How a rhino conservancy is reframing how people and wild life can better live in harmony

Kiama was excited. This slim Kikuyu man works for Ol Pejeta, and his energy was infectious. He was telling me about how some of the local schools in the neighboring town of Nanyuki, Kenya, and many surrounding communities have been benefiting from their programs. These communities lie spread out under the shadow of Africa’s second-largest mountain, Mt. Kenya.

Ol Pejeta is on a massive track of land, and the area has a significant white population. It’s about four hours (given modern traffic) out of Nairobi. The organisation is developing creative and often highly-successful ways of ensuring that their relationship with their pastoral and farming neighbours is not only friendly, but highly profitable for all concerned. In the world of conservation, this is a must. For if wildlife is to survive in Africa, the limited amount of land still left to them has to be justified against growing populations with their food demands.

Ol Pejeta’s model is a standard-maker, for after conservation, its largest expense is community. For far too many organisations, community gets what’s left after everything else. The message in those cases to local stakeholders is that they aren’t a high priority. Here, if you live near Ol Pejeta, you do. Because Ol Pejeta’s people understand that for African wildlife to have a future, its people can’t see these magnificent animals as competition or tourists as pests. A partnership is key.

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Kiama and Judy, who works for the Marketing Department, had delivered me to a local girl’s school where a long, carefully-constructed greenhouse protected the tall, fragrant tomatoes from harsh rains and storms. Outside, plots of veined cabbage had been rotated in after carrots, and next to them were maize and spring onions. Grey clouds, indicating rain (which for this time of year is very rare) gathered in the distance.

While the greenhouses provide food for the schools, they do far more than that. The proceeds from sales of extra vegetables can be used to pay for school fees and boarding, as well as even fund students who choose to repeat their last year to improve their grades. I learned about two young men whose grades were C-. The greenhouse proceeds supported their efforts to do better. And they did. They graduated with a B+ average, stood for the exams and are now both university students.

Greenhouses change the conversation around traditional farming, and when kids see how the produce pays for so much more than just a lunch meal, they can get excited about farming using more modern techniques.

But that’s not all.

Kiama and Judy drove me to a neighbouring farm in the Chuma community. Kamande, a tall Kikuyu man with a round face, great broad smile and a very energetic wife greeted us. They were overseeing improvements being made to their home by four local men.

Kamande told us that he had approached Kiama about improving his crops. The long and short of it was that Kiama had provided a better potato, and Kamande wanted to show us the results.

In short, within one growing season, this farmer saw far more tubers per plant, and as he and Kiama both emphasized, much larger potatoes. That kind of yield gets attention. Not much later, other farmers were interested, because that kind of news spreads fast.

Kiama explained a “pay it forward” programme involving chickens. Kamande, and farmers like him, would receive four hens and a cockerel. Assuming there were hatched eggs, at some point that farmer would give Kiama the same number out of his bounty to give to yet another farmer. And so on, going forward.

But there’s more.

Photo by Monkgogi Samson on Unsplash

In a small, dark shed right behind the house, Kamanda pulled two heavy bags out for my inspection. One was full of cool, dark red kidney beans, which slipped smoothly through my fingers. The other was full of the variegated pinto beans. Bumper crops, both of them, again the results of better quality seeds and plants.

These are just a few examples of the many ways that local farmers are not only benefiting from their interactions with Ol Pejeta, but they are learning together. The per-acre value of their land shoots up accordingly.

Perhaps the key message from this is that if farmers can coax far greater productivity and profitability from their small plots using better seeds, better plants, better methods, then there is far less pressure placed on Ol Pejeta and other wildlife conservancies to take that land for farming (or grazing as the case may be).

But there’s more. As Kamande showed us his chickens (and a turkey which had been given a rather large babysitting job of quite a few fluffy chicks), his wife circled back around from the front of the house where the young men were painting a concrete step dark red.

Those home improvements were also the result of the better crops. And the jobs for the four young men were also the result of those crops.

It hardly stops there. The cascade effect is endless, from more grocery, clothing and other sales for the local merchants to more parents being able to afford school fees, which means a better chance for those kids to qualify for one of Ol Pejeta’s scholarships.

When a community can measure the benefits of close cooperation and interaction with a huge wildlife conservancy like Ol Pejeta in fat potatoes, big bags of beans, a healthy chicken population and enough to pay it forward, people pay attention. Everyone talks about how their lives are improved, and all the other benefits of how the farms are doing so much better.

What I saw at Ol Pejeta, for my conservation dollar, is one of the best examples of an organisation which knows that its future is closely intertwined with local populations. When animals and locals prosper, they become invested in each other.

For the rhinos, elephants, the great cats and so many more of the best of what Africa has to offer, this is a generous ray of hope.

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash