Going Green

Going Green: An Interview with Inge Kotze, General Manager of ecotourism brand Singita

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For ecotourism brand Singita, their 100-year old purpose isn’t just a timestamp; it’s proof that they’re in the conservation game for the long run. The story started a century ago when a remote corner of the Lowveld was purchased by their founder’s grandfather, that piece of land eventually became the Sabi Sand Reserve, becoming an exclusive conservation reserve where all species are protected.

Even today, they continue to make it their mission to preserve and protect large areas of African wilderness for future generations. No longer just a space for conserving wildlife, their day-to-day operations utilise the latest renewable technology to achieve their goals of becoming carbon neutral. Setting themselves clear sustainability targets for 2025, beyond implementing new water saving measures and waste management, they’ve even began introducing clean solar energy to the Kruger National Park. Now, 78% of the power required to run Singita Kruger National Park is provided by solar energy, resulting in a remarkable reduction in carbon emissions.

In addition, Singita of course, also continues to be a conservation site, with lodges and camps today set in four different countries, offering travellers seeking extraordinary experiences in nature the opportunity to slow down and appreciate nature once again. Entire areas are transformed under Singita’s care, where little miracles, such as the recent birth of the first black rhino calf in Tanzania in decades, can happen, thanks to The Grumeti Fund’s efforts.. In future, the brand plans to continue developing new properties to expand their operations, and continue benefiting the land and communities around them.

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To find out more, we spoke to Inge Kotze, Singita’s General Manager of Conservation, who focuses on building strategic partnerships in conservation and supporting projects that promote the preservation of Africa’s biodiversity. Based in Cape Town, Inge worked with WWF for over a decade, leading and coordinating various sustainability and conservation projects, and is a trained geographer. Inge also oversees an all-woman Conservation team who are responsible for Singita’s Biodiversity and Sustainability initiatives, as well as its Community Partnership Programmes. Read the interview in full below:

The Writing Diners (TWD): Safaris are often given a bad rap for being tourist traps and focused on profit over the animals/environment. Do you find that these preconceived notions are a hurdle for you in your line of work as GM of Conservation?

Inge: Sometimes the reality of mass tourism negatively impacts on many popular safari destinations. Singita’s entire model is built on high value-low volume – purposely developed to ensure we do not perpetuate the perception of the safari industry, nor cause negative impact. I am in the fortunate position that Singita has a well-respected 27-year track record and is a trusted conservation and ecotourism brand. We are committed to our 2030 goal of being Nature Positive and Carbon Neutral.

Working with local conservation partners, the Grumeti Fund (Tanzania), Malilangwe Trust (Zimbabwe), Singita Lowveld Trust (South Africa) and Singita Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), we are joint custodians to just under 1 million acres of some of Africa’s most iconic wilderness areas, and these conservation partners make significant contributions to the protection and restoration of critical biodiversity landscapes – such as the Serengeti ecosystem or Greater Limpopo Transfrontier region – whilst also supporting wildlife protection and restoration of critically endangered species (rhino, mountain gorilla, rare antelope etc). Our regional conservation partners are globally and regionally recognised as leaders in the conservation efforts in these regions, so I am privileged to work within this context.

TWD: What are the carbon emissions like for Kruger National Park (KNP) if solar energy wasn’t used?
Do you believe it is possible for almost every industry to switch to clean energy?

Inge: Currently, 50% of our lodges are reliant on renewable energy with a goal to decrease our carbon footprint even further. Our 2025 target is 80% solar on all off-grid properties and 30% solar for grid properties.

Our One Planet Living commitment to Net Zero Carbon – driving our investment in and commitment towards renewable, clean energy options installed across all the properties as a fundamental component of this commitment. In 2021, Singita’s internal commitment is to offset our own operations and staff travel – initially through accredited 3rd verified carbon projects.

Before Singita KNP transitioned to solar energy in 2017, its diesel generators equated to 1046 tonnes of carbon emissions. That has been reduced by 65% to 140,00 litres in 2019 (2020 was not a standard operating year due to Covid-19, hence 2019 is used here as a comparative), or 370 tonnes of carbon emissions. The Solar PV system still requires backup generators for bad weather days or where demand is particularly high.

