Talking to David Ryan, the founder of safari company Rhino Africa, you can feel the passion for Africa oozing out of him.
A passion that was fuelled “without a doubt”, he says, by his parents’ love of the outdoors. Regular camping trips into wilderness areas, such as Cederberg and Kruger in his native South Africa, meant the travel bug bit him very early in life.
David’s formative years, however, came during extremely troubled times for his country, but he freely admits he had a privileged upbringing.
The son of a South African mother and a British father, he recalls: “Growing up, the political situation challenged us. But Dad instilled in me that the onus was on us to be a part of the solution” and that we should be involved in “creating a better future” for South Africa.
With this sound advice still ringing in his ears, David already knew that he wanted to run his own business – one that would make a difference. It was just a question of what and how.
After finishing his degree he went into accounting, finding work in the gas industry.
“Accounts is a good basis for going into business,” he says, “and I spent most of my twenties learning how businesses work, how they operate and what you need to do to survive.”
His job took him to Madagascar and then to the UK, but, unable to handle the weather, he returned to Cape Town with what he describes as “a burning desire to build a business that would have an impact”.
In his early thirties he realised that to be happy in life “you have to live your passion”, and an idea to start a safari company began to develop. It had struck him that tourism was the best industry to be in to help make the impact he craved. It was a business that could help transform his country and also one that gave him a stake in conservation.
Starting Rhino Africa was, he says, “right time, right place”. It was 2004 and the Internet was taking off. “The Internet broke down barriers to entry into tourism. It was a disruption force [for good],” he explains.
Although well travelled, particularly in southern Africa, his experience up to then was entirely caravan or tent based.
“Rhino Africa was founded on a passion for the people, wildlife and spectacular landscapes of Africa. I’m passionate about travelling in Africa… I love a road trip,” he adds, with a chuckle.
“Africa allows you to have an adventurous spirit. You can go [to a place]and feel like you are going for the first time. This has huge appeal.”
However, running a sustainable safari company necessitated a need to break into the luxury market. Luckily his lack of experience in this area was no barrier to entry.
“I understood the destinations,” he explains. “Luxury is just an added bonus. It doesn’t take away from the wildlife, the landscapes and the people. It’s the passion that is paramount.”
Fundamental to the business, too, was his aspiration to do something for the greater good. “My real interest was in building a social enterprise rather than just a full-profit organization,” he says.
The determination to help build a future for Africa through his business is evident in David’s and Rhino Africa’s commitment to conservation and community upliftment, including his call for tourists to “leave a legacy in Africa”.
The company’s Doing Good division focuses on supporting and growing community and conservation initiatives in Africa, based on the “three pillars of people, wildlife, and landscapes”. It partners on a number of projects, such as the Save the Rhino Trust and the Khumbulani Day Care Centre.
“Our business is transformational,” David claims. “We sell wildlife experiences that happen in rural areas, which creates a huge impact there. We are a business that goes way beyond specific profits. It is encompassed in our DNA.
“The cities of Cape Town and Joburg are what I like to call the bookends to what we create in between. With selling bed nights in rural areas, the positive impact is magnified: through this, tourists are creating employment; through this we can then go the extra mile in conservation and education. That is what leaving a legacy is about.”
Conservation, in particular, is essential to the future of the region, says David. “It is critical for us. If we don’t play a role in protecting wildlife, we won’t have a business.
“In fact, it is quite appropriate we are called Rhino Africa, because sustainability is linked to the rhino. If the rhino disappears, so do we. If conservation doesn’t succeed, nor do we.”
David is an animal lover of Dr Doolittle proportions, sharing his home with a vast array of pets – two dogs, a variety of parrots, a huge seawater tank filled with tropical fish inside, a koi sanctuary outside and, as if that wasn’t enough, two little porcupines. “People say I could charge tourists to look around my house as part of a cultural visit. It’s like a zoo”
His African grey parrot, George, has quite a reputation, too. Once a valued member of the office staff, he now has to remain at home because of his penchant for attacking guests.
Looking forward, he believes the travel industry has massive potential for growth.
“When we started, we used to connect clients directly to a product. Our unique selling point was creating tailormade itineraries and providing expert knowledge.”
But technology is driving “the next wave of ‘disruption’ and enriching the guest experience,” he says. “We are transforming into a technology and travel company.
“Technology gives greater benefit to our clients and the people in Africa.
We can now deliver tailormade itineraries online, which you can’t currently do [elsewhere]. Rhino clients don’t get PDFs, they get [their own]customised website, with CRM that follows them through their whole journey, starting from their initial quote. They can receive their travel documents in an app, the destination knowledge in an app… It really does enrich the client journey.”