Africa has seen steady increases in economic growth over the past decade. GDP in sub-Saharan Africa was up 5% in 2013 and is estimated to have grown 5.8% in 2014. Averages for life expectancy, literacy rates and school attendance have improved remarkably. A young, dynamic and connected population is bringing fresh thinking and energy to every aspect of life.

In this context of change, Africa’s agriculture and energy sectors are poised for transformation. Soaring global demand for food and fuel, combined with untapped potential in Africa, has stimulated interest and investment in places such as southern Tanzania. There, the government and investors are clustering efforts along the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) to deliver sustained growth for smallholder farmers.

For energy, scenarios show a potential quadrupling of grid-based generation capacity by 2040, with both renewable and non-renewable sources playing a part. Systems of energy generation, distribution and consumption are transforming before our eyes with the emergence of a regulatory environment capable of fostering mini grids. As cities and homes become connected, new economic opportunities will emerge, spurring further growth and development.

Consigned to the game park

These changes are welcome. But what do they mean for Africa’s wildlife and wild lands? Will gorillas and elephants, rainforests and savannas remain a part of modern Africa, or will they be consigned to game parks and museums? Can we conserve elephant corridors, lion dens and gorilla forests when there is increasing pressure for land and resources to meet the demands of agriculture and energy? Moreover, can Africa’s rapid growth be sustained if its ecological systems and wildlife are compromised by development?

Africa has an abundant diversity of animal and plant life. A topographical mosaic of savannas, forests, wetlands, mountains, coasts and deserts provide habitat for a remarkable variety of species. And they generate significant benefits for people. The moist tropical forests of the Congo Basin help sequester carbon dioxide and regulate the weather, locally and globally. Wildlife events such as the world-famous wildebeest migration from the Serengeti to Masai Mara sustain tourism industries that bring significant revenues. Kenya and Tanzania collectively earn $2.5 billion annually from tourism. River systems, such as the Volta in Ghana and the Zambezi in southern Africa, provide communities with employment, transport, food and electricity.

As the continent’s agricultural and energy sectors grow, the iconic species and ecosystems on which it depends must be safeguarded. This means allowing development in the right places and through ways that are carefully designed to benefit both people and nature. Agricultural expansion, for example, should happen via investing in existing farmland, rather than cutting off wildlife corridors and disrupting important ecosystems. Where new development is necessary, core habitats such as breeding sites, feeding grounds and migratory routes should be avoided.

A new covenant

Such landscape-management practices are already underway in areas such as Tanzania’s southern highlands, through mid-size agricultural enterprises like the Rungwe Avocado Company. When Rungwe wanted to expand its production to supply European markets, it turned to an “outgrower” scheme that embraced thousands of nearby farmers. To finance the scheme, it approached the African Wildlife Foundation’s impact-investing subsidiary, African Wildlife Capital (AWC). The resulting loan is tied to a set of “conservation covenants”, which specifically define how the company can sustainably manage land and water for the benefit of the wider landscape. And these covenants apply to not only to the company but to its thousands of outgrowers, creating conservation impact at scale. Since receiving the loan, the company has been able to expand its business, and smallholder farmers have gained access to increased income, markets, technology and knowledge.

Risks and regulation

The same logic holds with energy investments, whether in a production or distribution capacity. Location is important. Modern-day imagery and information systems allow us to identify, early on, areas of potential conflicting interest. They can inform us where investments happen, and where they should not happen. Once there is a decision to invest, operations should be managed with an eye to the short-term and long-term ecological footprint. Advances include business tools for identifying and measuring risks and opportunities from operational, regulatory, reputational, market and product, as well as financing perspectives. Where ecological systems are degraded, investment plans should include provisions for restoration, particularly in riverine and forested areas, so as to maintain the benefits they deliver via water provisioning and carbon sequestration.

Integrated landscape and watershed-management tools provide the means for planning and managing resources across multiple objectives, including food security, ecosystem protection and livelihoods. Important too are the participatory processes that engage communities in resource planning and management, as rural livelihoods such as farming rely on the natural environment.

It is primarily the role of government to direct investments to the right places and ensure that protection of wildlife and the environment is included in conditions for a licence to operate. Consistent enforcement of agreed rules and standards is the role of robust regulatory agencies.

Every day in Africa, more people are lifting themselves out of poverty. Businesses and livelihoods, as well as the continent’s rich natural diversity, all depend on a strong, healthy ecosystem. The African Wildlife Foundation is working with communities, governments and the private sector to build solutions that deliver both prosperity and protection, and ensure that Africa’s wildlife and wild lands endure for ever.

Author: Andrea Athanas is a Programme Design Manager with the African Wildlife Foundation.

Image: A hippopotamus rests in a pond surrounded with a gang of buffalos at sunset in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park, 280 km (173 miles) east of the capital Nairobi February 9, 2011. Picture taken February 9, 2011 REUTERS/Noor Khamis