It is not only possible, but a moral and business imperative to transition to renewable energy for every industry. If we are to meet our Paris commitments, this needs to happen quickly. Renewables are now an affordable new-build generation option available in most parts of the world. In many cases, new-build solar PV and wind undercuts the costs of energy from existing thermal generation assets. In eco-tourism, it makes complete sense as is aligned with our brand, our mission and strengthens our energy security in areas where it is not always reliable. It is also amazing to offer our guests an experience that ‘touches the earth lightly’ – something we believe the modern traveller cares about.

TWD: You oversee an all-woman Conservation team at Cape Town Head office. Was this a conscious decision, or did it happen to be an all-woman team? Does gender matter when it comes to conserving ‘Mother’ Earth?

Inge: I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but more of a natural evolution to becoming an all-woman team at head office. Our team are strong, dedicated woman who have carved their careers from vastly different backgrounds of finance and accounting, investment banking and research and conservation planning. We have followed our passion and our personal beliefs are closely aligned to Singita’s 100-year conservation purpose. I believe we all want to be part of that legacy for Africa, which led us from other roles into our current positions at Singita. What a privilege to have a job doing what we love! We are an interesting balance of nurturers and warriors, paired with a good dose of female intuition and empathy. It makes it easy to inspire and mobilise our colleagues, who also share Singita’s 100-year vision: to preserve and protect Africa’s wilderness areas for future generations.

TWD: It’s interesting how your childhood dream was to become a game ranger or a vet, and in a way, your dreams have always had to do with the idea of preserving and protecting and healing. What was it that spurred such a philosophy/mindset in the first place?

Inge: My father had a profound but subtle influence on my career choices. He was an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist and we spent many of our family holidays in the Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest and most diverse game reserves with prolific game viewing. One animal always eluded us – the leopard. Then on a freezing cold winter morning my father and I went out by ourselves while the rest of my family slept in, and we had the most incredible sighting of a male leopard. Sadly, my father passed away unexpectedly two weeks later. Ever since, I’ve had leopard sightings on every visit to any protected area, giving me the sense that my Dad is with me in spirit through my conservation career and on every family holiday. As a leopard was my first sighting on my first visit to Singita Sabi Sand – it immediately sealed the deal for me, guiding me into the next step in my career. As if it was destined for me!

TWD: Tell us about Singita’s partners – is it difficult to find collaborators and funds to get your
projects and initiatives off the ground? How is it that you manage to convince them of it?

Inge: As we continuously work towards achieving our 100-year purpose, it has become clear that strategic partnerships are essential to Singita’s conservation vision for the continent. We partner with non-profit Funds & Trusts in each of our regions, driving support for them to achieve our conservation goals.

Our partners are as follows:
• Tanzania – Grumeti Fund
• Zimbabwe – The Malilangwe Trust
• SA – Singita Lowveld Trust
• Rwanda – Singita Volcanoes National Park

Managed independently from Singita, our non-profit funds & trusts employ some of the best conservation experts on the continent. They drive strategic and critical initiatives that fulfil Singita’s commitment to biodiversity, sustainability and community partnerships.

These conservation partners have achieved incredible successes in very short time frames and their experience and immense love and dedication to what they do has ensured they are widely respected in the region and the return of their investment is self-evident in visiting these landscapes.

Many of these areas were previously overgrazed or degraded farmed areas – denuded of wildlife with degraded habitats. Under the stewardship of these funds and trusts, they are once again home to well-functioning natural ecosystems with abundant wildlife flourishing. They have spearheaded the recovery and/ or re-introduction of critically endangered species such as the rhino, elephant, alongside recovery of buffalo and plains game and rare antelope. These safeguarded reserves provide important refuge for some of the most well-managed lion and leopard populations in Africa (also threatened).

A critical consideration to ensure the persistence of these wilderness areas is to ensure neighbouring, largely rural, highly impoverished communities also value and benefit from the protection of these areas. There are numerous community partnerships and programmes underway that education, youth and woman empowerment, environmental awareness, local rural enterprise and professional skills development.

