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Innovation Leadership: Lessons From The Makgadikgadi Salt Pans In Botswana

I have just returned home to Cape Town, from Maun, Botswana. Maun is the gateway to many diverse natural phenomena ranging from the green and lush Okavango Delta teaming with animals, to white dusty salt pans of the Makgadikgadi. I had hoped to spend time in the Okavango Delta, but with two young children this was not advisable. Predators love children in the wrong kind of way. Just the cry of an 8-month-old girl would prick up the ears of a lioness faster than you could say: “how’s your mother?”

So, my wife and two of our best friends (Dave and Jen now part of our extended family) organized a trip to two of their most family friendly camps in the Makgadikgadi. Dave and Jen co-founded Natural Selection, who have established a footprint of camps across southern Africa and settled in Maun which keeps them close to the action.

What is the Makgadikgadi?

The Makgadikgadi is a salt pan situated in the middle of the dry savanna of north-eastern Botswana, is one of the largest salt flats in the world. The pan is all that remains of the formerly enormous Lake Makgadikgadi, which once covered an area larger than Switzerland, but dried up tens of thousands of years ago. Modern Homo sapiens first began to evolve in this region some 200,000 years ago, when it was a vast, exceptionally fertile area of lakes, rivers, marshes, woodlands and grasslands favourable for habitation by evolving hominins and other mammals.

There are some protected areas within the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Park. The Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve is the scene of large migrations of zebra and wildebeest from the Boteti River across to Ntwetwe Pan, while the Nata Sanctuary in Sua Pan is a place to see birdlife and antelopes. The area can be accessed between the towns of Nata and Maun, or from the town of Gweta.

Innovation Leadership lessons

Lesson One: Partnerships are necessary for your ecosystem to survive

Natural Selection is a conservation driven tourism company striving to provide an unforgettable connection to the bush while introducing visitors to amazing conservation efforts. Natural Selection partner with local communities, governments and conservation organisations to help protect and expand important conservation areas and create long term benefits.

Similarly, other partnerships with commercial entities are developed by Natural Selection to ensure that the operational model suites the end-customer. Natural Selection strive to provide exceptional experiences to the intrepid traveler, ensuring that all partners collaborate to provide unique unforgettable experiences. Each property features spacious accommodation that blends into the landscape offering unique vistas while leaving guests feeling like they are part of the environment. And at each camp, personalized guides offer magical activities, delicious locally cooked cuisine is provided and the staff do everything they can to make your experience one of a kind.

Insight analogy: Successful businesses like Natural Selection form strategic partnerships with stakeholders with a focus on service, sustainability and impact. As custodians of this planet, humans and organisations alike need to cocreate and nurture partnerships that actually lower the impact of our footprint on earth, while creating prosperity and equalizing the have nots with those that have a lot.

Leadership position: What value chain partnerships lie in wait for you to activate and optimize? Can you expand into a more flourishing ecosystem thereby generating greater value to your market? Where can you improve to a more seamless services and curate unforgettable experiences? How might you establish a circular business model where you give back to the environment?

Lesson two: Migration is essential to survival

The Makgadikgadi pans are a remarkable sight all year round. We got to see them as they were beginning to fill up with water. And hence migratory birds were arriving, while the herds of antelope were heading off to more fertile ground. Antelope do this seeking fresh green grass in the areas where rain has fallen. And in doing so they leave the areas where they have already razed the grass to the ground, that it might replenish for when they return.

Insight analogy: Animal and bird migration ensures that food sources are sustained and allowed to recuperate. Animals “remember” migration patterns and instinctively find their way sometimes travelling upward of 1000 kilometers round trip. Interestingly the grass in the Makgadikgadi salt pans has higher mineral content than that in the Delta partly explaining why the Zebras migrate there.

Leadership position: Do you or your business continue to reinvest back into the environment around it? Do you allow resources to replenish and regenerate when overused?

For instance, when staff are required to work long hours or through high load or high stress periods, are people allowed to recuperate?

Lastly, if necessary, where can the business migrate to survive and thrive? For example, to migrate to a more functional technology platform, or to migrate into new and untapped markets with new value propositions?

Lesson three: thousands of seeds are required for survival

Moving away from the dry pans, I found myself exploring the banks of the river in Maun on a mountain bike. It was then that Dave pointed out the water lilies which I knew nothing about. The lilies are amazingly beautiful and abundant. Dave mentioned that one fruit hiding safely below the surface contains up to two thousand seeds. When the fruit opens, these seeds float away, aided by a clever floating device containing air pockets to keep them buoyant.

And, if eaten (by a pygmy goose for instance), they may be dispersed even further than the current would take them.

To successfully propagate, the water lilies produce a fruit that is housed underwater away from nibbling insects. The leaves shade the environment below, keeping the temperature cool and allowing for more oxygenated water. Thousands of seeds are produced from each fruit and other mechanisms ensure they are transported and embedded in the muddy banks where they thrive.

Insight analogy:
Water lily seeds can be likened to ideas in organisations. Organisations need thousands of ideas to solve the challenges and threats that crop up.

Should ideas not be protected and given parachutes to surface and propagate, solutions will not flourish and problems will persist. Ideas, like water lilies, need vast quantities to get to a good one. Ideas need to be processed (prototyped and tested) to see what works. And eventually ideas must be embedded into a nutritious (supporting) area within the organization to take root.

Bringing ideas to life takes hard work, protecting and oxygenating the concepts to the point where they flourish. And ideas must be generative, building on one another to make for a comprehensive concept.

Leadership position:

Does your organization encourage the production of thousands of ideas? Are these curated (transported) through a process to find what works? Do these ideas get embedded across functional areas to bring them to life?

Does your business have a second engine (like a pygmy goose) to develop new concepts and put them out into the world.


As you consider your organization’s innovation strategy to survive and thrive have you considered these three leadership insights?

First, seek to collaborate with appropriate partners to generate value, and ecosystem expansion. Use partnerships to differentiate products and services and keep the predators at bay.

Two, seek to migrate and replenish resources when they are depleted. Regenerate your environment with fresh offerings to attract new clients.

Three, encourage the production thousands of idea seeds to prototype and test. Propel those ideas and embed them in the organization’s DNA. Develop a second engine to transform ideas into concepts and put them out into the world.


Travelling through Botswana and experiencing the diversity of life surrounding the areas of the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi is incredible. The diversity of wildlife was all around us, whether near the river, or in the salt pans.

Nature thrives because of its ingenuity. It is through “natural selection” and not “artificial selection” according to Darwin that enables the organisms better adapted to the environment to survive. And it is through this process that evolution takes place.

Migration to a second engine assists with this evolution to survive and thrive in a constantly changing world.


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