Conservation Africa News –
Now, more than ever, the travel world is changing. Spurred on by the momentary pause caused by the pandemic, coupled with a growing concern for our planet, travellers will be looking for more and more ways to find meaningful experiences through journeys entrenched in authenticity and with companies who work responsibly with local communities.
Offering just that – and more – is African Bush Camps (ABC), which has 15 luxury tented bush camps and lodges across Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. This line-up includes an upcoming new opening, Khwai Leadwood, in the community-run Khwai Concession in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Sustainable and responsible tourism are at the heart of the company, which is spearheaded by CEO Beks Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean who founded the company in 2006 and is renowned as one of Zimbabwe’s top professional guides, as well as being one of a handful of black CEOs leading the way in the safari industry.
Born in the small rural village of Lupane, on the outskirts of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Beks brings first-hand knowledge of growing up in the bush to his senior position. After qualifying as a professional guide in 1999, he began to work towards realising his dream of creating his own portfolio of camps, which focused on offering a standout guest experience anchored with exceptional guides.
In 2006, African Bush Camps – known as ABC – was born. Its USP is all about trailblazing true and meaningful interaction with local people and communities. A fully immersive safari experience with ABC means offering guests the chance to know and understand the indigenous communities in the areas that the camps operate in, and, crucially, to see how their tourism dollar empowers the locals.
Together with his wife and partner, Sophia, Beks has also formed the African Bush Camps Foundation. The Foundation runs a number of community-orientated projects, which are focused on sustainable tourism development, through education, conservation, resource management and community empowerment and is an initiative close to the couples’ hearts.
Now, as the camps gear up to reopening on 1 September 2020, Beks talks exclusively to Forbes about the growth of his company, the meaning of immersive and sustainable travel and his experience as a black leader.
What inspired you to create African Bush Camps?
African Bush Camps was born out of my desire to reclaim the authentic safari experience. I had a dream to create a portfolio of camps, which not only reincarnated the fantasy of ‘Old Untouched Africa’ but also focused on the guest experience and the essence of a great safari – which is interconnected with exceptional guides. I wanted to offer experts who could be creative and imaginative and teach their guests about Africa. A real safari experience is not complete without the interaction of local people and communities and I wanted to create a fully immersive offering, where guests could get to know and understand the indigenous communities in the areas, as well as the wildlife, while making a critical contribution to the well-being of the communities and local environment.
What is your USP? What stands you apart from other similar businesses?
African Bush Camps is a family, and we pride ourselves on our personalised guiding and hosting. Our camps are focused on the guest connection and allow for visitors to experience the essence of a privately guided safari and a truly magical experience in the wild and remote areas we chose to operate. We offer a holistic adventure that expresses the philosophy we stand by: authenticity. Our safaris are not just about wildlife, they are about a 360° approach to travel in a sustainable way: sharing and conserving Africa together while having a complete restorative personal journey.
As a black leader, in a white-dominated industry, what are the challenges, and indeed, the insights you have come across?
The safari industry has traditionally been a white industry and it very much still is. I climbed the ranks to become a leading safari guide, and in 2006 I realised my dream of opening my own Safari Camp in Hwange National Park, close to where I grew up. Unless you were from a wealthy family, securing investment and funding were hugely challenging. I was lucky, during my guiding years I had met some incredibly good acquaintances who became personal friends along the way who were incredibly supportive of my dreams and plans.
Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, I understood the local culture; I also knew the problems and issues facing local people. We cannot tackle the dynamics of conservation until we understand the circumstances of the local people. This earned me community trust, which is critical when operating in wilderness areas around community land. All staff in African Bush Camps’ properties are local people and it is my commitment that by operating in these areas we give communities the opportunity to forge their own paths.
As the spotlight is being turned on diversity and inclusion, how can the travel industry improve in these areas?
We have all been stuck in a paradigm of the past and our industry needs an overhaul in our approach, our thinking, and the way in which we manage our businesses. Having made the most of the opportunities I have been granted, I believe that we all have a responsibility to inspire others. To show that there are ways to not only improve your living circumstances, but to make a mark in the leadership space in both the tourism and conservation spheres.
I would like to see more of this transformation in the industry, especially knowing that there are many guides who have such great potential to be future industry leaders. There are too many stories told by foreigners who have come to Africa, set up a life and started up successful safari camps or operations. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but Africa has so many capable black people who can build businesses and tell their own stories and it is this diversity and inclusivity that the industry needs to support.
Our industry needs to reshape itself for an inevitable future which can only serve us better. We need to be able to attract people of colour into more senior positions to give us the diversity we need to form perspectives and make decisions as a collective culture. I would like to see more industry initiatives and funds that support and groom new African leaders and ambassadors of conservation for the future. The transformation should not just be with our staff but our target market – from locals to foreign black travellers – they should be encouraged to travel and experience our amazing continent.
