Jeffrey Mulaudzi has not looked backed since he first seized the opportunity to build a business on the potential offered by the Fifa World Cup, hosted by South Africa in 2010. Just 18 at the time, Mulaudzi decided to offer bicycle tours of Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s oldest townships, to the many tourists and sporting fans visiting the county. His business has proved sustainable and, today, Mulaudzi Bicycle Tours is ranked as one of the top five activities in Johannesburg by international travel website TripAdvisor, and has won him many awards.
The real deal
Mulaudzi, who has always had an interest in learning foreign languages, was studying French in 2010 when his tutor asked to be shown around Alexandra, a township outside Johannesburg. Mulaudzi, who was born and raised in Alexandra, decided the best way to show his tutor the “real” Alexandra would be by bicycle, which would allow him to interact with the community.After a successful tour with his tutor, Mulaudzi saw an opportunity in introducing his home to others – not just the usual tourism sites, but the lifestyle and people.He started by making tour brochures to hand out at hotels. “One day I went to an hotel and dropped my brochures off, and the concierge thanked me and then dropped them in the bin as I went out.”Luckily a guest waiting by the concierge saw him doing that and asked for one, which was rescued from the bin. He then called me for a tour for the next day.”With the money from his first tour, Mulaudzi started paying hotels to display his brochures and the investment very quickly paid off. The money he earned went towards buying more bicycles, so he could increase his tour numbers.
Promoting local culture
Today, Mulaudzi has three tour guides and hosts an average of three tours a week – although this fluctuates depending on the time of year. He is also seeing a growing number of South Africans take his tours to experience township life.Tours cost R200 (around $18) for two-and-a-half hours, or R400 ($37) for four hours. The cost includes bike hire, helmets, water, and lunch. Participants also get to taste umqombothi, a traditional African beer.Mulaudzi uses the tour to introduce people to Alexandra residents, giving them the opportunity to share their stories.”We make it so that there is communication … so that Alexandra residents can communicate with people from different countries, and visitors can see that they don’t have to be afraid of Alexandra, the place that we come from.”We are also people, and I want to show it’s not a place where you will come and be killed or something like that,” he says. “I want people to better understand and know what kind of people live in the township as well.”His tours also include an introduction to Alexandra’s history, with a visit to the infamous hostels erected by the apartheid government in the 1960s, and the home where Nelson Mandela once lived.Toursits also visit local businesses and shebeens, which helps bring in business for other entrepreneurs in the community.
Mulaudzi’s entrepreneurial success led him to win the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the 2013 South African Turkish Business Awards.He has also been named as one of the 12 finalists for the 2014 Anzisha Prize, a pan- African competition that recognises entrepreneurs between the ages of 15 and 22 who are using business to bring change to their communities.Mulaudzi says he has an “entrepreneurial heart” and, while his township tours are his first business, it will not be his last. He is looking for partners African Public Bicycles, which will allow people to rent bicycles to travel to a destination, leaving them there to be collected by the company.”At the moment the bicycles are costing around R60 to hire … and if it could be subsidised by a company … which could get advertising on the bicycle, I think it would be a very good thing.”His plan is to grow this model in South Africa and extend it across the border.”Bicycles are the best form of transport to see a country and interact with people. In a car you get stuck in traffic, and if you are walking you can’t cover as much distance. Bicycles make sense, and I think, when you think about traffic, we are going in that direction more and more as a continent.”
‘Never give up’
“Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but once you realise and understand that you are an entrepreneur, you must never ever give up,” Mulaudzi says. “Many people can start, but not many people can finish … but the only way you can finish what you started is to never give up.”He adds that entrepreneurs should consider every failure a lesson: “Entrepreneurship is not easy because you always start with losing. I have never read a book that was written by an entrepreneur that says it is easy and you just need to start and you will get money. Never. It’s all about investing and reinvesting … and learning from your mistakes.”
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Earlier this year horrific photographs and graphic video footage showing baby elephants being abused at an elephant sanctuary in the Eastern Cape and an elephant-back safari operation in Knysna sparked a global outcry.
Knysna Elephant Park had previously been a shining star in the local tourism firmament, offering a range of activities for visitors including close encounters, rides and even “sleepovers” with elephants. It owned and ran the Elephants of Eden sanctuary in the Eastern Cape, which subsequently merged with the operation in Knysna.
The NSPCA laid criminal charges against both operations, their directors and management, and one would be forgiven for thinking that this marked the end of the road for this type of tourism activity, and particularly Knysna Elephant Park/Elephants of Eden.
