Is it time to start seeing conservation in Africa as a business opportunity, and not a charity?

Jessamy Calkin
The words ‘business’ and ‘conservation’ are not easy bedfellows - getty

The Kigali convention centre in Rwanda, a vast, opulent dome-like structure, cost $300 million to build, and is reputed to be the most expensive building in Africa. Last weekend it hosted the Business of Conservation, the second annual conference organised by Fred Swaniker, an enterprising young Ghanaian who, at the inaugural conference last year, managed to garner pledges for $600 million to be spent on conservation projects around Africa.

Swaniker has an impressive history: ten years ago he started the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, set up to train future African leaders, getting finance for the brightest and best students from 52 out of 54 African countries to attend his academy in Johannesburg. He is also founder of the African Leadership University (ALU), close by the convention centre in Kigali, which has been called the Harvard of Africa and described by the New York Times as one of the few places in the world where history is being made. It has campuses in Kigali, Mauritius and Kenya, and there are campuses in Morocco and Botswana currently under constuction. 

The words ‘business’ and ‘conservation’ are not easy bedfellows. Profit is often seen as a dirty word among conservationists, but Swaniker is trying to change that – conservation should be seen as a business opportunity, not a charity, he says. 

The Kigali convention centre Credit: GETTY

He believes that responsibility for African conservation should be taken by Africans, so last year he invited a coalition of conservationists and investors to the conference. Over two days, entrepreneurs had 15 minutes each to pitch their stories from a stage in the centre of the main hall. Candidates included established organisation like African Parks, which manages 15 national parks in ten different countries, to the lone figure of Patrick Kwizera, president of the Rwandan Guide Association, who was making a plea for more female walking guides in Rwanda. 

And the investors went for it: New Island Capital, for example, pledged $100 million towards tropical forest preservation. But the chasm between conservation and business was illustrated by the fact that people were so reluctant to ask directly for money. ‘We coached them and kept reminding them,’ says Swaniker. ‘Ask for what you want! But conservationists are shy of doing that directly; we need to train people who run conservation organisations to pitch properly.’ He promised that this year’s conference would be run more like Dragon’s Den, with investors sitting up on the stage as well.

The 2018 conference was well attended by both Africans and Europeans: Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire who owns ASOS, and the conference’s main sponsor, gave a heartfelt address about nature being the world’s most valuable asset. Even Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, made an appearance and a speech. In the end, $600 million was pledged, and Swaniker has spent the last year holding everyone accountable, checking in on how the beneficiaries are deploying the money that was promised, and their progress with implementing their plans. 

Fred Swaniker was born in Ghana. His family moved to Gambia when he was four, Botswana when he was eight and Zimbabwe when he was 12. A pan-African upbringing he calls it, which gave him his particular outlook on life. When he was 18 he became a headmaster – of his mother’s school (‘it was just a small school, 50 kids, no big deal’) then won a scholarship to Macalester College in Minnesota and worked for McKinsey across Africa, who sponsored him to do an MBA at Stanford. Along the way he began to question how he had been so lucky to get all these opportunities, compared to all of the millions who didn’t have them, ‘when there was so much poverty, hunger, and general despair among my fellow Africans.’

He determined to do something about it – it’s what he calls his ‘moment of obligation.’

Swaniker was 27 when he started the African Leadership Academy, and in 2015 he established the African Leadership University, for which he has ambitious plans; its mission is to build 25 campuses across the continent. It incorporates a school of wildlife conservation, aimed at enabling African communities to improve the economic opportunities that wildlife can bring. There is a lot to exploit but a long way to go: Kenya still only gets one million visitors a year, while Paris, for example, gets 70 million.

Fred Swaniker Credit: GETTY

In the last 15 years, Swaniker has raised $200 million for African organisations. When he’s 60, he says, his plan is to have created three million leaders via the Africa Leadership Network. ‘Some will be in infrastructure, some will be addressing climate change, some will be working in Conservation, empowering women – these leaders will be at the forefront of driving change. 

‘This is not only about improving conditions for Africa, it’s about unlocking the next wave of innovation and prosperity for the whole world; 40 per cent of the world’s population will be living in Africa by the end of this century – this is the largest pool of untapped talent the world has.’

For more on the African Leadership University, see https://sowc.alueducation.com/