The African Dream by Silke Bender | 2nd December, 2022 | Travel
The adventure began in 1983 with a single Land Rover in Botswana. Today Wilderness Safaris is a market leader in the high-end ecotourism segment, operating over 60 camps in eight African countries. CEO Keith Vincent on his sustainable and successful business model.
Nothing compares with the moment you come face to face with an elephant in the savanna for the first time. Most people are moved to tears – as was Keith Vincent. As a child, he dreamed of owning and protecting a piece of Hwange National Park. Today his company, Wilderness Safaris, protects 2.3 million hectares (nearly 5.7 million acres) of land – an area bigger than Israel.
The story begins in 1983 with Keith Vincent and other bush guides in Botswana – and with a single Land Rover that he bought on credit and used to organize his first, spartan safaris. “It was just tents, beans and eggs that we used to cook on shovels,” laughs Vincent. If you want to survive in the wilderness, you learn to make economical use of resources. Even then, he was unconsciously guided by the corporate philosophy that has made Wilderness Safaris the poster child for sustainable ecotour- ism: the Four Cs – for conservation, community, culture and commerce
His parents moved from Northern Ireland to Zimbabwe in the early 1950s, when the country was still a British colony: They wanted to become sugar cane farmers. “I was born in Africa, spent my whole life in the bush and experienced first-hand how more and more of the wilderness was being destroyed as the population grew. All I could think of was finding a way to help the people and animals at the same time,” he says. “We soon realized that, as safari vendors, we would need to involve the rural communities and show them that they would benefit from protecting their nature and animals too.”
In the mid-1980s, the movie “Out of Africa” triggered an explosion in demand for pho- to safaris in southern Africa. Encouraged by the boom, Vincent and his fellow bush guides built their first, luxurious resort in Botswana in 1990. “For the first time, it was more lucrative for governments and communities to lease their land to us than to hunt operators. We could pay more, created hundreds of jobs instead of just a handful and generated more tax and foreign exchange revenue. Today, we pay some communities as much as half a million dollars a year for land leases.”
Ten years later the company experienced another spurt of growth, this time thanks to young dot-com millionaires, the expansion of international air links and its own Wilderness Air fleet, which provides convenient transportation for guests moving from one camp to an- other. “We were the first to serve this clientele’s needs by offering them the height of comfort and very exclusive nature experiences,” says Vincent.
Whereas other providers set their sights on the mass market, Wilderness Safaris initially focused on remote areas in south-central Africa: In Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Rwanda and Namibia, it built small, upscale camps with usually no more than a dozen tents or suites and totally private bush tours. “If you’ve ever waited for elephants in the same spot as 120 other Land Rovers full of tourists, you’ll appreciate what a difference that makes,” he says.
More than 3,000 people work at the Wilderness Safaris camps today, and over 90% of the staff are from the surrounding villages. “I’m especially proud that a lot of them – whether they’re pilots or camp managers – come to us from our non-profit, Children in the Wilderness,” explains Vincent. “It’s an education- al and support initiative that we founded when AIDS started turning millions of children in Africa into orphans.”
In 2018, Wilderness Holdings reported investments of approx. $ 140 million from prominent new shareholders like the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, singer Bono, director George Lucas and Sir Richard Branson. Then, in the early stages of the Covid crisis, the company had to prove how serious it really was about its commitment to C for Community. “2020 was also the year of the drought and the biggest food emergency I’ve ever experienced in Africa,” says Vincent, looking back. “On top of that, all our revenues collapsed. There was no rescue scheme for businesses like there was in Europe. Even so, we were able to support our employees and their villages by putting staff on short time and providing thousands of tons of food.”
Consequently, all the camps were able to reopen this past March, and with guests al- ready numbering 40,000 per year Wilderness Safaris has returned to pre-crisis levels.
In 2023 the company is aiming to estab- lish new walking safaris and mobile luxury camps in Tanzania with its partner Wayo Af- rica. There are also plans to expand to Asia and South America within the next three years. “Today we’re spearheading the development of experiential ecotourism,” says Keith Vincent. “We’ve invented a successful business model made in Africa – and knowing that helps me sleep well at night.”