Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality. You can read all of his writing here.
Conservation is a vast topic, and it can often slide into abstraction. With the escalating, urgent crises of the world, some of the slower-burn existential issues can slide out of the news cycle. But it’s vitally important. Michael Lorentz, a private safari guide, told me that with the pace of Africa’s population growth, if nothing changes and leaders do not create new forms of African-centric solutions, it will ultimately be futile — “Like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The dangers to wildlife are well-publicized. Poaching represents a profitable trade, especially in impoverished communities. There’s also the short-term economic benefit of forestry and selling off materials for profit. Illicit ivory trade bankrolls guerrilla armies and their weapons. As the population grows, there’s more demand domestically for items derived from natural resources, along with new trade relationships externally with other ravenous goods importers around the world. The short-term benefits of exploiting these resources are real.
The most relevant — and existential — question here is this: How do we turn conservation into a growth industry?
Fred Swaniker, founder of African Leadership University (ALU) and a former McKinsey consultant and Stanford MBA, has been looking at how a new wave of African entrepreneurs and businesses can be empowered to use conservation for upward growth and a business opportunity for themselves. The continent is estimated to have quadrupling population growth, growing to nearly three billion people by 2100. And he is planning to identify, develop, and connect three million game-changing leaders for Africa by 2060.
The goal is clear: creating an ownership mindset with accountability built in. “Today, most African communities do not see wildlife as an asset that they ‘own’; and strong African voices are largely excluded from the conservation agenda,” states the ALU’s school of wildlife conservation website. “We believe that unless African communities feel ownership of wildlife and the natural environment, they will have little incentive to conserve it.” And the issue is made even more important when you consider that the average age of an African is just under 20 years old.
Conservation As a Profit-Generating Industry
The idea, at its core, is to encourage startups, new businesses, more female involvement, and more investment centered around conservation. At a recent business of conservation forum in Rwanda, Swaniker suggested growth sectors in any form of business (like technology or health care) have similar characteristics. They have an enabling environment in terms of law and policy that prioritizes growth; they have a magnetic appeal toward the best and brightest talents of a nation; they also generate significant revenue, both for business founders as well as tax revenue for the country or city. So why not look at conservation the same way we do with other hypergrowth, profit-generating industries?
One part of this plan is to create a new generation of hospitality entrepreneurs and participants in the economy of conservation-led travel. With the growth of that industry and tourism, countless opportunities will follow. Part of the startup culture necessary stems from the basics: guiding, lodging, ecology, and hospitality.
But there are other forms of industries related to conservation that are merely in their early stages. One could be the technology that goes into helping avoid human/wildlife conflict, whereby animals pillage from farmland and cause problems for villagers. One example is the World Wildlife Foundation‘s (WWF) first international Human-Wildlife Conflict Tech Challenge, which sought solutions to minimize human-wildlife conflict in response.
Another is the technology that is beginning to be seen in progressive reserves to help anti-poaching teams track wildlife, as well as the known movements of poachers. The data, tech, and systems opportunities here alone represent a huge area for potential businesses and investment, and it’s easy to imagine the possibilities that sophisticated data mining and artificial intelligence can bring in terms of solutions.
A Model to Follow
Beks Ndlovu is the personification of what ALU and other programs are trying to replicate. Born in a small rural village of Lupane on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, he’s built an entrepreneurial career that grew from ecology and guiding with the African Bush Camps — a multi-lodge business based in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The company, rooted in hospitality and sustainable tourism, donates profits from their safaris to the local communities. Through its foundation, it also supports healthcare and a local primary and secondary school, and creates jobs for guides and other staff members. Importantly, the company also brings capital from tourists into Zimbabwe, an economy that desperately needs investment inflows amid a volatile time.
Lorentz, the private guide, mentioned that this type of model can also have a lighter touch version. While bush camps require a lot of capital, architecture, and operations costs to do it well, one way for someone to create a business based on conservation is via becoming a private guide. This approach, he says, requires business and marketing know-how, but not a lot of other overhead, something that ALU is teaching its next generation of leaders.
The development of conservation-minded hospitality creates a network of job opportunities, Ndlovu said, and provides local communities with a reason to conserve their surroundings as they will have a real return for their efforts. “Education is needed to showcase the bigger picture and invite more role models into the equation,” he said. “When the economic opportunities are extended to a broader scope of players, everyone wins.”
No One-Size-Fits-All Solutions
The recipe for change comes down to leadership, adjusting the policies and creating systems of incentives for entrepreneurs, and realigning short-term thinking through poaching or predatory farming into longer-term and sustainable thinking. Also, core to the ALU equation is developing ground-up Africa solutions, as opposed to retrofitting Western solutions as a one-size-fits-all.
Ndlovu, a perfect example of the bottom-up and Africa-centric entrepreneurial vision, said it is essential to elevate leaders that have lived and experienced the issues firsthand. “Without recognizing African cultures, social structures, and dynamics, viable solutions will never really be found,” he said.