African supermarket chain, Choppies to chop South African assets

Botswana-born supermarket chain Choppies plans to exit its South African operations, either in whole or part.

It entered South Africa in 2008 opening its first store in Zeerust North West, where most of its SA stores with concentrated.

The retailer has been battling several headwinds since last year when its shares were suspended on the JSE and Botswana Stock Exchange over the delayed submission of its results as PwC uncovered several accounting irregularities that needed further investigation.

In May 2019 its co-founder Ramachandran Ottapathu, following recommendations made in an investigation report by Desai Law Group, was suspended.

In an interview with CNBC Africa, Ottapathu, who hails from Kerala in southern India, explained why he felt his suspension was unjustified.

Ottapathu came to Botswana on the offer of an accountant’s job in Botswana. All he knew about the southern African country was that it had a lot of diamonds and elephants.

Ottapathu’s first job in Botswana was to look over the books at the Wayside supermarket in Lobatse near the border with South Africa – the then ailing predecessor to Choppies. He steered the books to safety by 1997 and in 1999 the company opened its first superstore in Gaborone. Ottapathu was appointed CEO of the company in 2000 and by 2015 it was turning over $533 and by 2016 it had 170 stores across Botswana South Africa and Zimbabwe. It had plans to expand in Kenya Tanzania and Rwanda.

“Africa is an addiction. I don’t even want my dead body to go out,” he was quoted by Forbes Africa as saying.

The expansion of Choppies made Ottapathu a fortune that he estimated, in 2016, to be worth around $300 million.

Yet, allegations of accounting irregularities, at least one payment that the board didn’t know about, boardroom squabbles with chairman and former Botswana President, Festus Mogae over the direction and running of the company saw Ottapathu ousted in 2019. A sweet growth story in Africa that appeared to come to a bitter end.

Now Ottapathu has requested an extraordinary general meeting, which will be held in September, in which his Excellency Mogae will step down as chairman and Ottapathu will attempt to get his job back.

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