“My passion at the time definitely eclipsed my business acumen,” chuckles Beks Ndlovu, chief executive officer of African Bush Camps, when he thinks back to the opening of his first safari lodge in 2006.
“I’d grown up with this fascination with wildlife, but it was always from a distance,” says Ndlovu, who was raised in the town of Hwange, on the doorstep of the iconic national park in western Zimbabwe. But volunteer work during school holidays away from boarding at the respected Plumtree School opened Ndlovu’s eyes to a career in the safari industry.
“I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but having grown up in a boarding school in the bush we spent a lot of time outdoors. When I left school I didn’t give myself a chance to do anything else, and thank goodness for that!”
After obtaining his licence as a safari and river guide, Ndlovu spent years guiding at camps in southern Africa before starting his own private guiding outfit, Beks Safaris.
“But in doing that I realised that my passion for sharing the riches of Africa with people was limited to just me,” explains Ndlovu. “And my earning potential, my impact on myself, was also limited to the time I was out in the bush guiding. I needed to multiply myself, scale myself, to have the desired impact.”
Ndlovu hung up his private guiding hat and seized an opportunity to open a small camp in Hwange, the national park he’d looked out on as a child. With investment from friends, family, and past clients, he opened Somalisa Camp with 12 beds and two guides. African Bush Camps was up and running.
“But in 2006 Zimbabwe was in serious turmoil, and I soon realised I needed to develop another property in a more stable environment,” recalls Ndlovu.
Within six months of opening Somalisa, Ndlovu welcomed his first guests at Linyanti Bush Camp in Botswana, “and for a long period the success of Linyanti sustained the camp in Hwange”.
Ndlovu also realised the need to market a journey between camps — a “safari circuit” in industry parlance. That led to mobile safari operations in Botswana and a new lodge, Kanga, on a private concession in Mana Pools National Park.
While angel investors (individuals who invest in the early stages of a startup) funded these early camps, six years ago Ndlovu realised more serious investment was needed for the business to grow. A meeting with a UK-based Zimbabwean expat, today a silent partner, provided the perfect match.
“He’s put in a considerable amount of capital over the past six years, out of a belief in Africa. It’s been a great partnership,” says Ndlovu, who in just 14 years of business has grown the portfolio to 15 camps.
“It is about designing a whole journey for people, all done in the way a safari journey should be done. That means a focus on very remote parts of Africa, but under the guidance of the very best naturalists.”
While there’s no shortage of luxury safari camps in Africa, Ndlovu’s vision from the beginning has been to make the safari guide the foundation of the guest experience.
For us, the measure of success isn’t just our bottom line, it’s how much of an impact we’re making in conservation, in our communities
“An exceptional safari is determined by the quality of the guide, and the staff who shape your safari,” says Ndlovu. “We’ve always set out to identify, train and embrace the people that are the creators of the magic. I believe right now we’re the employer of choice for the phenomenal safari guides out there.”
Ndlovu is also passionate about conservation and community work, and makes no bones about a profitable ecotourism industry being the path to achieve both goals in emerging economies.
“We need to demonstrate the overflow of benefits into the communities surrounding these wildlife areas,” says Ndlovu. “We need to keep promoting ecotourism as an industry that can provide a lot of positives for growing economies.”
The African Bush Camps Foundation is the conduit for much of the group’s development initiatives, from supporting local schools and fostering village micro-enterprises, to enhancing land use and agricultural productivity to reduce bush clearing.
“For us, the measure of success isn’t just our bottom line, it’s how much of an impact we’re making in conservation, in our communities. We don’t want to have a camp in every pocket of Africa, but where we do have camps we want to make sure we leave a mark.”
Ndlovu has certainly made a mark in an industry where he is something of a rarity: a black safari guide who has swopped a Land Rover in the bush for business ownership and the boardroom.
“It is a passion of mine to inspire others, to show that there is a path, and I’d like to see more of it in the industry. I see a lot of guides who have such great potential,” says Ndlovu. “There are too many stories told by foreigners who have come to Africa and started up a safari camp or operation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Africa has so many capable people who can build businesses and tell their own stories.”
• From the August edition of Wanted 2019.