Community projects, spearheaded by tourism companies operating in the region, are increasingly common in the Greater Kruger National Park area, home to four million people and more than 150 rural villages.

Paul Zille, a Development Economist and CEO of the Tourism Conservation Fund, says these projects can be loosely separated into two categories. “Welfare projects will include investment by a lodge or company in a community,” he says. “If a lodge is investing in a community in the form of a clinic, or funding a school or an orphanage, that would fall into this category. If a lodge is trying to work with an entrepreneur from the community to enter into an agreement around servicing the lodge, for example in the form of doing their linen or providing firewood or vegetables, that will fall under enterprise development and requires a very different approach.”

As a key stakeholder in the area, South African National Parks stands to gain the most from community development. Isaac Phaahla, Media Specialist for SANParks says: “Community projects are transforming the tourism sector landscape by including historically disadvantaged individuals. Particularly our public private partnerships (PPPs) benefit the local communities. It is important to note that our PPPs across the country have created 2 100 permanent jobs.”

In the private sector, a number of companies run community projects in the two provinces. Headed up by Community Projects Manager, Candice Grover, the Thornybush Collection undertakes projects in the Greater Kruger National Park area. Working with international donors, Thornybush has assisted the Manyangana High School in the Manyeleti region with renovations to its library, a multi-media centre and classrooms. The Hananani Primary School garden provides the more than 200 children at the school with fresh vegetables, with assistance from Thornybush. In addition, the Thousand Herbs and Vegetable Garden, operated by women in the community, grows produce that is sold to nearby lodges, local retailers and community members.

“I believe all projects should have sustainability as a key focus, dedication, ownership and buy-in from the beneficiaries and empathy, understanding and dedication from the donors,” says Grover.

The More Group, a collection of luxury lodges in Southern Africa, founded the More Community Trust (MCT). Michelle Scott, General Manager, says its programmes rely on a combination of factors. “The key to a successful community project is communication. The communities deserve input in the project, and this also helps create a sense of ownership within the community and will allow for a greater sense of ‘I am part of this’.”

MCT runs a number of successful projects around its property in Sabi Sands. These include a successful Digital Learning Centre (DLC), aimed at assisting children and adults to improve their computer knowledge and skills. The DLC also offers short hospitality training courses for adults. Other projects include the installation of boreholes, Henna Pre-Primary School and New Beginnings Daycare in Huntington, near Bushbuckridge.

Another successful story comes from Singita. With lodges in Sabi Sands and KNP, Singita established the Singita Community Culinary School in 2007. The school has successfully trained community members, with approximately 60 graduates having found new careers since completing the course and 95% of graduates currently employed.

Susan Horst, Community Partnership Programme Manager at Singita, says stakeholder engagement is pivotal to the projects, elaborating that collaboration with community governance bodies, relevant government agencies and other NGOs is necessary to leverage respective resources and work towards sustainability in the long term.

Zille believes there are two main threats to community projects. The first is the potential for capture by the elite. “In any community or social group, there is a hierarchy. The resources coming out of these projects are susceptible to elite capture, being monopolised by those with power.”

The second problem Zille identifies is sustainability. This is echoed by Scott: “A project must be set up but with long-term goals in mind. The community must be supported enough that they can take over the running of the project themselves.” Zille says this responsibility falls to the people initiating the projects, and project managers: “Lodges must not simply be a temporary catalyst for activity. A project of this sort requires long-term thought, beyond the point of funding. Who will continue to look after the project? A quick fix is not an option. Institutional structures must be set up so that the role of management and maintenance is covered.”

Horst reiterates this, saying that a vital part of these projects is “investing time and resources in the development of a strategic framework, with strong monitoring, evaluation and learning processes to measure the impact of your projects and adapt your approach as you learn”.

As a method for monitoring, Grover believes a hands-on approach works well, saying she finds being physically present builds confidence and strong relationships. She works with an end-product in view, entering each project with an exit strategy in mind, which ensures capacity building. After the exit process has taken place, she recommends ongoing light-touch engagement.

Singita’s Founder, Luke Bailes, said: “Community partnership only works if our commitment to the local communities is so deep that they trust that what we’re doing – preserving this land – is in their interest.”