Dive Operator, Belinda Botha and Glacier Guide, Lucy Podlucky
South African born Belinda Botha left behind her life as an industrial psychologist in North America to become a full time scuba instructor and set off to travel the world. She is now the operational director and trainer of Dive Munda in the Solomon Islands where she runs the award-winning business.
Dive Munda has won a plethora of awards, most recently winning the 2017 Tourism Business of the Year Award presented by the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry - Business Excellence Awards. They were also recently awarded, for the third year in a row, the Diving Company of the Year Award recognizng excellence in service, employee satisfaction, marketing and branding, local knowledge and cultural understanding and the 2016 and 2018 South Pacific Tourism Exchange Social Media Award. In addition, Operations Director Belinda Botha was recently awarded the Runner Up Award for 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year. Belinda Botha also became one of a handful of females (and first Expat woman) to serve on the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry Board, representing for the first time the Tourism sector and outer provinces. We caught up with the lady at the helm, Belinda Botha…
What were some of the challenges you have faced being a female in the dive industry?
Historically the Solomon Islands is still largely a complex culture when it comes to “women’s rights” and the high rate of gender-based violence and traditional Kastom roles alongside super religious views can make running a tourism business with female dive guides bit challenging. It is changing, but slowly, especially in the outer islands and communities like Munda. I experienced disrespect, violence and general comments that I am inferior to men. I have had a few very close calls that, let me just say I would not be telling my dad about them! But these incidents were few and far in between and being born in South Africa made me respect and appreciate and foster different beliefs, cultures and traditions. I fought for recognition and equality because there was no other way, and somebody had to do it. These things do not change overnight, and it will never change if somebody does not speak up and fight for change. I think working with chiefs and community elders and leaders and painstakingly building relationships, earning trust and respect, communicating frequently and frankly, speaking the local language, being transparent, taking the time for personal visits, being open and friendly, firm but fair helped a bit! The Solomon Islanders are some of the most amazing people I have ever met! Our local females are rocking the dive instructor role and are in general more hard working, more patient and less absent due to big nights out! A winning combination!
You have had recent success in your business most recently winning the 2017 Tourism Business of the year award. What other highlights or “victories” have you enjoyed?
– I love the way you put this, but it is really not just because of me, but a collective effort of many, it is more so about picking up what is needed in communities, villages, the tourism product offering and channelling ferocious energy
towards achieving those goals and outcomes. I am merely spearheading these initiatives and then driving hard (sometimes to great annoyance of those on the receiving end!) to get these goals accomplished.
Other projects we are most proud of is the recent partnership with NZ VSA – Solomon Islands. We are currently recruiting for a Yoga Teacher Trainer and Well-being Volunteer that will work with us and our females and youth and our villages to create more and different career opportunities for all in Munda. Also enhancing and growing our tourism product offering in Munda with the direct Brisbane to Munda flights coming in a couple of months. Super exciting!
What was your motivation for implementing a 60% female employment target and how does that effect performance/confidence/etc?
I realized very early on that it is all about making a difference and applying prior learnings and skills to not only help preserve and protect one of the last wild frontiers left on planet ocean, but also to identify core issues in a developing community and helping address them (more on this below). Without getting in to too much boring personal detail here, but apart from my diving accolades, I am also an Industrial Psychologist and came from a lucrative executive level career in Human Resources Management in corporate North America. I became bored and jaded, wanted to do more, for our environment and for woman, and an amazing 10-year journey across a few continents followed as I was searching for the place that is ready for this energy. The Solomon Islands found me. And here I am still after nearly 5 years!
I had two main goals when I relaunched Dive Munda in 2016 after coming off a few years setting up our dive liveaboard for our sister company, SIDE MV Taka from Honiara.
One, I wanted to create jobs for youth in the Munda community, this included training 12 local dive professionals, at least half of them were woman. In addition, I wanted to ensure we break barriers in communities and industries historically known as male dominated. Not only did we train 2 female Assistant Instructors, 4 Divemasters but also the first 2 female Dive Instructors in the history of this country! Interestingly, this has done amazing things in empowering females in the communities and industry in the Solomon Islands. I get approached by young girls everywhere I go wanting to know if they can also learn how to dive and earn an income or open up a dive shop. This frequently still brings me to tears. How empowering! Interestingly, it is not just our females benefitting from this evolution, but our male employees, partners, husbands, chiefs, male youths also experience and become part of the change. They all see first-hand the changes and treat woman differently, thereby breaking an ancient culture of submission and violence. We have an equal opportunity policy at Dive Munda, and we are not afraid to act when harassment, disrespect or violence occurs.
Two, I wanted to make sure that we work ferociously towards protecting and preserving not only our amazing natural resources (above and below the water) but also our traditional and Kastom cultures. This is a work in progress and a personal passion. I am very proud of collaborations formed with stakeholders, government and industry whereby we bring home the concept that each and every responsible traveller (diving or otherwise) visiting the Solomon Islands, gives strength to the theory of sustainable eco-tourism. This is the future of the country. This is so important considering our other main economic drivers; fishing, mining and logging can never be long term sustainable. We need to learn for the mistakes of our neighbours and because the tourism sector in the Solomons is in its “infancy” we can still make a difference. And we should all try.