After being shunned by potential financiers at the beginning, Itekanele Medical Aid Scheme has now blossomed into a strong player in the health sector. It is now evaluating a possible merger with an international player. Managing Director Solly Reikeletseng talks to The Patriot Business.
Q: It has been 10 years since you launched. Reflect on the first day of opening – how was it; who was the first person to sign up?
A: It has been 10 long years since we opened the doors for business at Itekanele Health Scheme. When we projected business it all seemed so easy and it was only after a few weeks in the office that we realised that selling the product was an odious task. Besides selling the product we also learnt that formal business is not a walk in the park, it’s an expensive task that requires a lot of bureaucracy. Little but surely we were able to enrol the first client on the 07 November 2005 by the name of Balingi Jackson. We still have the form framed in our head office today; it’s an inspiration as it constantly reminds us of the path we walked.
Q: Where was your first office located and how many branches do you have now?
A: The first office was situated by Independence Avenue. Now we are at Commerce Park and in Francistown. The organisation employs 30 Batswana who we continuously develop through training and development to meet the needs of the industry.
Q: A new product – medical aid – new target primarily for people with little take home; this must have been a hard sell. Reflect.
A: The principle focus of the scheme was and has always been to target the unbankable market. Throughout the roll out of the scheme we realised that it was a challenge to keep the clientele for a long time as the unbankable clients are very mobile and we had to invest a lot of resources on payment infrastructure. Most of the service providers were used to servicing white collar clientele and it was a difficult task to convince them that blue collar could also be profitable. Convincing the financial institutions to support the business was impossible because they viewed blue collar as risky and we had to push the envelope for years and where we got support it was very minimal that it could not sustain the business.
Q: What made it easier for you to settle and become sustainable?
A: We only settled when we realised that we and only us can make this work. Expecting support from Government and Banks was a hard sell. In 2006 we approached Kutlwano Volleyball Club and asked them to partner with us and grow our brand. We did not have ready cash to pay them and we struck a deal that we will get them playing kit and pay for the sponsorship on a monthly basis as opposed to a lump sum. The team was so inspired that it started winning leagues with our brand name and within no time Itekanele was a household name. We did the same with football first division in Francistown and we were soon getting business. We used the proceeds from the business to build solid processes to support the business.
Q: Did you get a loan to start off?
A: The business did not get a start up loan. The directors financed the operations and made sacrifices to sustain the business. The directors worked for over two years in the business without a salary until such a time that the business was able to sustain itself.
Q: The kind of people your scheme targets are the vulnerable and poorly paid that are more likely to default in their payments. How are you managing this challenge?
A: We are faced with a lot of defaults as our clientele is very mobile and they don’t keep one account for a long time. We have invested in systems that help us track our clients and we have allocated relationship managers to our entire client base. We are able engage them and where they have lost their jobs we suspend membership until the time that they are on their feet again.
Q: How has competition been … fair or ugly?
A: Competition has become very aggressive with some schemes targeting our clientele. We have also seen an entry of more than three schemes in the last five years and most of them targeting our clientele. My comfort is that the industry is very solid and mature and with NBFIRA as a regulator some of the issues are manageable. Competition can also get nasty and personal with underhand tactics being employed, including bad mouthing, reporting and utter sabotage. We have dealt with these issues through focusing on our mandate and the reason we exist. Yes, in the beginning it was difficult to focus because emotions would overwhelm some of us because with time you learn that it is the nature of business. You then realise that if you want to be liked then be a priest or an actor but don’t get into the business space. The only way to deal with competition is to stay relevant, that’s all. There is no magic to it, do what you do and face your challenges head on.
Q: How does the next five years look for Itekanele … Internal growth or regional?
A: In the next five years we are doing mergers. We are currently in discussions with a local and international scheme where we are looking at merging to grow our portfolio and the whole discussion is exciting.
Q: Is there room for growth in the medical aid service sector?
A: We all talk about saturation in the market which I personally don’t believe. Statistically the industry has not grown over the last 10 years and this can be attributed to the fact that Government employees are in a closed scheme. If that space is to be liberalised, then the opportunities are endless. I also look forward to Government privatising some of the hospitals as that will also create an opportunity for quality healthcare access by everyone without necessarily hitting the pockets of the patients.
Q: How do you balance the challenge of leading this business with your other roles … i.e. chairperson of the BNSC?
A: I am able to drive sport development in Botswana because I have always had a passion for sport and have been an athlete all my life. Sport and the business I do have correlating spin offs. I am in the health space and at the same time I drive the nation to be healthy through sports. I am able to drive all the two roles because I have set up sound systems which don’t require me to be micro managing. I have also hired the best people in market in my view, who are passionate and ambitious and have a desire to achieve. In my management style, I have no room for mediocre and employees who don’t have the right attitude not stay in the business. It is a principle I commit to and will always deliver on.
Q: Who and what inspires you?
A: I am inspired by men and women who earn minimum wage and yet smile even when they have responsibilities to meet. These people inspire me because my father raised 8 of us and an extended family on minimum wage.
Q: Which book are you reading or writing?
A: I have written a book which will be launched in June this year entitled “I believed, you also have to Believe” it was supposed to be launched in December last year but there were so many things to add and I have added them and I am happy with what I have produced.
Q: Your message to young and budding entrepreneurs?
A: Entrepreneurship is a way of life. You have to get into it for the right reason and creating employment is not one of the good reasons. You have to find out what makes you happy in this lifestyle. The hours are long, time is never enough, decisions are always difficult and you are always on your own. Stay focused; don’t be fooled by policies that promise Heaven and gold, it’s your sweat that will give you rewards.
Q: Your motto?
A: My life motto is “get the bloody job done”.