Women Who Go the Distance

The Woman Behind the Women Who Will Lead and Conserve Africa

by Elizabeth Babalola
Elizabeth Elizabeth Babalola speaking at a Business of Conservation conference in Kigali. Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Babalola.

How will the next generation of stewards solve the world's encroaching environmental problems? Through smart, strong women who will lead the charge in responsible development and conservation. Elizabeth Babalola is the Director of Operations of the School of Wildlife Conservation at the African Leadership University, which recently launched a program to increase the number of women who participate in the conservation MBA. Team Fathom spoke to her to learn about her tactful plan to develop ethical entrepreneurial African leaders for conservation.

Tell us about African Leadership University's School of Wildlife Conservation program and how it will develop the future leaders in wildlife conservation in Africa?

African Leadership University is a network of world-class education institutions on a mission to produce three million transformational leaders for Africa over the next 50 years by reimagining university education at a scale and quality that has never been done before. ALU currently has locations in Mauritius, Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa. By leveraging unconventional learning methods, technology, and a nurturing a bias towards problem-solving among its students, ALU is developing purpose-driven leaders who will utilize their talents, networks, and skills to address some of Africa’s toughest challenges and leverage its greatest opportunities.

We believe that Africa’s wildlife and habitats is one of those opportunities. The School of Wildlife Conservation, with campuses in Kigali and Mauritius, was established in 2016 to develop ethical entrepreneurial African leaders for the sector. Our objective is to empower current emerging leaders in the sector with business, management, and leadership skills; to develop the next generation of young leaders from across the continent for conservation and to influence decision- and policy-makers across sectors by breaking down silos, fostering new networks, and facilitating unique partnerships towards sustainable conservation that is a pillar for Africa’s economic growth.

Emerging MBA leaders and young leaders at tree planting activity in a Rwandan secondary school.

On Women’s Day, March 8, you announced a campaign to award MBA for Conservation Leadership scholarships to women. Why is it so important for Africans to have ownership in the conservation space?

Unless Africans have a sense of ownership of wildlife and the natural environment, they will have little incentive to conserve or use it sustainably. This is as true for communities that live in close proximity to wildlife as it is for urban elite who buy land in wildlife areas or buffer zones for agricultural use.

How has the role of women in tourism changed in Africa?

Over the last decade, women have taken up an increasing number and variety of roles in the hospitality and tourism sector — as chefs, tour guides, wildlife specialists, rangers, lodge managers and founders, CEOs of leading conservation NGOs, and as directors of relevant government agencies. Across the continent, women are custodians of culture and attitudes in their homes, communities and the workplace.

As more women take on decision-making roles in the sector and develop a pro-environment/pro-conservation mindset, they will bring these attitudes to bear in all aspects of their lives — and those ideologies can become re-woven into the fabric of our societies.

Young leaders on field trip to Akagera National Park.
Emerging MBA leaders engaging with park management.

How does the program work? Is it field work? Classroom work?

Our programs at ALU are student-led and highly interactive. This translates to a range of tools for us at SOWC, including undergraduate internships, field trips, Oxford-style small group discussions, workshops, student-led ventures, courses structured as client-facing consulting engagements, and hands-on activities that range from planting trees to building drones and developing apps.

The Conservation MBA is a specialization of the ALU School of Business 20-month program. Designed for working professionals, the participants come to our campus three times a year for week-long intensives in class and in the field. In between intensives, they take demanding courses in marketing, finance, conservation governance, and leadership, and take an entrepreneurship course that is capped off by a Lion’s Den competition with real investors. Throughout the program, MBAs engage with successful professionals from across the continent and finish with a capstone project.

How does tourism fit into the future of African conservation? Does it help or hurt?

Tourism is an important tool for African conservation. In countries with limited options for sustainable use of wildlife, tourism is the primary avenue for local communities and the nation to gain economic benefit from wildlife and nature. That said, the sector is plagued with many issues — overcrowded parks, unsustainable designs, inappropriate tourist behavior, inequitable distribution of revenue to and displacement of local communities, intensified human-wildlife conflict, and negative impacts on landscapes and habitats.

The solution is definitely not to remove tourism but rather to improve existing models, regulate systems, and ensure benefits for people and nature.

How did you get involved in wildlife conservation?

I’m a city girl. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, my first connection to the environment was my city’s waste management problems and my nation’s struggle with crude oil degradation in the Niger Delta. As I studied environmental microbiology as potential solution for the latter and later did a master's degree in environmental management, I developed an appreciation of and love for the outdoors. As I studied environmental issues, it quickly became evident to me that human behavior was a key ingredient for avoiding and correcting them. For my thesis, I studied environmental attitudes and behavior in teenagers, on the premise that current and future environmental problems can be solved and avoided if young people develop an appreciation, understanding, and passion for the environment.

Baraza Resort Dhahabu Bar. Photos courtesy of Baraza Resort and Spa.
Baraza pool.

What are your favorite lodges or game reserves?

Ngerende Wild Lakeview Lodge in Kenya
The quiet serenity of the lodge and its proximity to the Mara River make it such a beautiful place. The game drives are spectacular, and the magic begins on your ride from the airstrip to the lodge.

Baraza Resort and Spa in Zanzibar
Zanzibar’s coastline and white sands are absolutely gorgeous, but the top-notch service we received at Baraza made it all so special.

Limalimo Lodge in Ethiopia
Limalimo is a special place for me because of its eco-friendly and incredibly innovative design and their gorgeous views. Although I didn’t get to see the finished product or stay at the lodge, it left an indelible mark on me.

Which lodges do you recommend to travelers for their first safari experience? What about for more seasoned safari-goers who want a deeper experience?

My advice for seasoned or new travelers is to broaden their options and explore more of this amazing continent. Everyone knows about the Great Migration, the Okavango Delta, and the Serengeti, but I encourage people to look into the amazing wildlife of places like Uganda, Malawi, and Namibia. So many parts of Africa have the same wildlife numbers, views, and majesty as the places that are more often written about and visited. Also: Make sure to do both a tented camp and lodge during your stay.

As a city girl, I also need to mention Africa’s cities and urban centers. So many travelers skip these gems to get straight into the bush, but cities like Kigali, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Addis Ababa have much to offer.

What are your ultimate, big dream goals for conservation in Africa?

We will know that we’ve succeeded when our students and graduates add relevant tangible value to the growth and sustainability of African conservation. When student interns propose realistic, cutting-edge solutions to systemic organizational problems for multinational MGOs. When our MBA graduates increase revenue generated in protected areas by significant margins. When graduates of our bachelor’s program design architectural solutions for water conservation in arid regions. When our graduates rise into political roles and enforce policies that promote sustainable conservation.

What advice would you give a girl or woman who wants to break into a male-dominated industry?

Push: Identify your niche and unique value proposition then build on that.

Give: Of yourself, your time, your energy, and your skills.

Ignore any chauvinism (real and imagined) that you will encounter.

Find strong female role models and peers, then encourage each other.

Set realistic boundaries for yourself and others.

Enjoy the ride, don’t take yourself too seriously and learn to laugh at yourself, even when its hard.

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