 elections. What are the highlights of your time and what have been the major challenges?
PS: It has been a very exciting experience to have served two ministries, namely Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture (MTEC). At Health, it has the science of healthcare, diseases, medicines and health systems strengthening. And there are protocols and procedures but here at Tourism it is mainly about creativity and innovation as one of four economy driving ministries in NSDP II. Creativity and innovation are key to the ministry’s capacity to drive the economy, be it through tangible and intangible tourism, environmental and cultural national assets.
LT: What are some of the main challenges you experienced in both ministries?
PS: By my observation, the problems of health are almost the same as those of tourism in Lesotho. It is about the customer – the need to greatly improve customer focus. At health, our hospitals and clinics have lots of demand but the quality of services is chronically poor. Our key indicators are improving too slowly. In tourism, the demand yields just 20 percent bed occupancy, and earns just M862 per night in hotels and guest houses (see LTDC 2019 data) and is due to poor self-marketing by hoteliers. They depend heavily on government business, which takes long between invoice and receipt of payment; depleting their cash flow. This in turn results in poor services and customer loss.
The tourism contribution to the GDP was just 1.4 percent in a UN 2014 report, and it could be now at 1.8 percent in 2019. It is characterized by our environmental assets being seen for free, while facilities lay idle. This, unlike the health system where facilities face high demand due to tuberculosis, hypertension, HIV/AIDS and many other, including childhood and maternal illnesses. The challenge here is to deliver good services promises to meet a big customer base and expectations.
In tourism, when was the last time you saw hoteliers and B&B managers advertise in our newspapers that husband and wife, boy and girlfriend, people …come to stay a weekend at discounted price: this weekend the breakfast is good, lunch and dinner are great, the showers are excellent, DSTV has 54 channels and you are secure. If we don’t advertise to customers, in all media platforms, it sets off a cycle of value chain breakdowns. To make money, we must invest money as “mabele a lengoa ka a mang” in Sesotho.
To address free views of the country, my honourable minister (Semano Sekatle) is leading a plan to introduce a tourism levy and boom-gates collections which will not go into the government coffers but come straight to the ministry. That, as with the Road Fund and few others, will improve the ministry’s revenue if the levy is passed by cabinet. There are several creative ways to achieve tourism benefit.
I enjoyed working for the two ministries and I have a better understanding of how to improve our health and tourism. Thus, I can use this experience to “connect” back to them wherever I could work.
LT: How do you characterize the policy environment?
PS: The challenge is that of guidance by form of documents. We need to have laws, policies and regulations. At health, we are still using the Public Health Order of 1973. It is an outdated legal instrument which needs to be quickly overhauled to go with the changing times in global health systems. Now everyone is doing what they want and unless there are laws to govern activity, both the health and tourism sectors face challenges with legal instruments.
LT: What are your major achievements?
PS: At health I was just begging to set sail, with a clear map of the key issues to address such as child immunization, health information systems, capital project management, making sense of the pivotal role of men and their participation in improving child and maternal health, TB, HIV prevention, etc.. and it was soon time to go. At tourism our teams (the work of my predecessors and colleagues), finally achieved the passing of the Radiation Protection Act in September 2018. That long awaited law. The next step is for the Hon. Minister to appoint a board to govern radiation-related issues and for health to set up cancer education, prevention, detection and treatment and care services.
LT: Why is the Radiation Protection Act important?
PS: For the Ministry of Tourism and all others, it is important because we are exposed to radiation in daily life. We use radiation emitting equipment such as x-rays, cellphones, computers, equipment is used in agriculture, mining and road construction and the like. So, we need to educate the public, establish the inventory and types of radioactive sources, waste and risk across the country. Radiation source owners must be identified, licensed and regulated by that board soonest it comes into office. Their immediate task is to measure how much radiation risk Basotho have, not just from the environment but also in terms of equipment that emits radiation.
Look how much cancer is ravaging our country. We refer people to Bloemfontein and lately to India, both of which need a sustainability check…. We use radiation technology to treat cancer and there are plans to start a radiation facility near QMMH, and recruit and retain highly skilled Basotho staff for it. That is very good because we will detect cancer early, educate people and treat it before it aggravates. The Act is an achievement for all ministries, with MTEC only a custodian of the law.
LT: Back to the tourism levy. Who is going to pay this levy? Is it the already overburdened tax payers? Will it be deducted from their salaries like a pay-as-you-earn tax?
PS: That will depend on the rules and regulations of that levy. MTEC hasn’t yet finalized the rules. I would not comment much on who to levy, but I think it will be tourism facilities/ attractions in the country.
In addition to the levy, we are also thinking of introducing boom gates so that when you visit any of our tourist attractions, you pay perhaps M50 to generate revenue for the ministry.
Currently our country is visited for free and nobody pays to see our beauty. So we must reap the benefits by charging an acceptable amount for access to these places. Certain service providers can be levied but I’m not sure if the public can or should be made to pay a levy but it will depend on how the authors of the regulations will decide.
LT: In his last two budget speeches, the Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro has spoken about the need for the tourism sector to up its game and contribute more to the fiscus. But are you satisfied with the amounts that are allocated to the Tourism ministry in the national budget? Do you think the government must give you more?
PS: We are not satisfied with the allocation that we receive from the national budget. This is why we are calling for greater investment and diversified sources of income to support tourism. However, we are not just asking the taxpayer to pay more for tourism. We are asking our own authorities, that is, cabinet and parliament to implement levies and other means of revenue collection to promote tourism. We are urging hoteliers to improve marketing, communities to welcome visitors, herd boys to be made aware of how it all works, local companies to invest, government to provide the enabling climate, and so on. Tourism should not beg, but make money at hotels, tour operations, national events such as the Roof of Africa, MACUFE, and so on… by reviving and increasing participation and spending within our borders.
LT: You spoke of tourism infrastructure lying idle. The government also owns tourism infrastructure including hotels and lodges that are leased out to companies and individuals such as the Victoria Hotel in Maseru. There has been talk that some of the companies that lease such facilities (e.g. Victoria Hotel, Mohale Lodge) are not even paying dues to government. What is the ministry and the government doing about this?
PS: In both cases, my predecessors and I found legal battles blocking the road. I have a short message to the management of these two facilities: they are not getting customers because they cannot market themselves. That’s in turn because they cannot refurbish and because the hotels are not attractive. They are not doing good business evading dues to ministry by engineering legal battles with government. If they seem happy to flout the law, they had better get their act together and turn that facility into a profitable one and stop ignoring that it is in fact a public asset. But it can be said they seem happy to defraud the taxpayer. However, we believe dialogue is the solution between the ministry and the hotels. We must talk.
LT: What is the cause of this problem?
PS: Mainly they know that for government to get them to pay up, it entails lengthy legal wrangles which they have time and delaying tactics for. We as a ministry are also taking a very long time to act and one of the reasons is the frequent changes in government. I was given a report about Victoria Hotel. My predecessor, PS Motena Tšolo was working on it, just like our pre-predecessors. The managers are capitalizing on knowing that every time there is a change of minister and or principal secretary, they can get away with dilly-dallying because of the high level memory loss and poor follow up on the part of government.
We could take them to court, do everything the legal way to get the property back but changes in leadership means that when a new minister comes in, the process starts afresh. So, I say the ministry has a responsibility to go out and map facilities that are neither making profit nor paying their dues and act on them. Currently we have the transaction advisory team at work in MTEC, working on how to structure the contracts that we enter into with operators of hotels to arrive at some level of standardisation in contracting these companies. Tourism is not quickly picking up because the operators of the facilities are not up to scratch in terms of attracting visitors. They should be looking for people who pay liquid cash. They should advertise more and invite the public to stay on the weekends like some of the bigger hotels do for weekend specials. Those get fully booked for such occasions. All other facilities can do the same so that when operators are profitable, staff earn their salaries and the economy grows.
LT: Is this transaction advisory team part of the Ministry and can you sue them all the time?
PS: No. they are an international consultants team and they do once off work and go. I think government has to rethink the consulting arena. We cannot always depend on external consultants even for work that we can do ourselves. We need to fight unemployment while building local consulting capacity and eliminate the huge costs of external consultants. It not only in monetary but also in contextual terms in some instances.
LT: Are you satisfied with the LTDC in as far as marketing the country as a tourist destination is concerned?
PS: Am I happy with the LTDC? No, I am not happy and I learnt that many other PSs before me were also not happy with how the LTDC and the ministry work together. The two must related in a parent and strategic business unit mode. Now the LTDC sometimes think that they are a regulatory authority and this is harming its relationship with the ministry and stakeholders of tourism. It’s about leadership, style, vision, reaching across and networking. MTEC is not going to micro-manage the LTDC and cooperation is not conquest. The LTDC must pick up on their own part to market Lesotho as a tourism destination of choice. The LTDC has excellent human resource base, a depth of skills and young and robust team that only needs to reach out, to improve its work. A I am about to go, I’m satisfied that there has been an improvement in the relationship and what we need to do is to continue to work together.
We must form the Lesotho Tourism Council which will be a regulatory body. The ministry will play its part in developing the regulations, policies and laws for licensing and everything else concerning the tourism industry. The LTDC will market the country in terms of the policies and regulations and tourism will boom.
LT: Who is your likely successor as principal secretary?
PS: Not yet. I am not even supposed to know but my principals will surely appoint someone whom I could hand over the office to when the time comes.
LT: Your concluding words as principal secretary?
PS: Tourism is the way to go in economy building. Unless we recognize the national wealth that lies within the natural environment, culture, arts and creativity unique to Lesotho, we will not develop. I thank all my colleagues, PSs, friends and clients at both the MOH and MTEC and all other ministries for their support and cooperation. They were great teams and I hope to still be an instrument of that “connection” wherever I go next. Have a great 2019 year ahead.