Often invisible from the front and center of a destination’s tourism economy are people like Tendai Nhunzwi. In Zimbabwe, Nhunzwi, a trained accountant, works tirelessly on the front lines to ensure local communities are fed and healthy — underscoring the core principle that there would be no tourism without these communities.
One of the enduring lessons for tourism as the world emerges from the pandemic is that it really all starts at the bottom — with communities, healthy communities that build the foundation to create a thriving tourism trade.
But the barriers to cultivating these communities are many, as Zimbabwe shows us, for example, and one reason why the work of people like Tendai Nhunzwi is so important to the southern African country, home to countless wildlife sanctuaries and natural wonders, including Victoria Falls. Rebuilding the tourism economy, which saw employment fall by 28% from 2019 to 2020 to 128,000, will start locally.
But 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, plus a war in Ukraine affecting the grain supply. Extreme weather and climate change is fueling the situation, and financial pressure on farmers means they sometimes lack seeds, fertilizer and other essentials for next year’s planting and harvest.
The IMF estimates that prices of staple foods in sub-Saharan Africa rose by an average of 24 percent between 2020 and 2022, the most since the global financial crisis of 2008. According to the report, this corresponds to an 8.5 percent increase in the cost of a typical food consumption basket (beyond generalized price increases).
The situation is most dire in Zimbabwe, which, in addition to external factors, has suffered from political instability, corruption and some of the most rampant inflation in the world. The government is unable to provide all the services needed, so a non-profit organization, the Malilangwe Trust, seeks to fill some of the gaps. It describes itself as “a Zimbabwean non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the environment and committed to improving life in our local communities”.
The Trust and Nhunzwi work with local hospitality and tourism.
Safari brand property Singita’s Pamushana Lodge is the Malilangwe Trust’s ecotourism partner. Although both are operationally and fiscally independent of each other, the common thread is ecotourism to support conservation. The relationship is symbiotic: without the Trust’s work, wildlife populations would not thrive and as a result 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 creates a more dynamic and thriving ecosystem for people to visit.
Nhunzwi, as the general manager of the human resources and neighborhood outreach program for the Malilangwe Trust, is at the forefront of many things to help the local population: but front and center is food security. And, as an English accountant (he holds a degree from Oxford Brookes), part of his mission is the effectiveness of programs and how they rise to higher goals. It’s one thing to have nonprofits, another to have nonprofits that are effective stewards of donations and funds.
In 2003, the Malilangwe Trust established the ‘Child Supplemental Feeding Project’, in response to the negative effects of the 2002 drought which left most children in the region exposed to hunger and malnutrition.
Nhunzwi said it was initially designed to provide a fully balanced meal every school day to children under five in satellite meal sites and children under 12 in district schools. Today, it has scaled up significantly and “the project is feeding the children of Zimbabwe, reaching over 20,000 a day”.
Nhunzwi said that apart from keeping mouths full, it solves a big problem: lack of access and long commutes to school. Children “have to walk long distances to get to school, so having a nutritious meal not only boosts attendance but also improves overall nutrition and health.” Program data shows it had a positive impact on enrollment and improved participation. It’s not just tackling a noble mission, getting rid of growling stomachs, but it’s leading to higher attendance and graduation goals in poor, rural areas of the country where school isn’t always compulsory in other places.
Since the scheme started around 20 years ago, the trust has grown to employ 32 people in local communities who are tasked with handling and preparing the food, ensuring there is consistency and reliability in delivery. Although Covid closed schools and interrupted the program for 2020 and a short part of 2021, the program is back up and running as the food crisis in Africa worsens.
Nhunzwi started in Malilangwe in 2007, initially in HR, but much of his work is in the field, managing projects initiated by the trust. And food is one of the most basic in his mission. He suggests that the Trust fills a valuable, NGO role to help a country rocked by repeated economic instability and a government that has gaps in what it can actually deliver. “I am very familiar with the way of life in most rural communities in the country,” he said. “Children are left vulnerable due to food shortages and sometimes lack of access to quality education.”
In addition to feeding the children, the Trust also has many community projects, including a market garden to grow fresh produce, as e-learning workshops for students in remote and rural areas to follow the Zimbabwe school curriculum. There is also a conservation and wildlife education program to start early conservation education and steer children away from the economically attractive paths of poaching and bushmeat hunting, which are destructive to sensitive ecology of the country and for the future of animals like the Rhino.
With an accountant’s eye for efficiency and return on investment, Nhunzwi said the conservation program turns children into advocates, helping to police their parents and acting as micro-ambassadors for the greater good. Students begin to see their local environment with fresh eyes, even taking a toy drive like some of the tourists visiting the country. It’s different from the layout of a classroom: it’s an immersive introduction to an entire ecosystem and the true value of wildlife. Food security, education and outreach to early childhood conservation studies are all investments that will hopefully have an exponential return on capital for the surrounding areas.