When President Paul Kagame asked me to participate in a ceremony to name 23 baby gorillas a few days ago, I thought it was cool, and it earned some bragging rights for my youngest daughter amongst her animal-loving schoolmates…”My dad went to name a baby gorilla!”
I was grateful for the honor, and fully appreciated its importance from a conservation point of view. I did not realize at the time, however, that it would lead to one of the most profound entrepreneurial discoveries I have ever observed.
As we set off, I was initially a little disappointed to learn that I would not actually get to see any of the baby gorillas. I even wondered if it was such a smart idea to attend a ceremony whilst others discussed serious agriculture issues.
As our helicopter landed near the foothills of Volcano National Park which is home to the Silverback Mountain Gorillas, I realized we were entering a small town with beautiful homes and neat homesteads. I was surprised by the size and relative prosperity of the community and remarked about it to one of my colleagues.
It certainly looked more prosperous than communities around any game reserve I have ever seen in Africa, including Victoria Falls and Livingstone. This really raised my curiosity.
As we disembarked, I realized that the entire community appeared to be walking in one direction by their thousands, waving and singing.
“Where are they going?” we asked.
“To Kwita Izina. That is what we call the gorilla-naming ceremony,” one of the hostesses explained. “We expect 60,000 people.”
“For the naming of a baby animal?!” I exclaimed, totally shocked.
“Is there nothing else they can be doing?” I asked. “Surely they have seen it before.”
It was clear they were excited and happy.
“Sir, the people of this community know every one of the gorillas in that forest. And when a baby is born, they celebrate like it’s a human child “
As our vehicles drew through the excited crowds, something else caught my eye. There were also hundreds of foreign tourists of different nationalities and races, including westerners and Chinese.
“What is that the children are singing to the tourists?” I asked.
“Welcome to Rwanda. Thank you for visiting Rwanda!” one hostess explained.
“For these children and their parents, those tourists represent school fees and income for their community,” another added.
“These baby gorillas are at the center of the economy of this region. They are the source of income. For these people each of these baby gorillas is worth more than 1000 cows.”
Then I added: “Wow! I get it!”
Then another of the many hostesses and guides who joined us on the trip added something which blew my mind:
“The government distributes 10% of the revenue earned from the tourists who come to see the gorillas directly to the communities around the park.”
“Do you know how much they got last year?” I asked.
“Between two to 10 million US dollars.”
“Yes, they get the money, and it is used to build things like schools, clinics, homes, roads and sanitation. The hotels are also built to service our gorilla industry.”
She continued to explain: “These baby gorillas that you’re going to help name bring big money into the community!”
“I imagine there is no poaching?” I asked.
“No, sir. This community seriously guards and defends the gorillas and their habitat.”
Finally, I whispered: “If I could take my gorilla with me, I wouldn’t have to work again.”
“But you have more animals than we do, where you come from. Surely you can do the same with your lions and rhinos?” she asked.
By the time the minister responsible for the development of the tourist sector made her speech, it was like attending a Warren Buffett shareholders’ meeting. She proudly reported the state of the “gorilla-driven” business, declaring that Rwanda had earned over $400m from tourism.
There was thunderous applause.
And when she said they want to double it to $800m, the “shareholders” of this remarkable venture cheered even louder. These were so-called ordinary people who understood the value that comes from conserving their environment and its wildlife.
#Entrepreneurship is a mindset! We’ve talked about this time and again.
This is entrepreneurship by a government that implemented an inclusive business model to protect an endangered animal.
As I flew back the capital, Kigali, I thought about my baby gorilla and his family. He is safe because the people will protect him.
“What a wonderful gift from God,” I thought to myself. “All we have to do is protect them, and stay out of their way. They are like a beautiful annuity business that gives ever-increasing returns year in and year out.”
I tried to think of a better business model, and I could not!
There is no African country which does not have a similar gift, be it a rare animal or even a location.
In 2015, tourism in Africa was worth about US$39.2bn. It could be worth 25x that amount!
__All we have to do is protect our animals and our environment. Then tourists will come and spend good money having a great time. If we look after these animals, we can earn more money than we make from almost any other industry just now!
In 2016, global international tourism revenues were about US$1.34tn! But Africa’s share (using 2015 AfDB figure of US$39.2bn) is a miniscule 2.93% of that.
As a point of comparison, France earned US$51.21bn (2017) and Greece US$16.88bn (2017).
It makes me want to cry…
But this is not a time for self-pity or bitter criticism. It’s not my way. We need “fast follower” entrepreneurial nations.
What stops other African countries from adopting the Rwanda model?
Yeah, on this trip I think I discovered the most profitable business in Africa! You can make money from it all year round, for years. But we cannot do it alone.
We need an inclusive partnership with the communities that live near these animals and in these spectacular locations. Let’s give them at least a 10% share and show them the benefits.
Edited by Opeyemi Babarinde