After 11 years at the helm of the Road Fund, Nkekeletse Makara will be stepping down from the position as the CEO on June 30. He has seen the Fund through both hard and good times. He takes pride in his achievements and attributes the success of the Road Fund to his formidable team.

He said he believes in inviting people to share their ideas on how to address the organisation’s challenges and develop innovative solutions. He said teamwork is one of the core values of their organisation. Under his leadership, the Fund has contributed to constructing many road networks in the country.

A civil engineer by profession, Makara takes pride in having failed Standard 2, saying he learned many lessons from that experience, which contributed to his professional journey. Our reporter, Thoboloko Ntšonyane sat down with him for this wide-ranging interview to hear his reflections.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? I am curious to hear your story about how you ended up in the engineering profession. Did you always love engineering growing up?

I have a background from different places. I started my primary education at St Peter’s Primary School  in Mokhotlong. It was one of the prominent schools in Mokhotlong. Then, we had to balance going to school and looking after animals, as the environment demanded. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay there long because my father, who was a Postmaster, got a promotion and was transferred to Maseru. Moving to Maseru meant coming into a different environment.

At Maseru, I attended Iketsetseng Private Primary School, where I repeated Standard 2. Coming from Mokhotlong, I had already passed Standard 2, so being told to repeat it was confusing. The environment played a significant role in my education. I repeated the class, failed it, and only passed it on my third attempt.

In my career, I always tell people that I repeated Standard 2 three times, and I am proud of it because that is where my eye-opening journey began. I started to appreciate the environment differently, observing how students behaved and growing through my primary education.

I think the standards were an issue because back where I came from, I was a top student, consistently scoring either first or second place, and we would be paraded in front of the assembly in the morning. However, that success did not translate to passing at my new school in Maseru. I think that disparity was due to the different environment and curriculum. It was very frustrating, as you can imagine, and it can even be threatening to a child’s development. But with strong support from my parents, who encouraged me to hold steady, I improved over time and eventually passed Standard 7 with first class.

Then, I attended high school at Lesotho High School, one of the best schools at that time, and that is where things started to come together. I took woodwork and began to appreciate technical subjects. At that time, I still knew nothing about engineering until I sat for my Form E examination and obtained a good second-class result in 1994. This led to my admission into the Bachelor of Science (BSc) programme at the National University of Lesotho (NUL).

Then there was a bridging course for students admitted into BSc at NUL, and we were grouped together with those who had enrolled in engineering courses at Lerotholi Polytechnic. This programme ran for three months. One day, my father came home after meeting his friend, Mr Malapane, who was a lecturer at Fokothi. Mr Malapane mentioned that he didn’t have a child who could study BSc and asked my father to give him my name. He personally applied for me for the engineering course, and I still thank him even today.

After completing my Diploma in Civil Engineering, I worked briefly before proceeding to pursue a degree at the University of Natal now University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN) in South Africa. The journey was not easy at all. I was on the verge of dropping out of engineering school. I even told my father that I couldn’t make it, but he insisted that I press on. Eventually, I passed marginally and graduated.

In Civil Engineering some of its works you will not see them, you will see the end results and this is the most rewarding experience.

How would you describe your journey at the Road Fund? How has it been?

Some of the things are probably going to be difficult to talk about because of their sensitivity. It’s been a journey where one constantly fights between principles, whether they are engineering-based or personal, and the influence of work, now influenced by the powers that be, to do this and not do that. It’s a struggle that I cannot explain.

But then I grew to realize that if you do not teach people how you do the work, they are not going to know, but they will influence you to do your work in a manner in which they want, which may go against the good practices of your career and personal principles. Then it becomes a problem for you to execute in that case.

So, I had to be firm, and sometimes there are a lot of risks you are managing, with the threat of losing your job when politicians threaten to fire you because you are not conforming to what they want you to do. It’s a struggle of balance between personal, professional, and work expectations. You juggle these at the same time and try to balance them all as they all matter.

It has not been an easy journey, but you get better with it as you go. You gain experience and tactics for handling some of these things as you progress. The challenges don’t get easier, but you get better at handling them as you go.

Would you tell us what your initial targets were when joining the Fund and to what extent have you achieved them during your tenure as the CEO?

Firstly, I want to rephrase my response and say we instead of I during my tenure as CEO. It wasn’t just me; I was leading a team, and I could not have done it alone. I needed a team to be able to achieve our goals.

One of the biggest dreams was to transform the organisation from where one found it at that time. Let me give an example: our operations were quite streamlined, with three departments – Finance, Engineering, and Human Resources. However, we needed to broaden our operations to enable more efficiency in discharging our mandate. We managed to do that because we now have seven departments within the organisation that are directly aligned with the organisation’s mandate.

For instance, you are here because of our communications department, which works to ensure our image is visible to people. This is essential to our mandate because we provide services to the public and finance services that people need to be aware of.

It’s not just about increasing the structure; it comes with the ability to have strategic plans developed in consultation with all concerned stakeholders. Now we have strategic plans that guide and detail what we need to achieve. We are now a well-oiled machine that develops strategies and achieves them, with a fairly good achievement rate of 75%.

We initially set our targets for a three-year horizon, but for the first time, we have set a five-year horizon to align with our broadened operations. We are currently in the second year of our five-year strategy, and the organization is progressing well.

So far, in these two years, we are already reaching some of the targets set for the five-year period, thanks to the improvements along the way.

One of the biggest challenges we have faced in improving our efficiency is related to our founding law. The Road Fund is currently established under regulations within the Public Financial Management and Accountability (PFMA) Act. We believe that, given our mandate and size, we need to be established by an act of  parliament, like other State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).