How important was it for you to have a responsible focus when it came to the operation?
It was – and still is – of huge importance in the setting up of ABC. Our camps are sustainable, with minimal impact on the environment and our African Bush Camps Foundation projects empower local communities. My passion is in preserving remote lands and we aim to conserve and preserve the beautiful areas in Southern Africa where we have camps. We don’t just measure our success by our bottom line but on the positive impact we have on an area.
To recreate the authentic safari experience, it was imperative that we found the right wild locations for our guests. Not only did this mean operating sustainably but also responsibly, and this meant building mutually beneficial relationships with local communities and wildlife. It goes hand in hand.
What are the aims behind the African Bush Camps Foundation?
I believe in tourism, community and conservation being interconnected. The foundation was set up to provide sustainable development, through creating opportunities that empower rural communities, where we are based, in vulnerable wildlife areas across Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia. The foundation looks to create opportunities for these communities through education, community empowerment and conservation.
I believe that the tourism dollar needs to have a trickle-down effect, and that the communities in the areas should benefit positively from tourism. To date, we have initiated over 40 projects, which not only benefit communities in wildlife areas, but also tie in strongly with the conservation ethos of African Bush Camps as a whole.
ABCF is primarily funded through ABC which donates 2.5% of its annual turnover. Due to the pandemic we have not been able to welcome guests, so funding is a real challenge and thankfully as shareholders we have been able to personally step in. We need to ensure that we remain operational so we can continue to support crucial projects that are needed now more than ever and protect the last 16 years of investment over these coming months.
For more information, you can watch this video.
As a guide, what has been the best wildlife experience you have encountered?
In 1999, I worked as guide in Matusadona, Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. This region was popular for tourism due to its ample black rhino which was guarded by rangers 24 hours a day. On waking up one morning, I learnt that one of the rhinos had a baby. This was very exciting because there haven’t been any births for a matter of years. I had a couple on safari with me and I thought about taking them on a tracking exercise to find the mother with her baby. Black rhinos are quite temperamental and when they have calves, they are even more emotional – so this was something we needed to bear in mind before starting to track the animals.
After tracking the mother for a significant amount of time, and sidestepping various breeding herds of elephants, we finally tracked her. We were a good forty yards from her when we could witness her baby, this tiny replica of a humongous animal. At that point, the wind changed, and the mother picked up on our smell. Black rhino are insecure due to their weak eyesight, and the animal approaches scents – literally sniffs them out – to assert their surroundings. After the mother gave a loud, aggressive snort, we knew she was heading for us. In that moment, we realised the only tree close enough for any of us to climb was about 10 yards away – I decided to distract the mother and run to the tree as she charged for me. Meanwhile, the others were 15 yards away, trying to climb into another tree.
As they got to safety, I tried to get down from my setting, but the rhino kept on coming back. Eventually, we managed to ‘escape’ from the mother only to encounter another breeding herd of elephants, and we had another round of trying to escape unscathed. We did, luckily, finally arrive at our vehicle. It was such an amazing, scary experience to remember.
Sadly, only a few days after our experience, I again found the mother, but this time with her calf’s carcass at the bottom of a tree – after it was killed by a leopard in the night. Although a natural cycle of nature, I couldn’t help but to be saddened by the sight.
Empowering your community is an important part of what you do, how do you manage this across your portfolio?
Currently, there are eight communities surrounding our properties and which we support through our foundation. We have a small team of dedicated managers and counsellors who are present in these communities, who monitor needs and the progress of our projects, help raise funds and see to that the money raised is dispersed across priority projects. Many of these include skill-building workshops, income-generating groups (arts, crafts, clothing, ironsmiths) where we help people create a self-sustainable lifestyle (one working member can support up to eight people in the communities).
Our everyday staff members also act as representatives of ABC, custodians of wildlife in that they are either from the communities or have built strong bonds with people from the villages. The issue of wildlife/human conflict has always been rife in our communities and it is up to our staff members to uphold an understanding of the importance of wildlife conservation, and so that people can grip the value of their presence for the success of the industry, which, in turn, can only benefit them as well.
How has C0vid affected you and the business?
Personally, the uncertainty that comes with ‘not knowing’ how long we will have to face Covid-19 is in everything we do. For any business owner, it is enough to keep you awake at night. But our team has been very supportive regardless of the steps we needed to take to ensure a future for the company. Of course, our resources are not limitless, but we can only remain hopeful with the view of recovering in the near future.
Since the news of the outbreak in late December 2019, our team went into full response mode as we anticipated the brooding storm for 2020. At that time, the New Year still looked promising on our books. Our plans for expansion were on track and interest in our new developments was seeing a healthy increase. Considering our properties’ locations, and the fact that most of our guests were international travellers, we needed to think on our feet and be a step ahead in precautionary health and hygienic measures. It was in February that we introduced new training guidelines for staff and put routine measurements in place to ensure we safeguard our employees and guests’ wellbeing.
