Transformation through community collaboration

As many readers of our previous blog posts may know, the Timbavatisigned a cooperative agreement in 2018 with SANParks and the Kruger National Park (KNP). This groundbreaking and foundational agreement was mandated by all members of the Open System of the Greater Kruger National Park and, through this agreement, we are all able to remain as part of this incredible, world-renowned wilderness landscape.

The cooperative agreement defines certain requirements with which the reserves that are part of the open system need to comply, as well as a number of long-term and aspirational goals that everyone within the reserves is encouraged to aim towards.

One of the early developments, after the cooperative agreement was signed, was the drafting of a ‘Responsible Tourism Best Practice Toolkit’ by a consortium headed up by Fair Trade Tourism South Africa (FTTSA), with inputs from numerous lodges and tourism operators within the Greater Kruger network. This toolkit has now been published and is being rolled out to the tourism operators within the Greater Kruger network. The roll-out will test the effectiveness of the toolkit and will establish a baseline of where our Greater Kruger tourism products are, on their journey to attain fully sustainable and responsible tourism practices.

Responsible Tourism in the context of the toolkit touches on various issues such as environmental footprint, water usage, waste management and, very importantly, the involvement and beneficiation of the communities who are the neighbours of the Greater Kruger Protected Areas.

This last point cannot be overstated in its importance both for political reasons – with government increasingly scrutinising the value of Protected Areas against their long-term transformational goals – and, more importantly, for the real viability of those Protected Areas as relevant economic contributors to our country. Our relevance, and therefore our long-term sustainability, is weakened by having poor communities on our boundaries. The wealthier a community and the more invested that community is in the economy of our Protected Areas, the more likely will be the survival of that Protected Area.

Viable and real participation of communities in tourism

Last year (Pre-COVID!), I published an article highlighting the economic contribution that the Greater Kruger network of reserves is having. Since then, there have been other articles and reports covering this same topic, with updates on the last two years of economic data. While this contribution is significant, a lot of that activity (for obvious reasons) is focused in the urban areas where suppliers are easy to find.

In addition to this, we all know that the lodges in the private reserves cannot simply employ everyone in the local communities, as our businesses, with the live-in staff requirement are very constrained in terms of staff numbers. Unlike a mining or farming (albeit seasonal) operation, we will never be able to employ masses of people.

This then begs the question of how the economic activity of the formal tourism sector in the Greater Kruger can better contribute to the economic activity within the rural communities. The answer is both simple and complex.

Simply put, the most effective way to do this, with the greatest potential for a growing rural economy, is to include what I refer to as ‘hyper-local suppliers’ into the supply chain of the formal tourism sector in the Greater Kruger. These suppliers are members of the local communities with businesses that can slot into our supply chain with products that we need as a collective of lodges. By growing such a network, the business complement within these communities will grow and the natural multiplier effects that such an organic model has will create not only a wealthier community, but also one that has a real ownership stake (through their own businesses) in the success of the Greater Kruger network.

Obviously, on the complex side of this answer are the issues for any of us as potential customers – where are all these suppliers? Will they deliver the quality of product/service that I need? Will they offer the necessary reliability and availability of supply? Will it cost the same, or more, or less? I would think most businesses, would be agnostic about who they buy their products or services from, as long as they meet the three critical criteria: quality, reliability, and price.

Note that we are not being naive about the size of the task of effecting such a model, nor are we under any illusions about how long it would take to develop a large network of businesses to service a supply chain. The point is, we need to start somewhere, and we are definitely not starting from scratch. As part of all of this, there is a lot of very well co-ordinated work going on around us to develop businesses within the local communities who can become viable participants in the supply chain of the formal tourism operations in the Greater Kruger. These efforts have been underway for some time, with a very effective network of people coordinating them, and there are already some local community businesses that offer the ‘low hanging fruit’ that can be used to test their viability in such a model.

Testing the viability of a supply chain development model can be accelerated by concentrating on a smaller landscape in the form of a pilot project. We are delighted to announce that the Timbavati and Thornybushreserves have been identified as two reserves that are sufficiently well positioned relative to a large rural community yet are still small enough, in lodge numbers, to roll out a pilot project which that can develop and test a supply-chain model that could then be scaled to the rest of the Greater Kruger.

As I write this, a network of energetic and committed people are working with the lodges in these reserves to create a ’coalition of the willing’ who can form a network of customers to test and grow this hyper-local supply-chain model. At the same time, a similar team is working with suppliers in the informal sectors around the reserves to identify and develop businesses that can ‘plug-in’ to the existing supply chains and become viable trading partners in the growing economy of the Greater Kruger.

Watch this space as these projects roll out. The lodges of the Timbavati and Thornybush reserves are pioneering the wealth growth of our local communities and, when others follow, the Greater Kruger network and its surrounding neighbourhood are set to become a wealthier and truly sustainable economic model for Protected Areas that the rest of the world could learn from.