• The African Leadership University has launched an innovation challenge to develop new commercial ideas for rural livelihoods that protect biodiversity.
  • Wildlife tourism is the best-known “conservation business,” but it’s unclear how much it directly contributes to funding conservation, even if it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Applicants to the innovation challenge will develop non-tourism business ideas that will protect ecosystems, empower communities, and convince investors they are both scalable and financially sustainable.

The African Leadership University (ALU) launched a challenge to inspire new ideas for businesses that will provide people in Africa with sustainable incomes while protecting ecosystems.

The ALU’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. 15 finalists were 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.

Elephant and tourists at Ngorongoro Crater. Photo by George Lamson. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Elephant and tourists at Ngorongoro Crater. Image by George Lamson via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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.

ALU announced the following winners who will join the University’s incubation programme;


Community-led virtual classroom for nature-based field education

Idea: Building an online platform whereby individuals and groups in local communities can provide lessons live ‘from the field’ in ecology, culture, conservation and sustainable resource use, aimed at global audiences such as individuals, schools and universities. The project will enable cross-cultural interactions by including the histories, mythologies and spiritual worlds local people share with their environment, and elevating indigenous voices and perspectives.
Team Members: Marina Khoza, Karen Vickers
Team Countries: South Africa, Canada
Local Community: TBD

Dancing away to improve livelihoods and promote conservation

Idea: Community knowledge of the environment is preserved and propagated by music and dance. This idea commercialises conservation folklore while simultaneously amplifying local knowledge about wildlife by identifying, recording and performing cultural songs and other folklore for a profit channelled back into local community projects.
Team Members: Joanna Hill, Tutilo Mudumba
Team Countries: Uganda, UK
Local Community: Murchison Falls National Park

ForestPesa: A micro-payments marketplace for micro-forest owners

Idea: A pay-for-success mobile marketplace that would allow micro-forest owners to directly exchange their verified carbon with local and international carbon buyers, with the aim of supporting micro-forest owners in the protection, propagation and conservation of indigenous trees.
Team: Robert Ddamulira, Judith Chatiza
Team Countries: Uganda, Zimbabwe
Local Community: Mabira Forest Reserve 

Funding community conservation via sponsorship of identifiable plots

Idea: Donors support and fund habitat protection by sponsoring identifiable plots of land (locatable via an existing third-party app), creating additional revenue streams for communities that are setting aside land for wildlife.
Team Members: Mod Masedi, Ben Heermans, Dr J.W. Tico McNutt
Team Countries: Botswana, US
Local Community: Western Okavango Delta

Global payments encouraging local-conservation effort using blockchain

Idea: Enable global payments using blockchain technology to create an accessible market for conservation-effort credits that encourage community conservation and reduce poverty. The initiative proposes a three-pronged monitoring model (tree coverage, animal wildlife occupancy and biodiversity soundscape saturation) to meet global biodiversity objectives.
Team Members: Mark Gerrard, Simon Morgan, Gavin Erasmus
Team Country: South Africa
Local Community: TBD

Home of the Gorillas

Idea: Generating non-trekking revenues to fund gorilla conservation and support local communities by developing a subscription-based mobile app that enables users around the world to engage with gorillas through activities like virtual interaction, celebrating gorilla milestones and local community e-commerce.
Team Members: David Gonahasa, Fidelis Kanyamunyu
Team Country: Uganda
Local Community: Bwindi

Integrating technology and conservation rewards to support African youth

Idea: Develop a resilient, equitable economy near Kruger National Park through ‘conservation currency’ via a smartphone app. The app would utilise locally-tailored awards to engage community youth in conservation activities that also promote local businesses and goods, thereby creating subsistence and long-term employment opportunities.
Team Members: Matt Lindenberg
Team Country: South Africa
Local Community: Kruger National Park

Landscape wildlife business model for the Baviaanskloof Bewarea

Idea: To demonstrate the link between natural capital and financial capital through direct investment in game by establishing populations of indigenous herbivores for rewilding, breeding and off-take towards the game-meat industry, thereby incentivising improved natural habitat management.
Team Members: Justine Rudman, Luyanda Luthuli, Justin Gird
Team Country: South Africa
Local Community: Baviaanskloof Bewarea

MN Foods – Conservation Condiments

Idea: Training and equipping women farmers in conservation areas to grow and develop chilli condiments in buffer zones of national parks, creating alternative revenue channels from which a percentage of profits are returned to the community in the form of input loans and additional farmer support.
Team Members: Marjorie Nanteza, Esther Nantambi
Team Country: Uganda
Local Communities: Bwindi; Kibale National Park

Processing and selling 100% natural Obudu honey

Idea: Obudu Mountain Farms’ Obudu Honey is a social enterprise that would work collaboratively with local beekeepers to produce natural honey through eco-friendly practices, with a focus on creating sustainable livelihoods for women and youth farmers. A percentage of the generated revenue would be committed to protecting local wildlife.
Team Members: Nela Duke Ekpenyong, Kevin Eyos
Team Country: Nigeria
Local Community: Obudu Plateau

Production and marketing of endemic Malagasy plants consumed by lemurs

Idea: This idea is to generate a sustainable source of income for local communities through endemic plants of southwest Madagascar. Germination of a number of these plants is accelerated when their seeds have passed through the digestive tract of a lemur. This project will set up a collection and marketing plan for these seeds, thereby contributing to the restoration of several degraded habitats and helping protect plant species.
Team Members: NY AINA RASOLOFOHERISOA Tiana Ravoniriana Tahina, ANDRIANJATOVO Onjaniaina Olivia Fabrice
Team Country: Madagascar
Local Community: Itampolo

Rewilding African rangelands to improve socio-economic resilience

Idea: This idea will galvanise the long-term viability of sustainable wildlife economies by quantifying soil carbon credits and connecting communities to global carbon markets and impact investors, facilitating access to global carbon markets to incentivise and offset the costs of the rewilding of rangelands.
Team Members: Matthew Child, Tyron Fouche, Alexander Child
Team Country: South Africa
Local Community: South Africa

Role of Bees in Income Generation and Environmental Sustainability

Idea: Create income generation and encourage community engagement in environmental protection by training local beekeepers in sustainable practices, investment in sustainable hives and equipment, and a programme of marketing literacy. The project would promote environmental sustainability and social inclusion, with a focus on empowering young people and women.
Team Members: Mariama Satu Kargbo, Aminata Serry
Team Country: Sierra Leone
Local Community: Outamba Kilimi National Park


Idea: This innovation would use a mobile and internet-powered platform to connect local decor artisans and fashion designers to the international market, with an integrated digital cultural hub that would empower these communities to tell their own stories about their cultures and relationships with nature and wildlife.
Team Members: Gloria Kisilu
Team Country: Kenya
Local Community: Maasai and Samburu

The Cultural Marketplace

Idea: The Cultural Marketplace will be an e-commerce platform of artisan products, virtual tourism and educational experiences that will bridge the gap between global buyers and local artisans and communities. Products will be marketed to highlight the vendor’s links to sustainability and conservation and profits will go to the Impact Fund to directly support conservation initiatives.
Team Members: Gosaitse Lekoko, Debora Duarte, Ruth Stewart
Team Countries: Botswana, Angola, UK
Local Community: KAZA region

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