Throughout the world, natural and cultural resources are experiencing unrelenting pressure from unsustainable land use practices which are contributing to the loss of species and cultural heritage.  Nowhere is this more evident, then in Africa, a continent rich in biodiversity, with some of the most unique and interesting cultures on the planet.  In Africa, conservation has always been a challenge, but this has been magnified as Africa’s economy begins to take off.  A recent article by the Economist describes this unprecedented growth:

“Over the past ten years real income per person has increased by more than 30%, whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent just now. Over the next decade its GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6% a year, not least thanks to foreign direct investment. FDI has gone from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012.”

While many people applaud this economic growth, the conservation community views these numbers with alarm.  As the continent continues to develop and populations continue to grow, the natural and cultural resources are under severe threat.

Today, many African countries and international development organizations are turning to a business approach to support conservation.   By focusing on revenue generation and payment for ecosystem services, African governments are finding creative ways to generate needed income to pay for conservation management and community development while conserving natural and cultural resources.  Solimar International, a small business and SBAIC member, is working with USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation to utilize sustainable tourism as a tool for conservation.  Below are three examples of African governments taking a business approach to conservation.

1. Uganda brings local communities into the tourism value chain. Communities living along the boarders of Uganda’s national parks are a major threat to conservation, and to the world famous mountain gorillas that live in those parks. In a country with the 5th highest population growth in the world, many communities see national parks as land to be used for putting food on the table.  Even as tourists flock in record numbers to Uganda’s national parks, the neighboring communities have not been receiving any economic benefits from tourism.

To help address this issue, Solimar, with the support of USAID, the Uganda Community Tourism Association, and the US Forest Service, helped to integrate the communities into the tourism value chain through a program called Pearls of Uganda.

Pearls of Uganda reduces threats to biodiversity by addressing constraints in the tourism sector—including reducing the limitations to local entrepreneurs to develop tourism businesses, enhanced marketing efforts, and improving linkages between local, national, and global value chains.  Over the course of two years, 40 community based tourism organizations received training and assistance creating private sector partnerships which resulted in over 60% increase in revenues for the community organizations and a 27% increase in household income for the target communities.  Today these communities understand their livelihood relies on the conservation of their neighboring lands inside the national parks.

2. Ethiopia creates a concession policy to attract impact investment inside the Bale Mountains National Park.  When Solimar sat down with the Ethiopia Conservation Wildlife Authority (EWCA) and asked which national park were experiencing the greatest threats to conservation, the authorities pointed to Bale Mountains National Park in the South of Ethiopia.  Known as the “Rooftop of Africa”, the park contains a spectacularly diverse landscape and rich biodiversity.  However, due to the lack of tourism services and a large resident community population with limited economic opportunities, the park was under severe threat.  Solimar recognized that community based tourism on its own would not solve the problem so it worked with EWCA to develop an investment perspective, a concession agreement, and then recruit an “impact investor” (an investor interested in economic, environmental, and social returns) to develop a high-end eco-lodge.  

The lodge will be financed by a private investment group with a strong commitment to building a high-quality lodge that will have minimal impact on the environment and bring significant benefits to neighboring communities. Solimar also provided support that included facilitation of an Environmental Impact Assessment and assistance through the concession negotiation process. The groundbreaking for Bale Mountain Lodge took place in November 2012.  The eco-lodge, located on a stunning site within the Harena Forest, will have a total of 15 units including several tree houses. The lodge will incorporate several innovative approaches to reduce its footprint including a hybrid micro-hydro and solar energy system. The initial investment for the lodge is $1.2 million and will bring a much needed tourism economy to the region and reduce the threats to conservation.

3. Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to create a business to manage tourism assets and grow tourism in and around national parks.  Over the past five years, RDB has managed the National Parks of Rwanda and other tourism assets through the Tourism and Conservation Department,. During this time, park visitation has grown from around 38,000 in 2009 to over 61,000 in 2012. Since its inception, revenues have also increased significantly and the perception of Rwanda as a premier ecotourism destination in international markets has grown.  The RDB has also implemented a number of tourism and conservation-related policies and guidelines, created plans for the development and promotion of tourism, developed new products, and overseen the management of its protected areas.

Despite these major steps forward, the RDB recognized it could increase tourism revenue by creating a new state owned company to manage their parks and tourism assets—linked to RDB, but operating independently of RDB—that can continue to grow the country’s position as a world-class ecotourism destination, and enhance its park management and conservation activities, To move this initiative forward, Solimar International was contracted by the RDB to review models from other countries, gather information from stakeholders in Rwanda, provide recommendations for the most appropriate model and develop a business plan for the new organization.

Establishment of a new entity independent of the RDB will allow the organization to become more efficient and productive in its operations, enhance its park management and conservation activities, provide it with the ability to strategically re-invest funds in product development and marketing to help to stimulate sustainable tourism growth.  The organization will be an arm of the RDB, independent of its parent organization but with periodic oversight by the RDB.  The RDB will not, however, be involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization.  By taking a business approach to conservation, RDB seeks to increase tourism receipts and strengthening conservation budgets.

In summary, protected areas around the world can learn from these examples.  African governments are integrating communities into the tourism value chain, opening up parks for impact investments, and re-thinking how they manage tourism operations in order to increase tourism revenues and support for conservation.

Click here for more information about Solimar International, a SBAIC small business member.