Also, there are many challenges in managing/ mitigating human-wildlife conflict – as most of these protected areas are unfenced and surrounded by communities deeply dependent on the natural resources in their area for daily survival. Providing tangible benefits – beyond the direct jobs offered by ecotourism – is critical. This involved long-term partnership to improve education, economic opportunities for rural youth and finding compatible local livelihoods to generate income for these communities. These landscapes are also subject to co-management arrangements– requiring multiple partnerships and collaboration with local authorities, other NGO and research partners, neighbouring communities

Singita has a network of devoted guests, like-minded partners and donors that take a keen interest in conservation or the community partnerships and generously support of these Partners, and in sharing their networks and influence to attract like-minded supporters and donors.

TWD: Do you believe that eventually, a top-down approach is necessary to really push conservation to new heights? Or is a ground-up approach the only one we’ll ever see, with governments all having their own agendas where conservation rarely seems to the priority?

Inge: I believe we are entering what will be the most defining decade of our lifetime. A time where we are losing nature faster than we can restore it, experiencing regular warnings of climate instability and as result, on the brink of the 6th mass extinction – with a 1 million species at risk of extinction! What we do and don’t do in the next years will shape our future. Our collective efforts are more important than ever before and will require a global scale – starting with top-down government commitment and political will to halt biodiversity loss and control rampant climate change. Those global commitments will only be achieved if individual citizens and private sector pressure our leaders to make these commitments. If we can collectively act quickly to demonstrate the solutions. Global United Nations commitments for biodiversity, climate will be made later in 2021 – under the banner of a “Decade of Restoration and Transformation for People and Nature.”

Well-aligned, collective resourcing and targeted action will be critical to drive the scale of recovery that we require to halt, and then reverse, the scale of biodiversity loss (more than 70% of species and habitat lost in last 50 years) and to ensure we avoid catastrophic climate breakdown by pulling back our carbon emissions to keep global warming under the two degrees threshold. We have an enormous role to apply to pressure on our governments to make brave, bold choices followed by action.

We as Singita, along with our conservation partners, are committed to showcasing an ecotourism model that is Nature Positive & Carbon Neutral by 2030. This includes our role in contributing to the 4 key Global Goals for Nature commitment:

  1. Halt and reverse biodiversity loss
  2. Zero further extinction of Species
  3. Halve our ecological footprint.
  4. Carbon neutral

This will require collective action, joint resourcing and unique partnerships between Governments, Private sector and civil society. Private Sector/ business and civil society are best placed to respond rapidly to drive the early innovation, and action in this regard.

TWD: Even with the fact that global warming is inevitable and all we can do is slow
down the process, what gives you hope to continue your line of work if eventually, none of it
will really ‘matter’ in the long run?

Inge: I certainly acknowledge an enormous sense of urgency when faced with the sheer scale and pace of action required at a global scale. What we do or don’t do in this next ten years will define our future and that of my children. Yet at the same time, I have a sense of optimism and hope. Once you have experienced these iconic destinations (such as the Serengeti – home to Great Wildebeest Migration or witnessed Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park or spent time with elusive leopards or majestic lions of Africa – it brings home the many remarkable achievements of our conservation partners that have been made in very short environmental timeframes. We have extraordinary examples of widescale restoration – such as the previously degraded corridor of the Western Serengeti ecosystem (Tanzania), now home once again to a flourishing natural ecosystem with bountiful plains games in just 15 years (from a few hundred to thousands of buffalo, elephant, general plains game).

The re-introduction of critically endangered eastern Black Rhino in northern Tanzania, the steady recovery of the Mountain Gorilla in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (from just over 350 to more than 1,000 in just ten years). In Zimbabwe, the critical source population of rhino is now positioned to restock key reserves in the surrounding region. These examples show how recovery and restoration is possible and give me hope, that with the right group of partners, the use of technology, connectedness and resourcefulness, we can make an enormous difference.

These models of public-private sector partnerships and co-management demonstrates how nature- based solutions must be part of our post pandemic, global economic recovery. Singita will continue to work to increase our influence, to have even greater impact across Africa’s unique wilderness hotspots. Every one of us can make a difference via our daily choices – our food choices, reducing our waste, considering our transport options, conserving water, eliminating single-use plastic. These small actions add up to global ground swells of change.

Find out more about Singita on their website here

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