Balancing babies and business
Ben Tobedza, 47 lost his wife to cancer two years ago.
As he struggles with his own personnel heartache, he now has to juggle raising three girls with running a vibrant advertising agency in an increasingly competitive and fast changing industry.
Though he is from Tonota, Tobedza grew up in Selebi Phikwe where he completed his Form Five before leaving for the bright lights of Gaborone to start university.
He has a Masters Degree in Business Administration specialising in Business Finance and a B-Com degree from the University of Botswana.
Since then, Tobedza has built-up a formidable CV. He was employed by BTC, where he held senior posts, worked for Leteshego as General Manager before heading BIHL Group’s Short-term Insurance Division.
His last job in formal employment was at LEA as Director, Corporate Communications and Stakeholder Engagement.
It was then that he decided to go his own way, starting his own company, Fresh Brand Marketing.
Six years later, Archie Mokoka caught up with this remarkable entrepreneur at his office in Phase Four, where they discussed the difficulties of running a business whilst simultaneously raising three girls in the absence of their mother.
Q. When did you get into business?
A. In 2013 I left my job at LEA to start an agency called Fresh Brands Marketing.
We are a 360 degrees marketing agency doing Public Relations, marketing strategies and implementation, activations, marketing planning and merchandise.
With our South African digital partner, we’ve embarked on an aggressive digital strategy because we’ve seen that traditional marketing ways are slowly dying out and we are more inclined to digital marketing.
Our comprehensive digital strategy will be offered to big corporate and medium sized companies.
One of our strengths is that we are a very strong activation company.
We do a lot of big events. such as Son of the Soil, which is coming up in two months time, a big festival coming in Mahalapye and BTC Francistown Marathon.
We’ve done very big events and product launches for our clients.
Q. Which are the most notable jobs you’ve done?
A. Botswana Telecoms gave us the biggest job in Botswana.
We did a comprehensive research that involved Office of the President, BOCRA, key clients like Debswana, BDC, consumers on the ground and competition to try to understand what people felt about the two brands and which is the preferred brand of the two as well as how they would want to interact with BTC going forward.
It was a very fulfilling job and a big learning experience as a local entity.
We partnered with a South African company, our digital partners. So BTC brand migration is the flagship of the work that we have done.
We’ve also done work for BFA through their sponsorships, implementation of their football strategy and a whole lot more.
Q. ‘A whole lot more’ is a bit vague, please elaborate.
A. We also run Railway Club, a multi-faceted integrated facility with a bar, gym, kitchen, big swimming pools, tennis courts, netball courts, volleyball courts, a big outdoor area where we host events.
We also do events like the Mahalapye Colour Run coming at the end of March and a big festival coming at Easter as well as a 42km marathon coming in August and a whole lot of other activities lined up.
Q. Impressive! So how many staff members do you have working under you?
A. The core marketing agency has six staff and in Mahalapye we have 10.
We are a medium sized profitable entity.
We get awarded half of the tenders we bid for, therefore we are a very vibrant and busy team.
Q. Who is your competition?
A. Competition is wide, especially with countless youth-owned companies that are coming into the market supported by government and have been given grants and soft loans.
We, however, are more experienced and have dealt with companies at the highest level and therefore we understand where companies want to go, consumer patterns as well as how the market reacts to pricing issues and the like.
The traditional competitors are Horizon, Red Pepper, Media Com and other big names, but we are not scared of them – we will soon be competing with them head-to-head!
Q. What are the main challenges your business experiences?
A. These days companies have hired people and do things in-house and that is the biggest challenge for us.
The second one is competition.
When you send out a request for tender bids you receive 40 to 50 responses and therefore, no matter how brilliant your proposition is, it’s very difficult to separate it from others.
Maybe they just go through five or six and get interested in one and shelve the rest!
The other one is the usual unfair business practices whereby people give jobs to their friends, former schoolmates or cousins.
It’s very serious because we spend days and nights compiling the tenders to ensure we offer the best value proposition but people already know who they are awarding the tender to.
It’s common across government, parastatals, private sector, independent trusts and the like.
We just hope that culture is changed so that merit is recognised and rewarded.
Q. Must be frustrating! How do you get around that?
A. It’s very difficult to mitigate and we just keep on keeping on.
There is hope though. We have partnered with a digital strategy expert from South Africa and hope that we will be able to offer things that are out of the ordinary.
Corruption is very difficult to deal with and is the most worrisome problem in the industry.
Companies need to strengthen their processes and ensure that their hotlines are effective and when we report they should take action.
Q. Doesn’t Business Botswana help?
A. Business Botswana is a very modest organisation.
We SMEs are not really feeling the impact of Business Botswana in terms of how government and companies conduct business.
For example, companies these days ask us to give them strategies at tender level and in the end you have 20 companies feeding 20 different strategies to that company.
Even if they don’t appoint any of us, they have 20 different strategies to implement.
That is unfair! We should rather give them a template of methodology but they force us to tell them how we would do the marketing.
Out of desperation we do as they ask but they will never even tell you they have received the tender.
It’s very frustrating and we want Business Botswana to assist by lobbying in different forums for protection of intellectual property.
Companies are too powerful. We’ve reported it but companies will tell you if you don’t want to tender, don’t tender.
Q. What’s your typical day like?
A. I wake up at 5:30 in the morning and by seven o’clock I’ve dropped the kids at school then I have a hectic day.
Sometimes I get a break during the day when I’m needed at school.
After work, Monday to Wednesday, I drive home to be with the kids but Thursday there are corporate functions I have to attend or I meet with my golf buddies.
Weekends I’m at Mahalapye for the club but other weekends I’m home with the kids and the golf club or travel to South Africa on business.
I also do a lot with church.
I’m a believer and I grew up in UCCSA so I’ve been attending Trinity all my adult life in Gaborone and when we moved we opened a branch in Phakalane.
Q. What’s your strategy for the future?
A. We want to operate digitally as much as possible and do away with papers.
Newspapers will have to go digital like some are already doing.
We are going to lead the drive for digitalization.
We further want to go into events and ensure that we sensitise our clients and the general public that one way of marketing products is through big robust events.
The third one is to mentor and grow young marketing entrepreneurs.
We will come up with a proper and formal registered product by which we will mentor youngsters and share the little experience we have with them.
Our social responsibility programme will also grow so that people appreciate what we are trying to do to interact with the market.
Q. How do you cope with such a hectic work schedule and being a single parent?
A. Being a single male parent isn’t easy.
My first kid is in Form Four at Maruapula and the other two are at Thornhill.
Women have that natural gift of taking care of the kids and running around doing this and that but with men it’s really hectic.
I’m into it for the second year since I lost my partner and have to acknowledge the family support structure and friends.
I have a very close-knit unit of friends, mostly from my wife’s days, who come and pick the kids on weekends, especially when I’m under pressure or when I’m in Mahalapye.
Even with such support being a single parent is stressful.
I however try my level best.
The kids are happy and the pain of losing their mother is slowly drifting away even though it will never really go away.
The activities we do at home are aimed at counseling them.
Q. How do you blow off steam after a hard week at work?
A. I’m a king golfer and I have been doing it for 20 years now.
When I joined golf there were very few black golfers.
I remember it was me, Thuli Johnson, Victor Sennye, a doctor friend of mine, Tumelo and Fish Pabalinga.
In those days golf was regarded as a rich man’s game.
I’m also quite active at Virgin Active gym; at 47 I’m not getting any younger so I have to keep active!
I also take some short walks with my kids as a family bonding activity.