German born Christian Schmidt along with his business partner, Darol Howes, have established a pioneered event that not only puts Lesotho on the map for its unique and adventurous terrains but also boosts its economic value in various industries. Lesotho Sky is an annual bicycle race which hosts cyclists from all corners of the world. The concept maximises Lesotho’s potential in its most organic form exposing the best of what the country has to offer; its mountains, its scenery and its people. It is not just an event but a project that is beneficial to the cultivation of Lesotho’s tourism industry. 2016 will mark Lesotho Sky’s 5th year running. Lesotho Sky has been able to demonstrate that all it takes is a small team with big dreams, where successes have helped them to increase the spin-offs, the relevance, the partnerships, the sponsorships and their overall impact on the country.
“The fact that Lesotho’s tourism industry is underdeveloped, I look at it as a pro, as a benefit, because we’re on the job,” says Chris. Although there was cycling, there was no ‘big race’ to put the country on the map before Lesotho Sky according to Chris. This was the opportunity they saw to really promote and push tourism and raise Lesotho’s profile to become “The Mountain Bike Kingdom.” Chris beams that he loves many things about the country saying: “I’m an entrepreneur and I see a lot of opportunities here in business.”
Chris’ parents moved to Morija when he was five years old. He went to primary school there and left when he was ten to go back to Germany. “Part of my roots are in Lesotho,” he says. His first bike was a BMX which his parents bought him while he was living in Morija. “I was cruising all over Morija, jumping into dongas, doing all sorts of crazy things.” “It is part of what brought me back; my childhood here in Lesotho, the cycling and also understanding the opportunities in the tourism industry, that are nowhere near exploited and still very raw in many ways.”
He came back to South Africa and after his matric he spent two years travelling the world, riding his bike. Chris says the pleasure of riding the mountains, is what eventually brought him back to Lesotho. During this time he cycled to Cape Town from Port Elizabeth where he fell in love with the city. He applied to the University of Cape Town and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in economics, after which he then pursued an Honours degree in finance. Chris holds a German passport so it was not easy for him to find work in South Africa, so he moved to London where he worked for a bank and got his corporate experience for six months. He later then decided he wanted to start his own business. “I was naïve to be honest, I had big dreams and I was arrogant enough to believe I could make them happen,” he says.
He adds: “I’ve always been a dreamer and I wasn’t willing to settle for less. I didn’t have a concept; I didn’t see how this was all going to play out because I’ve never done it before.
“I saw the product that we wanted to build but I didn’t see how it [would all come] together.”
Lesotho Sky’s first event was in 2011 which ran successfully. He and Darol knew that they wanted to grow the event and realised that there was only one place they could do that. They decided to base themselves in Lesotho in early 2012 in order to be able to extend relationships, scout more routes and see how they could turn this into a world class event.
“We didn’t start the business to become millionaires,” explains Chris. “It was more like ‘Hey. We’re young, if we don’t do this now we’re never going to do it.” According to him they approached this venture with the mind-set that it could easily go either way and if it fails, they’ll simply do something else. “I think I was fortunate enough to be able to follow my passion,” he says. Lesotho Sky as a company has managed to build a business around the event including the annual Corporate Challenge that takes place at Maseru Mall and bicycle tours that run all year round.
In regards to working so closely with a friend, Chris rates that he and Darol are friends before business partners and likens it to being married. He admits there will always be issues that arise but you have to be able to solve them, you have to be able to be a people’s person and talk about your issues because if you don’t manage that everything will collapse.
To those who intend to partner with friends in business, Chris suggests finding someone that is passionate about the same thing as you are, because if you are passionate and moving in that same direction then the other things will become secondary and you will solve any issues that arise. He also advises to make sure your interests align and know who you’re dealing with. “If we can’t solve problems together then we jeopardise the entire event,” he says.
Lesotho Sky made a practical decision to keep a small team of three, with their only full time employee being Kananelo Masia. Any other crew or media that is required for the event is outsourced. According to Chris all three members of their team bring very different skills to the table. “One of my key capabilities is to be able to deal with people, to solve problems and to build relationships with sponsors and partners,” he says. “I’m the guy that goes out and signs the deals and negotiates with sponsors and I enjoy that.”
