The tourist dollar can have a huge positive impact on local communities. Emma Gregg discovers how tour operators and lodges are giving back to the Warm Heart of Africa — and how you can, too
The Responsible Safari Company (RSC). “It’s the people, the chaos, the buzz, the freedom, the potential.”hat is it about Malawi that inspires me, tugs my heart strings and makes me smile?” asks Dom Webb, founder and managing director of
RSC, a social enterprise tour operator based in Blantyre, Malawi’s second-largest city, organises educational field trips, charity challenges and cultural holidays for visitors to Malawi. British-born Dom, who’s travelled widely in Africa, feels that Malawi has all the necessary ingredients to become a world-leading destination for sustainable, eco-friendly, community-based holidays and experiences. He’s not alone in this belief. Talk to anyone on the inside track of the country’s tourism industry and the word ‘potential’ comes up again and again.
Recently, it’s been Malawi’s renaissance as a wildlife hotspot that’s been grabbing the headlines. Woefully (but understandably) under-rated as a safari destination in the past, it’s beginning to assert itself as a real contender thanks to a string of enlightened conservation initiatives designed to pull Majete Wildlife Reserve, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park back from the brink. Last year’s transfer of 261 elephants and around 1500 other animals, including rhinos, antelopes, buffalos and zebras, into Nkhotakota — part of the 500 Elephants programme, launched with hands-on support from Prince Harry — was a crucial phase in what has been described as one of the most ambitious animal relocation projects ever undertaken. In 2017, African Parks, the conservation NGO that manages Majete, Nkhotakota and Liwonde, will welcome 239 more elephants into Nkhotakota and will reintroduce predators into Liwonde.
It’s exciting news, both for binocular-toting travellers and for the communities that live near the reserves; the latter stand to benefit from new job opportunities as rangers, lodge staff, drivers and guides. Meanwhile, in the background, community-based tourism is quietly on the rise, too.
“We chose the name The Responsible Safari Company because we believe that 21st-century travellers and tour operators in developing destinations should share an obligation towards the local people,” says Dom. “Ours are not traditional, wildlife-focused safaris. We use the term ‘safari’ to reflect the personal journey you might take on one of our trips.”
In the past, RSC has successfully organised rural cycling tours and village homestays in conjunction with its partner organisation, Youth for Development and Productivity (YODEP). As a homestay guest in a remote Malawian village, you’re treated as one of the family and are encouraged to muck in with everyday tasks such as fetching water and harvesting the pigeon peas.
Aware that first-timers might worry about feeling like an intruder, Dom’s team take care to keep this part of their operation small-scale and personal. “On a large, commercial scale, community tourism could do more harm than good,” he says. “We aim to create authentic experiences that foster kinship, knowledge and inspiration between visitors and their hosts, generating income for the community, promoting sustainable business practice and building pride and self-worth. This seems to empower both parties!”
RSC’s newest ideas include Global Citizenship and Development workshops aimed at students, businesses and independent travellers. Participants will spend a fortnight learning about development challenges such as HIV/AIDS, human-wildlife conflict, gender equality and climate change, sharing their own knowledge with local schoolchildren. Environmental topics will predominate. “It’s not always easy to be green in Malawi,” says Dom. “You have to use your initiative sometimes. For example, there’s no official recycling programme — but RSC works with a community paper-recycling project. We give them our office paper and buy back recycled paper from them, which we use for our client travel packs.”
Fisherman’s Rest, a lodge in a private nature reserve within easy reach of Blantyre, acts as a base for community development projects and has several new ones planned. Also launching this year, at the multi-award-winning Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, is a new affordable camp called Kachenga, aimed at self-drivers and ‘volunteer safari’ guests wishing to get actively involved in the local community. Tongole, the reserve’s first upmarket lodge, is a superb choice for those looking for a wilderness safari with sound ethical credentials. It’s thoughtfully designed, with power provided by its own mini solar farm, and its location is beautiful, spread along the bank of the Bua River, overlooking a spot where elephants like to cross. Set up in memory of the managing director’s son, who died in a car accident aged only 16, Tongole Wilderness Lodge and The Tongole Foundation are dedicated to improving the lives of local people through education, training and employment. Many of those who helped dig the lodge’s foundations went on to become permanent members of staff.
“In a country as densely populated as Malawi, where protected areas are bordered by farmland and villages, it’s vital that local communities are involved in conservation, and draw benefits from it,” says David Cole, owner of Tongole. “Life is about subsistence in many of Malawi’s rural areas; if local people are expected to conserve natural resources rather than utilising them, they need to be educated about the value of protecting wildlife and its habitat. If they associate a reserve or a lodge with employment, income, food, improved education and healthcare, there is reason for them to safeguard it; poachers become game scouts, security guards or waiters. I believe Tongole is a great example of this.”