We have been struggling with this for many years because we did not have the necessary political will. Now, we have the Cabinet’s approval, and it’s finally time. We are developing an Act that, even if I leave before it is published, I know it will be well-informed and done. The team is capable of carrying on with it. By the end of this year or by the end of the financial year in March 2025, I believe this Act will be in place.

This Act will further expand the mandate of the Road Fund, as we have learned over the years. I can confidently say that the organization is poised to become more efficient. I know what’s contained in the draft Act; we informed the process and did extensive benchmarking with the best countries in Africa and their legislation. We are ready for this step. So it’s a huge thing for this organisation. It is going to be a huge transformation in a manner in which it is going to continue going forward. That’s the biggest for me.

Other aspects relate to financial growth. Our mandate is to collect road user charges and allocate them for road rehabilitation. Since I came, our revenue has grown by nearly 150%. When I first arrived, our revenue was around M120 million, and we are now at about M320 million. That’s substantial growth. This new law is going to allow our revenue to increase significantly, given how it’s being structured and how it will enable more collection to be made. The key is to have as much money as possible available to fix the current state of our roads.

This is where one has really contributed towards improvements in the road sector and this organisation.

In your 2023/24 annual report, one of the concerns raised is the underperformance of the implementing agencies. The report specifically points to the Roads Directorate, Maseru City Council (MCC), and the Ministry of Local Government, with the biggest concerns being MCC and the Ministry of Local Government. As a fund that allocates budgets to these agencies for road construction, repairs, and maintenance, how do you feel about having worked hard only to see a small return on investment at the end of the day?

It’s devastating. This new law under development is going to give us the necessary influence to ensure that what you mentioned does not happen. Currently, we have no authority to insist that the agencies work effectively after we allocate funds. However, this is about to change with the new law. It is devastating for us, but we are not just sitting idly by while the law is still in the pipeline. Departments like corporate communications help us with stakeholder engagement, and we need to better manage these agencies.

The report you are referring to is for the year 2022/2023. The upcoming report for 2023/2024 will be different. For example, you will see that the Roads Directorate, for the first time, had a budget of close to M400 million and used 93% of it. This improvement is due to continuous engagement, and even other agencies are slowly improving their execution rates.

With the new law coming in and these ongoing efforts, I believe the results will be significantly better.

Here you are as a civil engineer, and you see that some of the roads that you have financed are substandard. How does that make you feel?

It is shameful, I don’t want to lie. This goes back to the issue I had mentioned earlier. Currently, as a Fund, we are mandated to disburse funds to implementing agencies for road construction. However, there are technical audits that we are not conducting because our current law is not strong enough. The upcoming law will ensure that we have much more influence over the agencies to ensure that they not only do the work but do it correctly. It’s a huge loss of money to be constructing roads that do not last. Therefore, our agencies need close monitoring and supervision as funders to ensure that standards are maintained.

What is one achievement at the Fund that you are most proud of, that you can say, “I have achieved this”?

The team. I have no doubt about the capability of the team to continue with whoever the next CEO is. And that is what is most important for me. They know what to do; there is a team that knows how to carry the baton further forward.

What did you do to have this formidable team that you take so much pride in?

Maybe it’s the way in which we dealt with things, the leadership. I can only attribute it to that. The leadership style I used may have been suitable. I think whoever is coming will have their own leadership style, but we can only see the results afterward.

Last year you were elected the Chairperson of the African Road Maintenance Funds Association (ARMFA)-Southern African Focal Group in Lusaka, Zambia. What does this say to you in terms of your growth and leadership? How did that make you feel?

To be entrusted with so much responsibility at a regional level was really humbling. I guess that was followed by other colleagues in the region realizing that, okay, Lesotho may be small, but Road Fund Lesotho is doing outstanding things, because there are things that stand out and how we do them.

And of course, with the experience, I was also one of those with longer experience. Now I have to step down by virtue of being the CEO, and the new CEO has to take over that role. With the team remaining, it will support and be able to help the new CEO navigate that space and take the baton further.

What is one thing that you think and feel if you were to do it again, you would have done better and differently?

(Sigh!) It might as well be your whole life. But I guess if we’re talking about my career, some of the challenges I encountered were due to a lack of experience. What I alluded to earlier when I said you have to be firm in some of the things that you do, I think I should have been firmer earlier in some of the things that I did. It would have made me avoid a lot of stress because now, when you want to entertain some of these things that come from all these other corners, they cause stress because you see this is not doable under the normal standards of my career and my principles, but someone wants you to do it. Only with time, after being stressed and developing high blood pressure, you realize that had I earlier put my foot down and said no, it could have lessened the stress that came from trying to figure out how to go about this thing when you could have been clear from the onset that this cannot be done, and that’s it.

What is the biggest challenge that you came across and have managed to overcome?

There are many.

Mention one.

I think the biggest challenge was when I had a fallout with my board chair in the past. It made life difficult for me, but I stuck to my principles and dealt with the situation in the best way I knew how. Indeed, it helped because the situation was able to resolve itself. That was the most challenging, without indulging in a lot of details.

Looking back, what legacy do you believe you have left for the Fund?

Well, some of these things you might not know. What I know is there is a team to come and work with and move forward, so some of these legacies may exist in your head and are not really there as you think they are. But what I can proudly point to is the team.

What advice would you give to your successor?

Well, you know, sometimes you may think you are giving someone advice only to find out it is their strong point. So I would commend teamwork; you get away with a lot by involving the team in things you do. You get a lot done easier with different minds pulling together. Try to involve the team as much as you can.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.