The future of healthy tourism in Zimbabwe starts with healthy local communities

Skift grip

People like Tendai Nhunzwi are often invisible to the center of a destination’s tourism economy. In Zimbabwe, Nhunzwi, an accountant by training, works tirelessly on the front lines to ensure local communities are nourished and healthy, emphasizing the basic principle that there would be no tourism without these communities.

Colin Nagy

One of the lasting lessons for tourism as the world emerges from the pandemic is that it all really starts from scratch – with communities, healthy communities laying the groundwork for creating a thriving tourism trade.

But the obstacles to the development of these communities are many, as Zimbabwe shows us, for example, and one of the reasons why the work of people like Tendai Nhunzwi is so essential for this southern African country, home to countless wildlife sanctuaries and natural wonders, including the Victoria Falls. Rebuilding the tourism economy, which saw a 28% drop in employment from 2019 to 2020 to 128,000, will begin locally.

Tendai Nhunzwi, Managing Director of Human Resource and Neighbor Outreach Program for Malilangwe Trust Source: Malilangwe Trust.

Yet food shortages in Africa are expected to be even worse this year, according to the United Nations.

It’s a perfect storm of inflation, a global pandemic, as well as a war in Ukraine affecting grain supplies. Extreme weather and climate change are making the situation worse, and the economic pressure on farmers means they sometimes lack the seeds, fertilizers and other items needed to sow and harvest next year.

The IMF estimates that staple food prices in sub-Saharan Africa have increased by an average of 24% between 2020 and 2022, the highest since the global financial crisis of 2008. According to the report, this corresponds to an increase of 8.5 % of the cost of a typical food consumption basket (beyond generalized price increases).

The situation is more serious in Zimbabwe, which, in addition to external factors, has suffered from political instability, corruption and one of the most galloping inflations in the world. The government is unable to provide all the services it needs, so a non-profit organization, the Malilangwe Trust, is looking to fill some of the gaps. It describes itself as “a wholly Zimbabwean non-profit organization dedicated to environmental conservation and committed to the development of life in our local communities”.

The Trust and Nhunzwi work hand in hand with local hospitality and tourism.

The Pamushana Lodge property of the Safari Singita brand is the ecotourism partner of the Malilangwe Trust. Although the two are operationally and fiscally independent of each other, the common thread is ecotourism to support conservation. The relationship is symbiotic: without the work of the Trust, wildlife populations would not thrive and therefore there would be no safari tourism product. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: tourism dollars from well-heeled travelers support community work. Community work and conservation create a more vibrant and thriving ecosystem to visit.

Nhunzwi, as Managing Director of the Human Resources and Neighbor Outreach Program for the Malilangwe Trust, is on the front line of many things to help the local population: but food security is at the forefront. And, as an English-trained accountant (he holds a degree from Oxford Brookes), part of his mission is the effectiveness of programs and how they evolve towards higher goals. It’s one thing to have nonprofits, it’s another to have nonprofits that manage donations and capital effectively.

In 2003, the Malilangwe Trust established the ‘Child Supplementary Feeding Scheme’, in response to the negative impacts of the 2002 drought which left most children in the district at risk of hunger and malnutrition.

Nhunzwi said it was originally designed to provide a fully balanced meal each school day to children under five at satellite meal sites and children under 12 at area schools. Today it has expanded significantly and “the project is providing nutrition to Zimbabwean children, reaching over 20,000 a day”.

Nhunzwi mentioned that in addition to feeding the mouth, it solves a big problem: lack of access and long journeys to school. Children “have to walk long distances to school, having a nutritious meal increases attendance but also improves nutrition and overall health.” Program data shows that it has had a positive impact on school enrollment and improved attendance. It’s not just about tackling a lofty mission, getting rid of growling stomachs, but it’s about achieving higher order attendance and graduation goals in areas poor rural areas of the country where going to school is not always as compulsory as in other places.

Since the program began some 20 years ago, the trust has grown to employ 32 people in local communities who are responsible for food handling and preparation, ensuring consistency and reliability of delivery. Although Covid has closed schools and disrupted the curriculum for 2020 and a short part of 2021, it is back in operation, as Africa’s food crisis worsens.

Nhunzwi started in Malilangwe in 2007, initially in human resources, but much of his work is in the field, administering projects initiated by the trust. And food is one of the most essential elements of its mission. He suggests the Trust fills a valuable NGO to help a country that has been rocked by recurring economic instability and a government that has gaps in what it can actually provide. “I know very well the lifestyle of most rural communities in the country,” he said. “Children are vulnerable because of food shortages and sometimes lack of access to quality education.”

In addition to feeding the children, the Trust also has several community projects including a market garden to grow fresh produce, as e-learning labs, for remote and rural students to follow the Zimbabwean school curriculum. There is also a Conservation and Wildlife Education Program, to start conservation education early and to steer children away from the economically tempting paths of poaching and bushmeat hunting, which are both disastrous for the country’s delicate ecology and for the future of animals like the rhinoceros.

With an accountant’s eye for efficiency and return on investment, Nhunzwi said the conservation program turns children into advocates, helps control their parents and serves as micro-ambassadors for the greater good. Students are beginning to see their local environment with fresh eyes, even going on safari like some tourists visiting the country. It’s different from a classroom: it’s an immersive introduction to an entire ecosystem and the true value of wildlife. Food security, education and the early childhood conservation studies approach are all investments that will hopefully have an exponential return on investment for the surrounding areas.

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