More than six months down the line nothing could be further from the truth. A quick phone call to Knysna Elephant Park reveals that business is booming, with elephant activities and tours taking place every day. Rides are so popular that it is imperative to book in advance.
Indeed, Tripadvisor, the digital sage of all things tourism, has given Knysna Elephant Park a Certificate of Excellence for the past two years, and reviewers trip over themselves to sing its praises, ranking it No 2 of 23 attractions in and around Knysna.
“The lack of education in the tourism industry is one of our biggest problems,” says Wendy Willson of the NSPCA’s special investigations unit. “The onus is on tour operators to make the decision not to sell unethical products, but in the current economic climate money wins over morality every time.
“What we need is for the tourism industry at large to take more responsibility where activities like elephant interactions and lion petting experiences are concerned. Many operators do not know what these animals go through in order to entertain. Even if they do, they are not educating tourists or giving them the information they need to make an informed decision about where to spend their money.”
Willson says it has fallen to the NSPCA to try and “police” this segment of the tourism industry. “We have some of the strongest animal legislation in the world, but enforcement of it is our biggest challenge, especially with our limited resources. We are also heavily reliant on our judicial system, which moves very slowly.”
The Southern African Tourism Services Association (Satsa) says better educating tour operator members to choose ethical and responsible products to sell to clients is a priority.
“We cannot prohibit members from using suppliers of their choice,” says Satsa chief executive David Frost. “We can only recommend that they thoroughly vet operators like Knysna Elephant Park and make an informed decision as to which products they send clients to.”
His members were at pains to meet the demands of international visitors. “When we have cautioned members to be aware of ethical issues in products like Knysna Elephant Park, they have countered that clients insist on visiting certain products and they risk losing the business of an entire tour if they don’t include (them).”
Frost concedes that it is incumbent on his members to properly educate their clients about the ethical considerations surrounding elephant tourism, and other wild animal-based tourism activities such as lion petting and walking with lions. “It’s firmly on our radar and we are working on ways to better educate our members on how to handle this aspect of their work so that their clients are able to make more informed decisions on the destinations they choose.”
In the meantime, Knysna Elephant Park and operators like it continue to thrive, in spite of the clouds of controversy hanging over their heads.
Conservationist Drew Abrahamson, who heads Captured in Africa specialising in ethical photographic and conservation-based safaris, says it’s time the tourism industry wakes up to what has happened in Knysna and unethical operations that exploit wild animals.
“It’s really quite astounding that so many companies in the tourism industry are still unaware of the implications of what they are doing. In recent weeks I have chosen to not use two companies who refused to accept our stringent ethical requirements…”
Abrahamson directly advises her clients against interacting with lions and elephants, and shares information gathered after years in the tourism industry and personal experience of the tours she sells. “Our tours are based on strong conservation messages and often involve conservation projects, so there is a fair amount of information sharing between us and our clients.
“The industry as a whole needs to understand it has the power to educate both operators and clients and that they need to stand up and do the right thing, even if it means losing a few bookings. We are not in the business of selling suffering.”
Willson and her team are still awaiting a court date for the NSPCA’s case against Knysna Elephant Park, which is not expected until the new year. “In the run-up to Christmas, when the industry is busiest, we can do little more than hope and pray tourists ask the proper questions and think twice about supporting these activities.”
Is there hope on the horizon? Willson believes so. “One of the country’s major and most respected elephant interaction and elephant-back safari operators – Pilanesberg Elephant-Back Safaris – decided to close and rehabilitate its elephants back into the wild shortly before the Knysna Elephant Park case came to light. This sent a fantastic, positive message out to the tourism industry and the public that this is the way forward.”
It’s a positive note that is not being echoed in South Africa’s corridors of power, with ominous changes being proposed to the Elephant Norms and Standards (ENS) which could give a green light for the capture of wild elephants for permanent captivity, including use in tourism activities.
The 2008 ENS prohibit the capture of wild elephants for permanent captivity, which effectively capped the booming elephant-back safari industry. At that time some prominent tourism operators, among them Zimbabwe’s Shearwater Adventures, were taking young wild elephants from breeding herds to turn them into riding elephants for tour operations in Victoria Falls and venues across South Africa. The excessive trauma to the elephants sparked an international outcry.
“Ultimately, the tourism industry needs to step up to the plate and take responsibility for elephant tourism operators, and help us to police and enforce the legislation,” says Willson.
“Tour operators have a moral obligation to properly inform themselves and their clients, and actively change the way they think. At the end of the day, no matter how bad the economy, ethics and animal welfare should not be for sale.”
Sharon Gilbert-Rivett wrote this article for the Conservation Action Trust.