Special Reports

Interest from afar makes local difference

Johann Barnard

Open Africa has forged a unique model that has had a significant impact in far-flung corners of Southern Africa.

Open Africa ensures that local communities have a meaningful stake in creating sustainable tourism ventures in far-flung areas

Runner-up: Business Award

Open Africa

Johann Barnard

Using the power of the tourism industry to create sustainable enterprises, jobs and local community involvement, Open Africa has forged a unique model that has had a ­significant impact in far-flung corners of Southern Africa.

Established in 1995 under the patronage of Nelson Mandela, this non-governmental organisation has sustained employment for more than 27 000 people in six countries in the region by developing 2 400 enterprises. It has done this by establishing a network of 63 travel routes, 48 of them based in South Africa.

General manager Francois Viljoen says one of the success factors has been the all-inclusive approach that aims to eliminate barriers to entry. "It rallies people around a vision of common purpose and provides a platform on which communities can work together, regardless of their background, race or culture. It focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses and allows communities to take pride in their heritage and culture."

An example of the impact it has made is the Richtersveld route in the Northern Cape, an area that is home to the richest alluvial diamond reserves in the world, almost 5 000 succulent plant species and ancient rock formations. This area has been notoriously underdeveloped, resulting in small, isolated towns suffering large-scale poverty.

The Richtersveld route was opened in 2008 and today provides increased tourism opportunities, including accommodation, activities, tour guides and arts and crafts, resulting in improved sustainability for communities that have historically been geographically isolated.

"Knowing the potential of the locals, Open Africa worked to increase the confidence of business owners and townspeople to give them a way to ensure a sustainable future. This involved a series of workshops and linkages that identified and realised their potential," says Viljoen.

The success of the Open Africa approach led to founder Noel de Villiers being named as an Ernst & Young social entrepreneur of the year finalist in 2009, receiving the Inyathelo merit award in 2010 and being awarded an Ashoka fellowship.

The model is predicated on connecting travellers looking for off-the-beaten-track experiences with rural entrepreneurs who are able to provide a tourism service. An online forum is used to promote trade with the rural enterprises to develop local economies in rural areas.

The organisation's involvement extends beyond creating these opportunities to playing a co-ordinating role among the tourism route stakeholders, including the government, business and communities. This role enables emerging rural enterprises to join the conversation and share best practices and ideas on a platform that has national reach.

"We have all come to realise that governments are not able to deliver all the required services and often don't have the knowledge or expertise to do things in the same efficient and effective manner companies can," says Viljoen.

"This is where social enterprise plays a crucial role. By adopting business principles and practices they are able to partner with the government and deliver social services in a way the government often can't."

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