Diamonds aren't forever: Botswana seeks to diversify its economy
Botswana’s diamond mines have long provided jobs and economic stability. But the land-locked nation is now looking to diversify its economy and is betting on sustainable tourism to help maintain its high standard of living in the future.
Britain’s Prince Harry calls Botswana his "second home": For 20 years it has been his destination of choice when he wants to escape the media glare. The young royal even sourced the central diamond for his fiancée's engagement ring from the country.
The diamond industry – in partnership with De Beers, the world's largest supplier – currently contributes around 20 percent to the southern African nation's GDP. Since diamonds were discovered in the country in 1967, the revenue from mining has been invested in infrastructure, schools and medical centres.
And with that have come jobs, stability and education, with a literacy rate of 83 percent. Today, some 20 percent of Botswana's 2-million-strong population is employed by the diamond mining industry.
But as the country's minister of environment, wildlife and tourism told FRANCE 24, diamonds aren't forever.
"This is a transition period," said Minister Tshekedi Khama. "We have to go from relying on diamonds to diversifying the economy."
With reserves dwindling, the industry fears an expiration date – estimated at 20 to 30 years from now.
Additionally, like all precious commodities, international demand for diamonds has greatly declined, notably with a sharp downturn in 2015.
De Beers, which had "zero lay-offs during the slump”, says it won't just "pack up and leave" once the industry fades. Pat Dambe, vice-president of corporate affairs at the company, told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview from the capital Gaborone that De Beers "will continue to look at technology, innovation and new ways of business in this very dynamic industry".
"Predicting the future means that you have to constantly plan. And as a partner of Botswana, that's what we're doing ... One of our schemes is in collaboration with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, aimed at empowering young entrepreneurs and owners of established businesses in Botswana."
Jacob Sesinyi, former communications director of Debswana, De Beers' joint venture with the Botswana government, provided a less optimistic forecast, however.
The diamond producer "will just move on once the industry evaporates", Sesinyi said.
With this possibility looming, Botswana is now looking to capitalise on its second-largest income earner: tourism.
According to official figures, the country received 1.6 million visitors in 2015, generating an estimated €780 million. While this only accounts for 3.3 percent of its GDP, the sector has created some 140,000 jobs, according to estimates.
Mmtila Moswang, 31, is a waitress at the recently opened Travelodge in Kasane, many of whose 7,600 inhabitants work in the service industry. The modern facility is just a stone's throw from the banks of the Chobe River, where four countries meet: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and a small strip of Namibia.
Tourists interested in wildlife flock to the area to get a glimpse of elephants, crocodiles and buffalos, to name but a few. Some animals even roam the streets freely, as most of the national parks in Botswana are unfenced.
The town centre is home to a market, where dozens of stalls are set up to sell fruit, vegetables and fabrics bearing the sun-soaked colours of Africa. Other artifacts are also on offer for the tourist who chooses to look beyond the flora and fauna.
"When I wasn't working, I wasn't able to buy myself simple things like toiletries. It was also boring being at home all day, watching movies ... There are more jobs for people like me now. But those in the mining industry will struggle, because that's the only experience they have," said Moswang, a mother of two, while brushing the hair from her face.
"To work in tourism you have to train, and that costs money. I paid €500 for my course. How can someone who just lost their job afford that and make the transition?" she asked.
In a bid to expand the sector, the country is looking at various tourism models – including adventure, cultural, urban, business and – above all – sustainable tourism.
The Okavango comprises an area of between 15,000 and 22,000 square kilometres, depending on the season, and is home to zebras, lions and the world's largest population of elephants.
The question on everyone's minds, however, remains whether Botswana can survive on tourism alone once the diamonds are gone.
Minister Khama believes this could work if an environmentally sustainable model is adopted.
"The government has made a decision to boost eco tourism, because we are not sure how long our natural resources will last unless we make a point to protect them," he said.
Ralph Bousfield, who has been dubbed the “rock star” of the safari circle, is more cautious.
"You get scared if you start comparing returns from mining to tourism – I don't think tourism will ever make the kind of money that diamonds make," he said. "We need to manage expectations, especially for the next generation."
Bousfield was raised in the bush by a family that has been guiding for five generations. Today, he is the owner of the Jack's Camp safari group.
"We need to be a lot more innovative, to look beyond Chobe and the Okavango Delta. We will need a lot more area for tourism ... Despite the small population, land here is as much of a problem as it is elsewhere," he said, giving the bracelets on his wrist – worn for protection – a jangle with every gesture.
"Botswana is a wildlife tourism place. To change people's perception is the real challenge,” Bousfield said. “Like what we are trying to do: It's so much more about the experience."
In addition to five safari camps, Bousfield has a mobile safari that moves every few days. It's part of what he refers to as a "growing high-end sector”, but one that “isn't where it could be".
Botswana is also looking at boosting trade with neighbouring countries. The €220 million Kazungula Bridge between Zambia and Botswana is part of that plan.
Expected to be completed by 2021, the 923-metre-long road-and-rail project is being carried out in part with financial aid from the African Development Bank.
"Diamonds may have been the launching pad for the success of our country, but we have new tricks up our sleeves," said one engineer.
This is a sentiment echoed by the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), which held a workshop in Kasane in early December to promote the media as potential advocates of sustainable tourism and wildlife conservation.
According to Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the UNWTO, sustainable tourism has proven not only to boost economic development and create jobs, but to promote the "inclusion of communities”.
Rifai said it can also help position a developing country to capitalise on "international markets and new business models based [on] the concept of the green economy".
The economy of this African nation may yet hang in the balance. But one thing is for sure: The country is showing both leadership and foresight as it looks to the future.
As they say in Botswana: "Beautiful words don't put porridge in the pot."
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