Imagine buying a business for which you have no background or tertiary qualifications to fall back on. Yet six years down the line you have a successful business which keeps on growing.
Such is Elizabeth Hilger’s story. She is the owner of Tambuti Lodge, which is beautifully perched above the Kavango River overlooking the floodplain.
After her high school graduation, the Kavango-born woman enrolled for a computer course, which eventually landed her a job in 1999 as a receptionist at the Rundu Town Council. Hungry for more, which is typical of aspiring entrepreneurs, she soon packed and set for the capital, Windhoek, in search for the proverbial greener pastures. She would soon land a second job at a regional and town planning consulting firm called Stubenrauch Planning Consultants.
In retrospect, she is full of praise for her former boss, a Mr Stubenrauch, for inculcating a sense of hard work and discipline in her. Working for him forced her to come face to face with the true meaning of hard work while charting her own territory. She is right; time, effort and consistency all prove fruitful, eventually.
As weeks turned into months, it dawned on her, she was sadly not cut out for the big-city life. Life in Windhoek was too fast and stressful for her to keep up with. She would soon pack up again to return to her home town, Rundu.
As soon as she settled home, she teamed up with her brother to start a key-cutting business at the Rundu open market. This decision did not go down well with the rest of her family members who felt she was short-changing herself and was thus better off with a “descent job” suitable for a woman of her calibre.
Her aunt would even bring her newspaper cuttings of job vacancies, encouraging her to look for a “better job” but Hilger stood her ground. As such, none of her family members saw her success coming.
“Had I listened to what everyone had to say, I would not be where I am today,” she states.
The other challenge came from her male clients who would often undermine her ability to solve their ‘key problems’. She recalls them standing behind her to keep a close watch while she worked, lest she messed up their keys. Of course she would ignore their demeaning rants about her gender and go about her duties.
Her big break came when Government entered into a joint venture with the Luxembourg government to construct the Rundu open market. It is here that she met her future husband whom she describes as the pillar of her life from that moment henceforth.
As his contract drew to an end and he had to leave Namibia, Hilger was meant to accompany him to where the life she had dreamed of as a little girl beckoned. With all the arrangements that had been put in place for her departure, Hilger decided to decline the offer at the last minute, much to the disappointment of her then boyfriend and future in-laws who had anticipated their African daughter-in-law’s arrival.
“I would have missed Africa and its beauty dearly had I gone to Luxembourg,” she reminisces.
Although she refused to go to Luxembourg, the lovebirds would not let anything separate them. The challenge, however, was what to do next while her beau sorted out his immigration documents. Hilger was worried sick about how he would survive given that he was also undertaking his PhD studies at the time. Although the going became tough for both of them, all worked well in that regard eventually and as they say, the rest is history.
Opportunity would soon knock at their door and they grabbed it; they bought Agrivet Solutions an agriculture business that specialised in animal medicines which they eventually sold. It currently operates under new management.
Before long, she learnt that the once glorious Tambuti Lodge was up for sale. Hilger would seize the opportunity against her husband’s skepticism. But after convincing him she would make the business blossom even though she did not know the first thing about running a lodge, she won the deal and has never looked back since.
The lodge, despite its potential, was in a rundown state when she took it over in 2008. The state of the lodge had emanated from the previous owner’s emotional instability following a messy divorce.
While everyone perceived this as a challenge, Hilger saw it as an opportunity to prove her worth. She gorged every information she could get from the Namibia Tourism Board (NTB) booklets to help her understand the tourism industry better.
Eager to know as much and as fast as she could, she would visit other lodges and hotels to watch and learn how to do things.
“I became an ‘FBI agent’,” she chuckles.
And no, it was not a mere copy-and-paste affair, for her efforts have evidently paid off. Today, she hosts lodgers from [across] the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and from as far as Europe and the Americas. On the local front, lodgers are often individuals, Government officials, as well as private company representatives on business trips.
Realising that placing her lodge on the map meant more than having occasional international lodgers, Hilger embarked on an aggressive advertising campaign. She distributed her brochures through Nampost to every post office box in the country [after calling each and every post office to ask how many post office boxes they had so she could print the same number of brochures]. The feedback she got from this exercise assured her she had done the right thing.
As much as the internet helped her market the lodge, it initially got her into trouble as clients would complain that the information they got from the internet was different from the services they received from the lodge.
“I like it when people complain. In fact, I encourage them to complain,” she says, adding, she had to learn from her mistakes, fast.
Tambuti Lodge’s interior design is nature inspired - from the beds, the sofas [made of reeds] to the wooded plates. While they serve continental meals [as per lodgers’ preferences], the meals are mainly traditional to deliberately give tourists the ‘African taste’. Some of the meals the lodge offers on its buffet menu include traditional juices, jams and Mahangu meals.
Hilger is glad to have made the decision to venture into tourism as it is a lucrative business: “Tourism is a safe business. Even during times of war, you will still make money.”
While she acknowledges the prevailing peace in the country as a major draw, she adulates her region: “Kavango Region is the most beautiful of them all in the country; the river, the birds, the elephants... all make it simply adorable.”
Having started with only four employees, Hilger now has a staff complement of 15 dedicated people. Her journey does not stop here. She plans to build rental flats to cater for clients who often come into the country on long assignments.
She was recently honoured to be a board member of the Agronomic Board: “I was shocked to receive a call from the Minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry John Mutorwa, asking me to join the board. I asked myself, ‘how does it work?’”
It is obvious this appointment did not come by luck, for her community activism through radio talk shows, her business acumen and philanthropic activities have certainly worked in her favour.
This hard working businesswoman also runs a successful soup kitchen. Inspired by the plight of orphans and vulnerable children, she started doing such charitable deeds while mourning the death of her mother in her rural village in 2005.
She noticed there were children who would only appear at her mother’s funeral during lunch hours and this made her curious enough to inquire about their whereabouts. She would eventually meet and interview those kids. She found out that they were living in squalid and difficult conditions. So she soon decided to register a welfare organisation to arrest the problem after her mother’s burial. The Theresia OVC Foundation was born.
Today, the Foundation has 110 children who all are registered in formal schools. It assists its children to attain education, food, clothing and shelter.
Elizabeth is excited about the future and wishes to see her business grow for the benefit of the less fortunate around her.
“If you really know your worth, life becomes beautiful,” she concludes. PF