How Elephants and Communities Can Take Care of One Another

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Imagine if President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Ali Bongo of Gabon, Ian Khama of Botswana and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda formed a club known as the ‘People Club.’ Imagine if this club sought to ensure that millions of poor people in these four countries were empowered economically through new jobs, new markets for their products or new capital for their enterprises. After all, 2.5 billion people in the world remain mired in poverty with millions of these in Africa.

Imagine if the foremost goal of this ‘People Club’ was as follows:

“The People Club is an exclusive forum that brings together African Heads of State, global business leaders and livelihood enhancement experts to secure and enhance livelihoods for Africa’s increasing number of poor people especially those who live near elephant populations.”

In order to make a bold statement about the need to slay poverty once and for all, imagine if the four presidents then burnt things that are vivid and symbolic depictions of abject poverty in Africa. Things like farming subsidy policies that keep fresh vegetables from the US market; symbolic bank statements containing the billions that have been stolen from Africa and stacked abroad; court rulings from across Africa that confirm prosecutions of corrupt officials who embezzle millions from public coffers; statistics papers that show how tribalism trumps competency in public appointments, and many such contributors of poverty on the continent.

The US 2014 farm bill paved way for subsidies that have been harmful even to America itself. Between now and 2018, when the Football World Cup will be played in Russia, US peanut farmers will have reaped as much as $1.9 billion in subsidies. This is more than the approximately 1.74 billion that Kenya spends to pay its teachers. While no one should begrudge the US for spending its money as it wishes, this isn’t a level playing field for African farmers to compete with their American counterparts holistically.

Indeed, American farmers were incentivized to grow crops like peanuts so much that last year in 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture ended up with a surplus of 16,000 metric tons of peanuts. How on earth is a peanut farmer in Kenya or Malawi supposed to compete with that?! You may say that the Nairobi Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation in 2015 addressed this issue. Sure enough, the Nairobi Package called on an end of all farm export subsidies. The challenge now will lie in educating the masses about both the new global trade opportunities and lingering challenges.

Imagine if the public burning by the four presidents dramatized unfair global trade practices so much that ensuing public pressure ends up impacting local national elections. Wouldn’t that deal a decisive blow to poverty (to an extent) by enabling farmers in Togo and Namibia to sell their agricultural produce to a much wider market? It might also open the floodgates of capital to flow into Africa’s agriculture and make it more technologically savvy.

Imagine if this public burning was preceded by a ‘People Club’ Summit that resulted in commitments that these four countries would have to adhere to. Commitments like: Ensure that at least 25 percent of tourism revenue goes back to communities living next to national parks and game reserves in the form of employment opportunities, investments or loans. This way, local communities would have a seat at the table and not just benefit from the tourism revenue crumbs that fall their way. Kenya’s Tourism Act of 2011 is sadly silent on such innovative ways of investing in communities.

Interestingly, Kenya has in the past enacted innovative legislation that impacted the tourism sector significantly. The 1972 Hotels and Restaurants Act, Cap 494 established Catering Levy Trustees that collected a 2% training levy from hotels and restaurants towards Utalii College’s financing, training and operation. Without the said legislation, we may never have been the proud owners of East and Central Africa’s premier hospitality training institution. Because of the more than six billion it has received from the Levy Fund, Utalii College has been able to produce at least 50,000 highly trained students whose human resource has catapulted Kenya’s hospitality sector to the next level.

Imagine therefore that there was legislation entrenching community-centred investment into the law of the land. Legislation that would greatly minimize human-wildlife conflict by aligning wildlife and communities on the same side as allies, not adversaries competing for finite resources.

Imagine if yet another commitment from this ‘People’s Club’ Summit called on billionaires like Richard Branson to provide venture capital funds not just for enterprising individuals from national park adjacent communities but also for ventures that specifically ensure the sustainable wellbeing of both communities and wildlife.

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Everything you have just imagined happened in Nairobi in the last week of April 2016. The only difference between what actually happened and what you have just imagined lies in the fact that instead of people, elephants were the focus of the Summit. I support this focus 100 percent.

I only add the there should be similarly renewed focus on the poor people of these countries, especially those who live near the amazing gentle giants. They deserve not just a regular meal on their tables, but also a reliable, wildlife-enabled means of producing this meal. Wildlife-enabled in the sense that the millions earned from wildlife end up not just in wildlife conservation efforts but also in human wellbeing efforts.

As we keep our hands off our elephants, let us join them to kick poverty out of Africa.

DJ Bwakali

Words can inspire action and change the world

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