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Wilderness Safaris eyes northern Africa

Exciting opportunities are starting to develop in places like Ethiopia and longer-term, potentially into South Sudan.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Throughout this series Moneyweb we will be interviewing various CEOs and entrepreneurs who have taken their businesses into Africa. They will share some of their actual learnings on the ground. Botswana based, multi-national eco-tourism company Wilderness Safaris operates nearly 40 luxury Safari camps across eight African countries.

Keith Vincent, the Chief Executive Officer at Wilderness Safaris joins us now on the line. Keith, thank you so much for your time.

KEITH VINCENT: Pleasure, thank you for having me.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Taking into consideration that Wilderness Safaris has been operational on the African continent for a number of years, what’s your take on the business landscape of Africa at the moment?

KEITH VINCENT: From a point of view, obviously Africa goes through, I would say cycles of change, both good and bad at a variety of times, so the challenges have always been historically remaining constant for the environment you operating in, in whatever country you’re operating in remaining constant for long periods of time. But having said that, the last four odd years have been very, sort of stable throughout and the environment to do business, I felt, especially over the last four years, to be a lot more enthusiastic to get stuff done quicker rather than the bureaucratic processes that used to take place in the past. So I think it’s a very encouraging sign.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: From some of the investors that I’ve spoken to, they say that you read a lot of things on the internet, in books, hear a lot of noise about investing in Africa or doing business in Africa and they say that some of the things that they hear, they’re misconceptions because its only once you’re on the ground do you actually get a real sense of what’s happening. From your point, what would you say are some of the most common misconceptions about the continent?

KEITH VINCENT: My only misconception is really the introduction to the variety of government departments you may need to deal with to start a business or to acquire a business in various parts of Africa. It’s quite confusing and time consuming. So basically I think the misconception is that everything’s hard. Having said that, we’ve always work to the principle that we’ve always made sure that we work with people in different countries that we’ve operated in to ensure that we’ve already got the content and the ability, the human resource in those countries that allows us to actually speed up the process with knowledge in the countries that we operate in.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: In terms of the luxury and eco-tourism space on the continent and the appetite to spend, what are you seeing over the past few years that you’ve been involved with Wilderness Safaris? Are you seeing a lot more people interested in luxury eco-tourism?

KEITH VINCENT: I think that Africa is the hot destination at the moment. I mean, in reality there’s two hot destinations at the moment and that’s New Zealand and Australia and Africa, and there’s quite a lot of reasons for that. But the appetite for Africa is growing by the day. And if you take out the hiccups, the hiccups are things like the Ebola outbreak. That was a hiccup, it wasn’t a problem for the long-term business players. For the short-term business players, it’s a nightmare, but for the long-term investor, unfortunately as sad as they are, those are the realities of where we live. But – the reason why Australia and New Zealand are so hot…one, is because, their currencies dropped and two, because of the Zika virus in South America.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: What would you say has been the most surprising thing about doing business in Africa, particularly in the areas in which you operate?

KEITH VINCENT: We simply just completed two transactions, one in Kenya and one in Rwanda and I can honestly tell you, I’ve never done business in Africa anywhere quite like Rwanda and how efficient and how driven that country is to do things properly and well, and to hold government accountable at every step of the way. It was the easiest transaction I’ve ever done in Africa in my life, and I’ve got to give Kenya a lot of credit too. The welcome we were given into Kenya from the government, from the various authorities that we needed to deal with to get the transaction completed, and I’m talking about things like the Competition Board, etcetera, that were unbelievably efficient and really welcoming and friendly and all I can say is I give them grand credit for what they have achieved.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Keith, when you’re sitting with your team and you’re discussing new African tourism markets, what are you looking for in terms of expansion, like if someone comes up with an idea, you should probably come into a different region and do business there, what are you looking for?

KEITH VINCENT: As Wilderness we’re looking for wild locations where we can influence the role of conservation and the growth of conservation into the future. We’ve always worked on the principle that we’re a conservation business that uses tourism to pay for it all, and we want to go into areas on the continent that hopefully with us helping to regenerate areas, to rejuvenate, and in the long term protect them, and also at the end of the day is make sure that they’re sustainable and they can financially stand up for themselves.

we’re under a lot of pressure and a lot of wild areas from mining, and a lot of other agricultural kind of industries and at the end of the day wildlife’s only going to survive if we can prove to that country that tourism can play a major role in the GDP of that country and beyond just the fact that the tourism industry employs a lot of people, and more so than a lot of industries. So we’re a good employer in the country but we’ve also got to stand on our own two feet from a financial contribution to the GDP.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: What sort of trends or themes are you picking up in the luxury space in Africa?

