May 6

Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup: Burning the Ivory to Save It

Late last week Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta helped set 105 tons of poached elephant ivory and rhino horns ablaze. The estimated black market value of those tusks and horns was $100 million.

“Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants,” Kenyatta said before lighting the first of the pyres, Reuters reported.

You can try to sway public behavior with data, education and public service announcements, and sometimes that’s enough. But I can’t imagine a more powerful anti-poaching message than igniting the tusks and horns of some 8,000 animals – stacked together in dome-like structures – and watching it reduce to ash.

Sometimes we need that sort of shock imagery to snap us into action – be it a photo of a Syrian refugee cradling his dead child, or a polar bear on a lone, melting iceberg. But no one can take action if there’s no real alternative. Put another way, if the short-term status quo is deemed to be valueless, as Kenyatta warned poachers, then the medium- and long-term alternatives must be presented, convincingly, as valuable … to everyone.

The pyres put me in mind of the Livestock to Markets program (LTM). Operating in northern Kenya, LTM is designed to preserve both ecologically sustainable cattle grazing and wildwildlife habitats. LTM buys cows from 19 community conservancies in exchange for those conservancies working to improve the grasslands and monitor poaching. The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which established many of the community conservancies, formed for profit NRT-Trading to manage the LTM program. Last year it received a $3.5 million impact investment, which was sourced by NatureInvest, to accelerate the program. That investment enabled the ranchers to expand their herds tenfold to about 10,000 cattle across 1.2 million acres.

Jennifer Molnar at The Nature Conservancy and Charlotte Kaiser with NatureVest, wrote up an update for GreenBiz in November:

Is it working? NRT monitoring shows that elephant poaching has declined 40 percent over the past four years. Incomes for pastoralists have increased, as have revenues for the conservancies (which receive a levy for every cow sold).

This has led to increased investment in community assets and wildlife patrols, while increased income for pastoralists means less incentive to poach elephants.

Other reminders of alternatives came forward this week from One Acre Fund and Runa Tea. One Acre Fund, a smallholder financing and agricultural training organization now in its tenth year, said it will expand operations to Malawi and Uganda, after completing pilot projects in those two nations over the past several years. One Acre has been working with 2,600 farmers in the Zomba, Mulanje and Chiradzulu districts of Malawi and 3,700 farmers in the Jinja and Kamuli districts of Uganda. Farmers who take loans also receive seeds, fertilizer and training from One Acre, which notes 99 percent of loans are repaid in full and on time. One Acre Fund works with more than 400,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda, and forecasts serving 1 million farmers by 2020.

Meanwhile, Runa Tea announced a star-studded (pun intended) round of investors that included actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Marlon Wayans and Adam Rodriguez, and tennis players John Isner and Steve Johnson. They joined Channing Tatum, who is an early investor.

Runa sources guayusa tea leaves from indigenous Ecuadorian farmers to make its Fair Trade product that’s now sold at Whole Foods, Safeway and on Runa says it is creating more long-term value for farmers, who might otherwise be enticed to sell their land (or otherwise forced to give it up) for development.

DiCaprio reportedly invested $5 million in the Brooklyn, NY, based company and said he will donate his shares to indigenous community groups in the Amazon, effectively making them shareholders. Inc. reported that Runa’s sales could top $10 million this year, more than double that of 2014. (Check out a NextBillion Q&A with Runa Tea Co-founder Tyler Gage from 2012 here. Runa also was the subject of a winning business case in the NextBillion Case Writing Competition.)

These are just a few examples of market-based alternatives to the status quo from the week. I’m sure there are others I’m missing. I’m also sure skeptics could point to many more examples of ugly poaching, farmer exploitation and environmental degradation from these very same regions. But I’m convinced what we all value is rapidly changing toward a long-term perspective.

Instead of cursing the darkness of poaching, Kenya’s government lit a fire. Why not light a candle to go with it?


Top image: Two Kenya Wildlife Service rangers keep watch during an  ivory and rhino horn fire at Nairobi National Park. Photo credit: Flickr user Mwangi Kirubi


Scott Anderson is managing editor of NextBillion.

Agriculture, Environment, Investing
impact investing, smallholder farmers