The success of Kenya’s development vision, and the responsibility of balancing rapid economic growth with the integrity of the ecosystems that support it, now rests increasingly on community and private landowners. The proportion of illegally killed elephants in north Kenya’s community lands has dropped 52% since 2012.
Picture Kenya. You’d be forgiven for defaulting to mainstream media imagery of people in poverty – starvation, flies, and sprawling slums. Or perhaps you picture an open savannah at sunset, the red glow silhouetting a herd of elephants as they move slowly across the horizon.
Both are a reality in this country of contrast, but there is a new kind of savannah emerging here that disrupts these conceptions as much as it promises to marry the two for mutual benefit. The new savannah has been born from Kenya’s booming manufacturing, agro-processing, tourism, finance, and tech sectors creating a hub for economic development and foreign investment. This is Africa’s Silicon Savannah – home to an expanding middle class, tech innovations, rapid urbanization and service sector growth. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s economic growth is among the fastest in Africa . In 2016, reports the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s economy expanded by 6.2% in Q2 compared to 5.9% in the same period in 2015.
In its national long-term development plan, Vision 2030, Kenya aims to transform itself into a newly industrializing, middle-income country. Agriculture continues to provide the foundation for this. Tourism too, to a lesser, but perhaps more publicized, extent. These two sectors rely on Kenya’s incredible, but increasingly threatened, natural resources. The pressure on the grasslands, forests and fisheries from population growth and a changing climate hits hardest at the grass-roots level – the same demographic with the highest potential to affect change. The success of Kenya’s development vision, and the responsibility of balancing rapid economic growth with the integrity of the ecosystems that support it, now rests increasingly on community and private landowners.
I remember talking to Jeremy Bastard, the manager of a successful safari lodge in the remote Mathews mountains in northern Kenya. ‘Ten years go, no one cared about the elephants being injured, or killed for their tusks,’ he said. ‘The elephants were considered a nuisance. Herders spend many long, hot hours digging wells to water their cattle, and the elephants would come at night and destroy the wells in search of the same water. Now, they always leave some in the trough for the elephants to share. Now, because of community conservation, they see value in those elephants, their elephants.’
To me, this epitomizes the reason why curbing elephant poaching in north Kenya has not only been a conservation success, but a social and economic success too. The proportion of illegally killed elephants in north Kenya’s community lands has dropped 52% since 2012.
North Kenya is inhabited largely by semi-nomadic cattle herders, and has a history characterized by ethnic conflict, elephant poaching, land degradation and extreme poverty. While elsewhere in the country, economic growth has been tangible to the urban majority, in the remote north development has been hindered by these challenges. In 2004 however, all this began to change – with the birth of the community conservation movement.
Supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), there are now 33 community conservancies across 17,000 square miles of northern and coastal Kenya. These are areas of land managed by the indigenous pastoralist, farming or fishing communities to provide an engine for peace, physical security, good governance, natural resources management, and economic opportunity. In a historically lawless landscape – these conservancies are transforming lives and well-governed community institutions are reversing the ‘tragedy of the commons’.
NRT was created as the umbrella organization to support its members, offering financial and technical support, governance oversight, conflict resolution and investment opportunities. NRT itself receives significant financial support from the United States and the Danish Agencies for International Development (USAID and DANIDA), as well as The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
In 2015, tourism revenues to NRT conservancies from entry and bed-night fees totaled over US$ 410,000 – a really significant income for these remote and marginalized communities, derived from their wildlife. Two safari lodges – Sarara and Il Ngwesi – are actually owned by the community, who contract operators to manage them. Wildlife tourism revenues are split 40/60 – with 40% going toward annual conservancy operating costs (like ranger salaries and vehicle fuel) and 60% going toward development projects deemed a priority by the constituent community at their Annual General Meetings. Most commonly the communities decide to spend these funds on educational bursaries for the poorest family, health care support, and water supplies to reduce the burden on women from collecting water from afar.
Making the link between protecting wildlife and improving livelihoods has been the catalyst for bringing local communities to the forefront of conservation . In addition to providing security for wildlife, community operated sanctuaries in three conservancies are among only a handful in Africa, and are playing a significant part in endangered species protection. Black rhino, hirola (the spectacled antelope) and nubian giraffe are all benefitting from targeted intervention from conservancies, who in turn stand to benefit from ecotourism – not to mention the pride they feel in being at this forefront.
Indeed Saruni, a portfolio of luxury safari properties in Kenya, opened ‘Saruni Rhino’ in February 2017 – partnering with Sera Community Conservancy to invest in a property that will give guests access to the only community-run black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, and one of only a few places where visitors can track them on foot.
As conditions for business improve, solar and mobile technologies are providing momentum. Rangers are able to take photographs of field activities on their affordable smart phones, and instantly message them to a central control office. Solar panels are starting to provide electricity to conservancy headquarters that wouldn’t stand a chance at being on the grid any time soon.
Further capital investment is needed in the NRT landscape for this eco-tourism model to go to full scale – currently just 7 out of 33 conservancies host tourism facilities, and benefit from the employment and service businesses that come with them. And there is still a long way to go for many of these institutions. Infrastructural, cultural and environmental challenges will demand significant sweat equity from even the most experienced investor right from the start. But the social and environmental returns on investment here are significant – and will be a sustainable link from authentic savannah to ‘Silicon Savannah’ for marginalized communities in the north.
In this relatively small corner of Africa, big ideas are pioneered, tested and proven; cutting-edge science and business-minded conservation are married with traditional African ingenuity to solve problems that have been perceived as intractable for generations . And from this special place, these pragmatic, bold solutions are already flowing out to other places in Africa, taking hold organically. This is why this is different: for generations, well-meaning outsiders have brought ideas and money, and tried solving challenges from the top down, often with little luck or staying power. But this revolution, like any revolution that actually works, is from the grass up. This is why investments in NRT are durable.