KEITH VINCENT: Competition is rife and its fantastically healthy and the appetite from a lot of foreign owners and big hotel groups trying to get into Africa is immense and we’ll probably see a lot of changes coming in the near future as people like Stalwart and the Marriott’s and the Four Seasons of the world start knocking on Africa’s door a lot heavier than they have in the past.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: All right. In terms of the clients that you get who are interested in luxury tourism and come through for the service, etcetera, do you find that there are more young people wanting to do it or is it still more the older generation? The reason I ask this is because I was reading a very interesting article where some of the oldest players who are in the diamond business have decided to change strategy to say, we’re going to target millennials in order to drive the diamond demand because we see that they have a higher propensity to spend. For you, do you find that it’s more the older generation or the younger generation now coming on board and wanting to do luxury ecotourism?

KEITH VINCENT: There is no doubt that the demographics has changed dramatically over the last five years. Our demographics of age has dropped 10 years in the last four years, so there is no doubt that the proof is in the pudding as far as we’re concerned that the younger generation are definitely spending money. And we in Botswana we view the diamond industry as a competitor because it’s a disposable income and there’s no doubt that we are now a very good competitor for that spend. Having said that, the younger generation are less, and what we’re getting when we ask the questions of our guests, the younger generation, is that they feel that they would rather spend the money on holidays and experiences rather than material goods.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Yes, I can imagine that your team has to tailor packages for young couples or young groups of people who are willing to see the wilderness just right there.

KEITH VINCENT: Absolutely and the other side of the coin and something we mustn’t forget is that the appetite for information from the younger generation is so much greater than in the previous generations and their ability to get that information is at the fingertips with the internet, and the transparency of the internet today is that they’re learning about it, and they really care. This generation that we’re dealing with now seems to care an awful lot more about the environment and they want to be seen to be contributing to the protection of the environment. So from a conservation tourism point of view you couldn’t ask for a more exciting landscape.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: In terms of the demand, I know in South Africa we’re constantly pushing for people to see what’s happening around them locally, visit local areas that you haven’t seen before, explore your neighbourhood etcetera. From Wilderness point of view, the demand that’s coming in from tourists who are taking a hold of some of your packages, are they more tourists based on the continent or is it a mixture of European and US tourists as well. What is the demand like there?

KEITH VINCENT: The demand to want to include a cultural element of learning on a holiday now is really fantastic, and it’s growing every day. So there’s no doubt that the cultural element and immersing yourself in the local culture and in the local communities is a vital part. I don’t think – it’s happening all over Africa, in all the destinations we’re operating in, so we’re very excited that the cultural element is becoming more mainstream and the demand for it is growing. And what we have all got to try and do is enhance that so that it doesn’t become, I want to say we don’t destroy the culture with tourism, but most of it is coming from western tourists rather than local tourists.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: What are some of the future plans for Wilderness Safaris in the next year or two?

KEITH VINCENT: At the moment we are obviously going to be bedding down our Rwandan business, our Kenyan business in the next eight months but there is demand in a variety of areas. There is enormous stuff and exciting opportunities that are starting to develop in places like Ethiopia and longer-term, potentially into South Sudan. Those are longer generation kinds of plans. We’ve obviously got to wait for the current issues in South Sudan to settle down. But there are some wonderful wildlife areas in a lot of those places that we see a home for in the future.

At the end of the day we’ve probably reasonably done in Southern Africa at the moment, but that doesn’t say that there are no other opportunities in South Africa, there certainly are. And then there are swings and roundabouts but there is a lot going on north of us and the demand by the tourists to get into these more remote areas and undeveloped areas is growing by the day.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Keith thanks so much for your time.

KEITH VINCENT: That’s a please and have a great weekend.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Thank you so much. That was Keith Vincent, the chief executive officer at Wilderness Safaris.

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