iSimangaliso – it’s about people
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s Rural Enterprise Accelerator Programme (REAP) is a partnership initiative with Raizcorp, the World Bank and Global Environmental Facility. It is fast becoming a significant catalyst in transforming aid-dependency by providing community entrepreneurs with training, mentorship and seed capital for businesses. It enables community-owned businesses to leverage opportunities in iSimangaliso and ignite a cycle of job creation and economic growth.
Bringing real benefits to one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in South Africa, the programme now supports some 187 entrepreneurs – a significant and rapid growth from the 30 who started six years ago. To date, 80 grants to the value of over R7.8 million have been awarded to businesses.
iSimangaliso’s natural value is in sharp contrast to its local context of human poverty. Of the 640 000 people living around iSimangaliso, over 80% live below the poverty line and only 15% of the economically active population is formally employed. There is a strong dependence on single bread-winners, migrant household members and state welfare.
To be resilient and have choices in the face of rapid global and climate change, this place of international importance needs to maintain its relevance locally. iSimangaliso’s strategy to create this necessary resilience has been the ‘rewilding’ of the Park. It’s a model for conservation that tackles the large-scale restoration of complex natural ecosystems at the same time as improving the quality of life of the people in whose hands the future of the Park belongs. The latter is predominantly driven through inclusive conservation practices such as skills development programmes in the areas of art, craft, hospitality, tourism, and job creation initiatives in land rehabilitation and construction.
“iSimangaliso’s programmes prepare people for employment and make them more employable in an area where there are too few businesses and many of those that do exist remain marginal. It is about replacing dependency with entrepreneurship and decent jobs,” comments iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis.
iSimangaliso works with entrepreneurs as well as survivalist entrepreneurs – individuals who have taken up the only economic opportunity open to them to survive. The basic financial data collected from enterprises shows a substantial increase in earnings for roughly half the enterprises that have received a grant. These tangible results have helped focus participants and made them more aware of their knowledge and experience gaps.
The programme also tracks innovation and personal development. One of the most significant changes has been the new-found ability of participants to see themselves in command of their own destinies.
“One of the main tenets of the programme’s approach is that entrepreneurs succeed not because of the best business plan, but because they believe they have the power to influence events and their outcomes,” says Raizcorp CEO Allon Raiz.
Marius Wilken, guide and mentor, echoes these sentiments when he says, “The greater the belief that people are in control of their futures, the higher their success rate.”
“In our context, this means that no-one is waiting for help from government, the church, their family or any other benevolent agent before they act. It’s not about certificates, receiving handouts or getting a job. It is about doing business,” says iSimangaliso REAP Project Manager, Zakithi Mngomezulu.
The programme differs fundamentally from other programmes implemented in rural areas. Some of the innovations are:
- Recruitment is based on the probability of success as opposed to gender, age and other quotas.
- Co-funding by participants – who pay for transport to the programme sessions – is a requirement. This is not an insignificant amount given the level of poverty and cost of transport in the area.
- Although stipends for attending training are the norm in the region and have become an economic strategy, financial assistance to participants on the Rural Enterprise Accelerator Programme is channelled into grants – like equipment.
- Participants must attend at least 80% of the sessions to remain on the programme.
- Training sessions focus on personal development. Comparative programmes focus on business skills exclusively. Building confident entrepreneurs with a strong internal locus of control is key to the success and sustainability of businesses.
- Ongoing business support and mentoring through a rural hub is provided.
To date, the funding for the programme has come from donor agencies. From the new year, the programme will be funded through iSimangaliso’s Conservation and Community levy fund. The fund is sustained through contributions from tourists to the Park (R5 per person on entry). This will ensure continuity, and can be used to leverage additional funding from donors.
The programme is now being successfully replicated in other rural areas by Raizcorp. It also offers networking opportunities with other Raizcorp participating businesses allowing entrepreneurs to expand to markets outside the region and link into supply chains of larger companies. The next step in iSimangaliso is to improve and strengthen businesses in the tourism sector as part of our transformation strategy. There are now five majority locally black-owned and managed tourism concessions operating in the Park and 10 community-based tour guides have set up small businesses operating around the Park. There is tremendous scope for growing tourism activities in iSimangaliso and the entrepreneurs on the programme are well placed to make use of this opportunity.
For the participants in the programme, benefits are life-changing. A popular choice of business is a hair salon, which has seen Mandisa Mbuyazi, Khanyisile Gumede, Celiwe Qwabe, Bongiwe Khambule, Phumelaphi Mbuyaziand Virginia Thwala each set up a flourishing business in their respective towns. Barbarah Ngwane, of Mnqobokazi near Hluhluwe, has even gone on to diversify from her original salon and internet café to open a second business, a training centre in Manguzi. Catering and hiring of décor for events is also a popular choice – Virginia Mdletshe, Thobisile Nxumalo, Sibusiso Mafuleka, Thandazile Mathenjwa, Thobekile Masinga and Tholakele Mkhwanazi are just a few who have chosen this route to earn income. Sewing, welding, block manufacturing, construction, maintenance, car washes, gardening services, poultry farming, a nursery and landscaping business have all reaped benefits for entrepreneurs such as Thulani Mthethwa, Khulekani Silwane, Fikele Zulu, Joseph Mthembu and Celani Mahlangu, from every corner of iSimangaliso’s borders.
And in the growing sector of tourism services, there are photographers, accommodation establishments, entertainment, shuttle services and tour guides making a decent living from the hundreds of thousands of annual Park visitors. Xolani Theo Gina, is one of the tour guides, whose popular business in St Lucia includes bicycles awarded through the programme to set up Theo’s Tours. Theo has just won the provincial round of the Lilizela Tourism Awards and will represent KwaZulu-Natal in the nationals. Other successful tourism businesses showing great potential are the Shoreline estuary boat cruise operation owned by Khula resident Philip Mkhwanazi, and the first black-owned charter fishing business in Sodwana Bay, Tombi Deep Sea Fishing Charters with Thembinkosi Ndlovu as the majority shareholder.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was recognised by UNESCO as a natural world heritage site in 1999, a place of global significance celebrated locally as the ‘place of miracles’ after the Zulu word iSimangaliso.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “the iSimangaliso Wetland Park must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale)”.
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