Phakamile Hlazo

Tourism through tech

Phakamile Hlazo is the founder of Zulu Nomad, a travel startup based in Johannesburg. Her energy and passion for innovation, change and transformation in the tourism industry through technology, is infectious from the get-go. Born and raised on the sunny coast of Durban, Phakamile’s drive belies her laidback Durban roots.

Zulu Nomad started as a tour operator in 2016, curating amazing travel experiences in South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Technology driving innovation in tourism

“The ability to create experiences around a destination is probably what I love the most about what I do,” says Phakamile. “A destination that’s always been there, but people just weren’t paying attention to it before, or people weren’t able to experience the destination in that way before. My family are huge explorers and we love being able to share that with other people.”

But it’s the potential for innovation and the potential for driving change and transformation in the tourism industry through technology that excites Phakamile:

“It’s something that is so incredibly exciting because it gives us an opportunity to build on a successful industry. The South African tourism industry generates 8.9 per cent of our GDP as a country. There’s huge opportunity for young people to develop local products for the local market, for the African market, which is something completely new.”

The knock-on benefits of tourism

Phakamile describes how from 2016 to 2018 her business positively impacted 26 other businesses through the creation of different tourism experiences. Other tourism businesses included yoga, tour guides, accommodation, scuba diving and more.

“And that for me is huge. Tourism for me is a passion project. Tourism is a vehicle for my purpose. I believe that I’ve been brought here in this time and space to make a difference. And again, having been able to see directly the impact of just one small tour operator on so many other business owners has been a huge eye-opener in terms of just how much you can do, and how much of an impact you can have in the tourism industry.”

How does tourism contribute positively to investment in South Africa?

“At a future tourism conference last year, we had an American investor stand up and make the point that he initially visited South Africa as a tourist. And because he saw how beautiful the country is, the infrastructure that we have here, the resources, the really smart young people who are currently unemployed, South Africa was just a clear opportunity to come and build something. And they came back and started an office here.”

For Phakamile, tourism is making a real, tangible difference in people’s lives, many of whom get employment opportunities through investors coming and visiting South Africa.

Inspiring women in tourism

“I have a very different or unique profile to the typical South African. I was privileged to be awarded scholarships and had the opportunity to study and live internationally. I have lived in the UK and I’ve lived in China for three years.”

“It gives you a really different perspective on the economy. It gives you a different perspective on business. It gives you a different perspective on opportunities that are supposedly available for the previously disadvantaged or for women and young people.”

“And so one of the first things that we did as Zulu Nomad when COVID-19 hit and the lockdown started, knowing that these business owners rely 100 per cent on the tourism industry for their income, and knowing the frustration that business owners have just trying to make ends meet, was to develop and an online course for those in our industry.

“Unfortunately, as a startup ourselves, there was little we could do in terms of finances and funding people, but we knew that we could impart knowledge and skills. And our area of expertise is digital innovation and digital transformation. It’s technology.”

Phakamile describes how they developed an online course targeted at small and micro business owners in the tourism sector, to help those who were “sitting at home with absolutely no hope in the world.”

According to Phakamile, the course allows business owners to reflect on their business, the work that they’ve been doing over the years – as well as the processes they have in place. It’s an ideal time to pause, reflect and learn, because in Phakamile’s words, “business owners have never had this kind of time before”.

Put simply, the course is about empowering business owners, giving them the skills to make the most of their business – and their time:

“We have sourced case studies from all over the world. We are studying best practice, and learning from operators in Australia or Hong Kong. We’re using all that knowledge to inspire business owners across South Africa.”

Once the Tourism Business Council of South Africa developed and published the safety protocols for Alert Level 3 and Alert Level 2, the team then took those protocols and converted them into an online course. “It’s a magnificent course,” says Phakamile, “We’ve already had 80 business owners take this free course.”

The course is available online.

What would you ask the government on behalf of small businesses, on behalf of women in tourism?

“I think South Africa has some fantastic policies. But the reality on the ground for young people, the reality on the ground for women, is just not in line with all these things we say. We all know the theory about how these initiatives are supposed to be making a difference in our lives as women and as young people. But we don’t see it practically.”

The solution, Phakamile believes, is for more collaboration with the private sector:

“The one thing that I would probably say to the president is to make space. Allow space for people who are not in government, for people who are in the private sector, who want to make a difference and who want to contribute, and who want to be innovators and leaders, to actually be able to do that without being obstructed by government employees or by rules and regulations that don’t necessarily meet the need of the market today.”

For Phakamile, if it’s not possible to implement things on the ground, then what’s the point? “I think for me, a big one would be for the president to allow private individuals who want to make a difference, who want to make a change, to have the space to do so. Give us a chance. You know, the current way is clearly not working. It’s not working for everybody.”

Greatest hopes for our immediate future

Phakamile’s greatest hope after lockdown is that every single South African family that can afford to, takes the time to explore South Africa – transacting with small business owners along the way!

“If you have the disposable income, if you have money that you’re looking to invest somewhere, look at investing and partnering with an existing tourism business owner. You have people in the industry who have decades of knowledge and experience. Encourage people to think outside the box a little bit when it comes to travel and tourism and truly be part of the change!”

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"Encourage people to think outside the box a little bit when it comes to travel and tourism and truly be part of the change!"