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Hi tech meets the bush.

The Okavango Delta is one of Africa's most beautiful natural areas but it is also one of the most remote. Until now, contact with the outside was only by expensive phone or fax. The introduction of e-mail has changed all that.

A Safari camp manager sits outside her thatched chalet deep in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Outside a herd of elephants stroll the waterways of the world's largest protected wetland. Inside the manager is busy at a generator-operated computer reading her electronic mail. The Okavango might be marketed internationally as Africa's last untamed wilderness, but it is also a thriving example of high tech meets bush.

While Internet providers only set up shop in Botswana about a year ago, and there are still only about 2,500 users nationwide, it is becoming increasingly fashionable amongst safari companies in the north of the country as a means of running business.

In the 1996 issue of Botswana Focus, a glossy tourism directory produced annually, not a single company, whether offering adventure safaris, bird watching, hunting or boating, had an e-mail address. In last year's issue, 10 have an Internet address, three have e-mail and a further three have both.

Most are based in Maun, a village on the edge of the Delta which is the heart of Botswana's tourism industry.

For the first time, bookings are being made by e-mail and locally based companies can hook up with travel agencies abroad. As a result trade is up, business is brought closer to home and clients can be accessed a lot faster and cheaper than before.

In the past getting e-mail usually meant an expensive call to South Africa at $0.55 a minute. One Maun company was going all the way to Washington DC to get its e-mail at a cost of $2.25 a minute. "It was ludicrous, it was like running to the UK to send a fax there," says Mr Ronald Ridge, manager of Byte Soft Systems in Maun.

In late 1996, when servers opened up in Botswana, accessing e-mail meant a call to the capital, Gaborone, 1,000km away at 90 thebe ($0.3) a minute. Now, thanks to Infor Botswana Internet services, it will just mean a local call in Maun at 33 thebe a minute. The Maun data line was commissioned and ready at the end of February.

This is welcome news for companies such as Okavango Wilderness Safaris (OWS) which rely heavily on e-mail. "Our central reservation office is in Johannesburg," explains Ms Sharon Tarr, "but I spend at least four hours a day sorting out information on clients for the camps." In the past OWS relied on much less efficient faxes. Today they receive messages on new bookings, itinerary changes, private charter information or special dietary requirements which are then radioed or sent by mailbag to the camp.

Island Safari, a local tourist lodge, recently went on-line as well, and manager Mr Potter says they had a safari booking from a new client in Germany just that morning. "Most definitely costs have gone down," he says. "The fax took ages and there were loads of error reports."

E-mail may also help small Delta villages to market their community-run concession areas. Mr Karaetswe Brown from Khwai, a settlement of about 300 people bordering Moremi, says villagers there hope to buy a computer and solar panel and then use VHF radio to get e-mail. "Then we can talk to people around the world and tell them about our camp," he says.

Both the Internet and e-mail represent prime opportunities to market Botswana overseas. This is particularly crucial when the government is trying to move away from a reliance on minerals and beef production and is targeting tourism as the new engine of growth. The World Tourism Organisation estimates that Botswana earned $178m from tourism in 1996 alone. The number of visitors to the northern parks and reserves last year increased by 17.7% over 1996 to a total of 132,249 people. The Department for Tourism attributes this up-turn to improved marketing.
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Title Annotation:online services in Botswana
Author:Davies, Caitlin
Publication:African Business
Date:May 1, 1998
Words:676
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