The Tongole Foundation’s community development initiatives include a chicken project, which enables poor families to set themselves up as sustainable egg producers, and a mosquito net distribution project whose goal is to prevent babies dying of malaria as a direct consequence of poverty. The foundation also actively supports local schools; guests are encouraged to get a feel for rural culture and the positive impact of their own presence by visiting them.
Community-based volunteer options in Malawi include short-term opportunities such as the Malawi Marathon, which combines a few days of voluntary work inspired by the first three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health & Wellbeing) with a chance to run a marathon along the shore of Lake Malawi via the waterside villages that the programme benefits. However, as elsewhere, your best chance of making a lasting difference as a volunteer is to opt for a long-term placement requiring specific professional skills. “It’s important to consider the continuity and sustainability of the project,” says Marc Crouch, managing director of Naturally Africa Volunteers. “Ask plenty of questions and try to speak to past volunteers.”
Chris Badger of Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS) feels that Malawi’s relatively compact size and densely populated rural landscapes make it a natural choice for a community-focused African holiday. “You don’t simply fly over communities as tends to happen in Botswana, or spend days travelling through unpopulated wilderness like in Namibia. In Malawi, it’s easy to incorporate a genuine meet-the-people element into a safari by cycling to a village, stopping off to visit the chief, meeting a farmer or having a go at extracting water from a village pump. Encounters like these are a fantastic way to enhance your understanding of daily life in Africa.”
Every participant on a CAWS trip is offered the chance to reduce the environmental impact of his or her travels by funding the planting of at least one tree beside Lake Malawi. Just US$2 is enough to cover the cost of a tree and wages for the planter. “We’re calling this a Tree with Every Trip, and we’re aiming for a million trees,” says Chris. “It’s just a number, but we truly believe that we can turn back the tide of devastation of our forests by encouraging others to join in.” Launched recently, this idea dovetails neatly with CAWS’ long-established education programme, Children in the Wilderness, which runs Eco Clubs and field trips for underprivileged kids.
“Chiefs and elders are now learning from the children about environmental issues. It’s a fascinating dynamic,” says Chris. “If in 15 years’ time a Children in the Wilderness orphan is elected President of Malawi, our job will be well and truly done.”
• Getting there Kenya Airways and South African Airways provide international flights to Lilongwe and Blantyre.
• What to do The Responsible Safari Company organises community-focused courses and cultural experiences; Naturally Africa Volunteers provide voluntourism programmes; and Central African Wilderness Safaris organise specialist safaris in Malawi.
• Where to stay Tongole Wilderness Lodge (doubles from US$730) provides upmarket accommodation in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. In Liwonde National Park, Central African Wilderness Safaris’ Mvuu Lodge (doubles from US$750, all-inclusive) offers the option of a night sleeping out on a Star Bed. Chintheche Inn (doubles from US$370, all-inclusive), also run by CAWS, has an unforgettable location, right beside Lake Malawi. Fisherman’s Rest (doubles from US$80) offers modest rooms and a pool in a private reserve south of Blantyre.
• When to go The driest months are May to September; travel in remote rural areas can be slow in March and April after the rains.
• Health Be sure to check with your GP or local travel clinic which vaccinations you need and buy your antimalarials well in advance.
Make an impact
We asked Chris Badger of Central African Wilderness Safaris about sustainable tourism in Malawi
Explain the power of the tourist dollar to effect change in Malawi
I could write a book! Tourism brings well-paid jobs, which lift the employee above the cycle of poverty and exponentially assist in looking after extended families. Often the resort, lodge, camp or inn is in a poor rural area, further increasing the trickle-down benefits.
How can tourists give back to the community on their travels?
By paying a responsible tour operator to put together a Malawi holiday, so the community benefits. It’s that simple.
Tell us a story that illustrates the difference a tourist can make
An old dirt road on the western edge of Liwonde National Park has been kept open by Central African Wilderness Safaris, so that we can deliver our tourists safely and comfortably to Mvuu Lodge and Camp. As well as our high-paying international tourists, we often get independent travellers and backpackers ‘splashing out’ on a night of luxury. Their only affordable way to get there is to use public transport — a bicycle taxi, which is a bike with a primitive foam seat on the back and a rider with strong legs prepared to travel the 15km of bumpy dirt to deliver the person to the park gate for a small sum. Recently, a tourist noticed that on receiving his meagre fare for this exertion, the cyclist immediately bought tomatoes from a nearby village stall. So with the starting point of a fee, a modest business had been created.
The Malawi Marathon will take place from 21-27 May 2018. To watch a video about the event, visit https://travelafricamag.com/malawi-marathon/