From April, we entered a ‘curl up’ period and decided to ‘hunker’ down for four months while assisting clients postpone their trips.
At our properties, we are using this time to manage the camps’ upkeep and give employees the chance to expand their skills beyond their usual roles. Hosts, waiters, chefs, and room service staff are urged to go out into the bush with our guides and be placed in the position of the guest to learn about the environment. Our guides are spending more time in the bush to learn from each other and act as custodians of wildlife; monitoring and overseeing the local areas to help spot any dangers to the animals.
Currently, our national parks are exposed to the threats posed by the dire situations that people living on the parks’ outskirts find themselves in. With the many job losses that have resulted from the Covid-19 lockdown regulations in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, electricity, water, and basic food items are less accessible. This may drive people to turn to hunting to provide for their communities or for commercial sale. The parks are vast and remote with limited fencing. Anti-poaching units are still operating with the help of the army and national parks’ rangers, we as ABC are supporting some of these efforts, lending an extra hand to help monitor the borders.
We plan to open all our camps (including new Khwai Leadwood) on 1 September 2020. Until we have more clarity from governments and an outlook on the dephasing of lockdown levels, we can make more sound decisions and predications on our business’ direction. For now, while all staff is on our payroll, we are using this time to be as creative as our resources allow us to be.
Do you think the travel industry will change because of it?
When we do start to travel again, the experience will undoubtedly be a vastly different one, but hopefully one in which we all make better decisions and more responsible choices. If there are some positives to be taken from this global crisis then it has been an opportunity for tourists and tourism providers to assess their part in travel and how they can improve practices. Travel is a force for good, so perhaps it might shift towards a more responsible and thoughtful way of travelling that will reduce over-tourism, fight carbon emissions, and increase contribution to local communities.
What is the highlight of the new camp in Botswana?
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Khwai Leadwood’s biggest drawcard is undoubtedly the plentiful and extraordinary wildlife on the doorstep – you will never be bored here. Its varied ecosystem provides a patchwork of lagoons, shallow flooded pans, open grass plains and woodland forests – it is just beautiful.
The Khwai Concession area was formed by the local Khwai villagers and is managed by the Khwai Development Trust. The area used to be a hunting concession but is now actively managed as a conservation area. The villagers took over the area when they moved out of the Moremi region when the Moremi Game Reserve was formed.
The local community now runs all the ecotourism initiatives, actively conserve the environment, and manage the wildlife in the concession. They are an inspirational example of a local community who live in peaceful harmony with wildlife. Like most of our camps it’s family-friendly but small and intimate with just seven tents. Social distancing here is not a problem, with lots of private spaces and tents spaced out along the river under the shade of leadwood and sycamore trees.
What next for African Bush Camps?
‘Uncertainty’ has certainly earned its place in the dictionary this year. The world has been in a tug war of feedback-and-response, trying to keep abreast of the pandemic’s developments to again pull back on future steps. The virus’ persistence has succeeded to filter the value of a years’ time (even more) in a matter of weeks. But humans are resilient. We learn to adapt, and sometimes, if we are good at it, we flourish.
High-end safari operators prioritise the luxury of privacy, space, and attention to detail to personalise the experience for their guests. Our largest camp has 24 rooms (mostly six rooms for a maximum of 12 beds) which only permits two people per room. Villas and family units are prepared with interconnecting passageways on request. Our vehicles transport a maximum of six guests and our partnering air travel operator has a limited capacity allowance. Considering recent developments and aligning those with anticipated changes, low volume, high-impact tourism may be the way forward as opposed to mass tourism – where a large number of people gather within confined spaces.
International revenue is what we aim to secure in the long term, considering its impact on conservation, community input, and development. The current reality is that we cannot rely on this revenue. We have no certain guarantee that international travel is going to bounce back immediately. Local tourism can enable us for the interim to keep the ‘ball rolling’. Where we rely on local suppliers and service providers, supporting the local industry can be a sound way to help us build from the ground up before reeling in international travellers. It is a natural step in progression for us as a local operator. We need to be able to relaunch everything we do. If it is a matter of following a chronological order of business, starting afresh, that is what I believe we need to do.
Regarding international travel, we will likely experience a ‘slow burn’ in the restructuring of the industry. And since this is the case, we can use this time to rebuild our essence as a company on the local front.
We are in this together and we will recover together. This is a time to reflect, reconnect and rejuvenate our senses before reliving the world in a renewed glory. In the wilderness of the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, on the riverbanks of the Khwai River in Botswana and the inclining waters of the Zambezi River that flows in the Victoria Falls, we will be waiting for our explorers.
Readers can get involved with the Foundation here.
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