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Reaching for the sky

Reaching for the sky

For as long as he can remember, Kealeboga Eshima has harboured fierce dreams of becoming a pilot.

It was a desire that intensified in 2002 when, at the age of 20, he joined the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), assigned to the role of mechanic for the army’s fleet of planes.

Desperate to fulfil his childhood ambition, Eshima quit his well-paid army job after just four years.

Proving his doubters wrong, Eshima’s courage was rewarded in 2008 when he secured government sponsorship to study aviation in South Africa.

The Pitsane native has not looked back since, returning to Botswana in 2012 as a fully-fledged pilot.

Jetting off for the dust of Maun, Eshima worked for various air companies within the tourist town before deciding to go solo in 2015.

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Undeterred by his critics, who were adamant he was making a mistake, in March 2018 Eshima set up Boro Air with his wife, Tess.

The charter company specialises in scenic flights over the Okavango Delta and transfers tourists into remote camps in the Delta.

Reflecting on his journey in this interview with FRANCINAH BAAITSE-MMANA, the 38-year-old high flyer reveals he never allowed poverty to stand in his way.

Q. Tell us about your passion for flying. Was it always your ambition to become a pilot?

I have always wanted to be a pilot.

From the time I was a little boy, I wished to fly the flying machines.

I would ask so many questions about them, how they get to fly in the skies and what they are made of etc.

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Q. I understand you grew up in Lobatse. You must have come across aeroplanes at the town’s Trade Fair?

To tell you the truth, the first time I came close to a plane and even touched it was after I joined the BDF.

I grew up from a poor background, between Lobatse where my mother worked and my home village, Pitsane.

I was always in between and never had a chance to be near a plane when I was young. Honestly speaking I would say it is by God’s grace that I have achieved my dreams and am doing what I do.

My mother could not afford to buy me a ticket to the Trade Fair.

In fact I could not even think about asking her for that much.

All the money she had was to buy us the very basic necessities.

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The first time I got close to a plane at the Trade Fair was when I was inside one – I was a soldier then and showing the children inside it!

Q. So you are an ex-soldier?

Yes, I joined BDF in 2002 where I became a mechanic for the army’s planes.

I resigned in 2006 because I realized that what I really wanted was not to be a mechanic, but a pilot.

I applied for government scholarship and I went to do my pilot course in South Africa from 2008 until 2012.

Q. How did your mother feel about you leaving the army?

Oh, she took it very badly!

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She was sad and feared for my future.

I was only 23 and again I was in the process of building her a house, which by then was at window level.

I had an ambition of building her a big house and was in the process of building her a three-bedroomed house.

But I could not let go of a scholarship opportunity, so I suspended the construction and went to school.

Q. It must have been an emotional time! Anyway, it appears to have been an inspired choice?

I passed and came to Maun in 2012 and worked for some local air companies, some of which I am competing with today!

I started at Marc Air, then Major Blue Air and later worked for North West Air.

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In 2015 I quit and prepared to start my own company.

When I told my employer I wanted to start my own air charter, those white men laughed at me!

They doubted I could make it and they were right to do so because at the time I did not have money, I only had passion.

And my family once again was not impressed.

They did not support me, more so I had only married the previous year and they argued that I was going to put a lot of pressure and demand on my wife.

My wife was working for CAAB (Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana), that’s how we met, on the airport grounds.

Q. So take us back to 2015, how did you turn your dream into a reality?

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Like I said I had no money.

Armed with passion, I worked towards getting money from CEDA, but of course, CEDA wanted surety.

So I spent most days at the Tawana Landboard premises seeking some prime piece of land I had spotted next to the airport.

After getting the land I was told it was worth far more than I had initially thought.

I used it as security to get a CEDA loan and argued that the planes that I will buy would also work as the loan’s security.

That is how I got the loan.

Q. And how many planes did you buy?

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I bought one, a five-seater, and returned the rest of the money because it was not enough to buy two.

But a single plane was okay because on busy days we can always lease from other companies.

There are some companies who have planes but are still struggling to get a flying licence.

One thing I think you should note is that getting a flying licence is not an easy exercise.

It took me a year and some months after I quit my job to get started.

Boro Air started operations in March 2018.

Q. You mentioned that you co-own the business with your wife, what is her role in the company?

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She does accounts and anything to do with money: invoicing and quotations, etc.

Most of the time I don’t even know how much we have in our accounts!

Q. Wow, you must have a very trusting relationship! What advice can you give to other couples out there?

There is no one size fits all model in relationships.

But what I can say is that working together has brought us even more closer, it strengthens our trust.

In my case, for instance, when there is no money at home she understands better. All I do is work.

It saves me a lot of trouble as a husband. Again my wife is a hard-worker.

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Q. Do you have children?

Yes, two: a boy and a girl aged 5 and 2.

Q. Back to aviation, when was your very first flight and how was the experience?

I was a soldier and I flew the presidential jet, Gulfstream, the best you can ever fly!

It was a wonderful experience and that is when I decided and in fact, took a principled decision that I was going to quit being a mechanic and chase my dream of being a pilot.

Q. I am told that racism in the tourism and aviation industry is rife, especially in this side of the country – have you ever experienced such?

I wouldn’t want to involve myself in something like that because I had quite a few bad experiences when in South Africa.

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When I got here, I decided that I was going to ignore them.

If I focused on racism, it would not benefit me in anyway.

There is nothing I can do to defeat it, so I ignore it; I choose not to see it.

If I chose to notice it, I would have brushes with many people, some of whom I need for my business to grow so I choose not to be involved.

Q. Interesting! So do you have plans to secure bush camps in the delta?

We do sub charter for other companies who have camps.

We help them fly their clients to their camps.

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I feel we are hard done by the system.

We have been trying to apply for land but it is not easy and it is heartbreaking because we survive on the crumbs of other companies.

But we do hope that someday since the current administration is seemingly in support of local companies when it comes to the tourism sector, we will make a breakthrough.

When we have land we can have control over our own destiny.

Q. Talking about controlling your destiny, how has Covid-19 affected your business?

Tourists are no longer coming and it has obviously affected our business.

But we are still busy.

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We reduced our scenic flights’ prices from P950 to P300 to encourage and promote local tourism.

We know an average Motswana may find it hard to afford the higher rates so we dropped the prices to accommodate their budgets.

And it is working because we are getting more bookings from locals and generally Batswana are eager to experience the scenic flights over the delta.

For only P300 you get to view the game and the Delta.

We fly very low at 350 feet above ground level – that is about 100 meters high.

That is low-level flying; you can even spot a crocodile that is swimming in the water below!

Also, we do not only do scenic flights.

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We do charter flying for shorter distances for instance companies.

They can charter us to take their people to Gantsi.

We land on small airfields and reach where Air Botswana does not.

Q. Besides flying, do you have any other hobby?

I am a farmer at heart!

I do ploughing, but not the traditional type of farming, I am into horticulture and poultry.

Before meeting for this interview, I had just dropped samples of my vegetables at Shoprite, so that when they need supply, they can contact me.

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The poultry helps me with manure, which I use to fertilise the vegetables.

Q. And finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what are you up to this weekend?

Usually, we don’t fly on weekends because the airport will be closed.

So most likely we will be at Afrobotho camp in Boro doing boat cruises and mokoro (canoeing).

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