Protecting South Africa’s great differentiator 

A focus on conservation, investment, accountability, and open collaboration is essential for the success of South Africa’s ecotourism industry, as many players seek to find a balance between business imperatives, client and community needs, and restorative land ownership justice.

 “The future of South African conservation and related tourism depends on collaboration, particularly when it comes to land ownership,” explains Phil Biden, Co-Chair of The Royal Portfolio, which owns a trove of South Africa’s most treasured luxury properties spanning the bush (Royal Malewane), Cape Winelands (La Residence) and coastline (Birkenhead House), and within Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront (The Silo Hotel).

The Royal Portfolio has finetuned the balancing act between various stakeholders’ needs with The Farmstead, a sister development to the world-famous and multi-award-winning Royal Malewane, standing as a shining example of just what is possible.

The Farmstead consists of a main lodge area, three Luxury Suites, and The Farmhouse, where guests enjoy breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner in award-winning decor and splendour. Most importantly, though, The Farmstead shares the most qualified guiding team in Africa, originated at Royal Malewane, the parent property established in 1999.

The Farmstead Deck

“Seeing it now, it’s hard to imagine The Farmstead was originally part of a land claim. But we approached it very differently, after having seen other land claims falter or fail due to a lack of assets, skills or sustainable business models,” Biden says.

“We embarked on a different approach, signing a long lease to the local Moletele community that included building and furnishing a luxurious lodge at The Royal Portfolio’s expense,” he explains.

While the requirement was to spend R5 million on upgrading the property as part of the land restitution agreement for this property, resulting in a two- or three-star camp, The Royal Portfolio spent R35 milion on building a remarkable and luxurious ecotourism experience, which it has, in effect, donated to the local community. The Royal Portfolio has signed a 40-year lease on the property and will return The Farmstead to them once the lease has run its course.

For the duration of the lease, a Community Property Association (CPA) was formed, which sees 2,500 families benefit from the operation. The rules of the CPA specify that trustees and a chairman are elected for four-year terms, but cannot stand for re-election again. They are elected by the community, from the community, with the current chairman being a school headmaster.

“Our greatest success is that we learn from each other and focus on an absolutely uncompromising open and honest relationship with one another,” Biden explains. “We share a common purpose, they both want to extract maximum value from the asset and distribute that well to the beneficiaries. We pay a percentage of turnover exceeding 10% return on the capital invested by the government.”

The Royal Portfolio Foundation, which is run by Liz and Phil Biden’s daughter, Ali, is actively involved in solutions that are changing thousands of lives, mainly in the access to potable water, education and healthcare.

“I will never forget, eight or ten years ago, I saw an old woman pushing a wheelbarrow carrying a 50-litre container of water as there was no potable water at her home. The maternity clinic didn’t have any water either. Addressing the basic human right of access to potable water was one of the first things the Foundation did to help the community – and even though it wasn’t at great cost, it’s added immeasurable value to people’s lives and wellbeing.”

It’s this bedrock of getting the basics right that Biden believes is key to the success of any partnership with land claim beneficiaries who become custodians of some of the country’s most valuable conservation resources.

“We understand that if someone is battling to get enough food for their children or that they don’t have shelter from the elements, that they have more personally pressing issues to take care of than conservation,” Biden explains. “However, if people are employed, and they can see both the far-reaching benefit of their work, and the positive impact it has on their families’ wellbeing, they quickly become invested in the bigger picture of what conservation and ecotourism are setting out to achieve.”

If the solution to conservation and job creation were this obvious, what’s holding others back from amplifying this approach?

For years, daunted by the devastation of land grabs in Zimbabwe, landowners and the government locked horns on the tug of war relating to land claims, redistribution or repossession. Failing to acknowledge the failings of neighbouring countries, ownership and accountability were overlooked as the land swapped hands without a success formula.

Biden believes that a deeper examination of what works and doesn’t work is required to successfully preserve the country’s assets, educate children, reduce exploding unemployment at a staggering 36%, and bridge the chasm of inequality. 

Biden shares, “l understand the fears around land claims but, if structures and agreements that ensure good governance are in place, and if a community receives food, schooling, medicine, and employment, its members will want to protect the opportunities that are made possible by a mutually respectful, sustainable, and collaborative relationship. Our vision is to protect our great differentiator, the wildlife, and to set a standard for how public, private and community partnerships can work. We can’t do it without each other.”

South Africa is yearning to see success stories where land claims have been successful for communities beyond the restoration of ownership – where they have led to employment, improved income, better education and health care, and, most importantly, a meaningful and inspiring future.

“The simple premise of shared enrichment is attainable but it requires communication and collaboration,” Biden says. “Ultimately, at the end of the 40-year lease, the land and the asset will revert to the community, who will have the option to continue working with The Royal Portfolio in perpetuity.

“The choice is theirs, but in the process, generations of the Moletele community will have seen tangible benefits of this collaborative approach, and we looking forward to working with them for generations to come.”

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