Although Chris is not a Financial Analyst by profession he has been able to exploit his knowledge in the field to be able to apply it to the business. “We have two investors in the event, they put money in right at the beginning. That wasn’t an easy negotiation and it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have any experience in finance and [understood] what it means to bring investors into a company… at least from a theoretical point of view.” In regards to whether his degree is in anyway relevant to what he does now he says: “Any degree I think is useful. It is kind of a ticket, it helps you solve problems.”
It has not always been easy. The first event they held ran a loss of almost M400 000. “That scared me but it also motivated me to push to see where we can take this because passion is great and events are great but there’s no point if it can’t pay the bills.” Some of the challenges they face are water shortages and the lack of infrastructure. When you host an event like Lesotho Sky you move from place to place in the mountains. He says you arrive with 130 people who all want to shower at the same time, eat at the same time, who want to sleep. The service that they provide requires decent infrastructure.
Chris explains: “Growing an event like Lesotho Sky requires a lot of local knowledge, understanding the challenges and then addressing them.”For example, they now work closely with WASCO who provide water trucks that are constantly on standby and ensure that those trucks deliver the water well on time as needed. The lodges have also had to adjust to accommodate the increase in guests and the lodges in Ramabanta have now installed bigger water tanks.
But today they celebrate their growth. The event had 84 riders from 12 different countries last year and they want to see at least 200-250 riders in future. “In hindsight it is a blessing that we grew slowly because if we’d had 130 people in our first year we would have collapsed and not have been able to deliver on our promise.”
In terms of the perceived ease of foreigners to be able to start and grow businesses in comparison to their local counterparts, Chris says: “It’s not a question of where you’re from, it’s a question of ‘what have you been exposed to?’ and ‘where do you see opportunities?’” He says a lot of Basotho that he studied with are working in South Africa or elsewhere because for them that is where they see opportunities. “Something I missed when I moved back to Lesotho was being surrounded by young entrepreneurs, who are similarly motivated, to achieve similar things in business.”
Chris adds, “I’ve seen a lot of change in Lesotho in the last five years. Young people are very excited, young Basotho are seeing opportunities, they are staying here, realising them.”
“Is it easy to start a business here? Yes and no,” he says, and although it was easy for them to register and start a business, there are many challenges facing the growth of big business especially in the tourism industry. Something he believes could improve the industry would be “to provide an environment that is conducive to investment for Basotho and foreigners who want to invest money in tourism infrastructure.”
“There is very little here that will incentivise an investor from outside the country, who will invest money into tourism infrastructure.”
“Also skills,” he continues, “there are not a lot of people, with the right skills in the right positions, to attract investors.”
“My recommendation is to focus on skills development in Lesotho.” Chris also suggests working closer with South Africa, who has a Billion Rand very successful tourism industry that is located right around our borders. Chris believes Lesotho should also have more recreational facilities for children.
And in terms of his own achievements?“There is the entrepreneur in me that is very happy and proud of having achieved the goal, but it wasn’t just about starting a business it was more about following a passion, following a dream, starting something radically new that has never been done before in Lesotho,” he says. It also makes him happy to see other cyclists come from all corners of the earth to Lesotho every year to ride their bikes. “I feel like what we’re doing here really has an impact, people are recognising it, which is giving us the energy and the motivation to grow to greater heights.”
Chris says although there are many setbacks, he doesn’t allow them to get in the way of what needs to be done. “I could rant on about 1 million bad things that have happened but at the end of the day, complaining doesn’t move you forward. Focus on the opportunities, focus on the people that make an impact, that inspire you and forget about the rest.”
“I don’t have any spare time but I make time for what’s important to me.” Physical activity and nature are important to him, he does rock climbing and ‘adventure racing’ where participants are given a map and navigate their own course of cycling, paddling, running and abseiling. Astonishingly, Chris also cycles in his spare time. “There’s the business side of cycling, then there’s the personal side.”He says he is participating in a race in Cape Town just for his own pleasure.
Lesotho Sky has been able to exploit opportunities for Chris who loves travelling and cycling and as the business grows he is able to utilise Lesotho Sky to bring Europe to Lesotho, bringing two worlds together. “I love Lesotho for everything it has and everything it offers, I love Germany because it is home.”