CAPE TOWN — An innovation challenge launched this month hopes to inspire new ideas for businesses that will provide people in Africa with sustainable incomes while protecting ecosystems.
The African Leadership University’s Kigali-based School of Wildlife Conservation (SOWC) approaches conservation with the aim of enabling African communities to “take ownership of wildlife and the environment” as an incentive to protect ecosystems. The Beyond Tourism in Africa innovation challenge, seeking to uncover non-tourism business ideas for the “wildlife economy,” emerges from the school’s view of nature as “a great pillar of economic growth for Africa.”
The challenge is a joint venture between SOWC, WWF Africa, and the Switzerland-based Luc Hoffmann Institute. Applications opened on Sept. 1. Up to 15 finalists will be selected in November; they will spend several months in ALU’s incubator program next year, developing their ideas before pitching them to investors in September 2021.
Tourism is the most familiar example of a “conservation business.” Successful examples include gorilla tours in Uganda, which generate 60% of the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s revenue.
Wildlife tourism creates jobs and revenue and a commercial incentive to protect the wildlife on which photographic safaris or trophy hunting rely. But it’s surprisingly unclear how much tourism directly contributes to conserving biodiversity.
Sue Snyman, research director at SOWC, says there is not enough data to show how much tourism contributes as an industry: “Most government revenue from tourism goes into central coffers and is then dispersed as needed and so [there’s] no clarity.”
Snyman is collating data from a range of industries related to conservation, including ecotourism, hunting, ranching and non-timber forest projects, focusing on South Africa, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya and the Seychelles. This is the first time anyone has gathered data to lay out the economic value, number of jobs and the size of areas each of these industries can protect. The report, due out in February 2021, will also suggest which activities best suit which landscapes.
“For me, the key is diversification,” Snyman says. “Not relying on one thing.” The dangers of this have been demonstrated this year, as tourism dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brian Child, associate professor at the University of Florida, specializes in protected area management and the economics of wildlife in Southern Africa. He says he’s skeptical about the revenue potential of existing non-tourist wildlife industries, such as REDD+ projects and shade-grown coffee farming.
“People have been going on about alternative livelihoods for 20 years — but I still haven’t seen one working in the field,” he says. “Except maybe beekeeping.” He adds that many projects are dependent on NGO funding and aren’t self-sustaining. There are some success stories, but tourism remains the dominant industry.
The organizers say they hope the innovation challenge — and its call for applicants from any industry — will inspire creative, out-of-the-box ideas that go well beyond current conservation thinking, says Julia Pierre-Nina, senior manager of conservation stakeholders at ALU SOWC. They welcome undeveloped ideas that will benefit from ALU’s incubation program.
The key requirements are that the business must create value for communities and nature in Africa; that it doesn’t rely on tourism; it empowers communities with decision-making authority; and is financially sustainable and scalable. Beyond that, it’s an open field.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: African Leadership University’s Fred Swaniker discusses conservation as an economic growth opportunity for Africa:
Banner image: Tanzanian women carry new beehives into the forest. Image by Felipe Rodriguez/APW
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