Virunga Massif social enterprises join forces to ramp up conservation efforts

By Gilbert Mwijuke

Rwanda’s Red Rocks Initiatives for Sustainable Development, DR Congo’s SCPNCK coffee cooperative, and Uganda’s Mgahinga Cultural and Crafts Centre are social enterprises with a shared vision.

They all aim to engage communities around the Virunga Massif in activities that help them earn a living from the region’s thriving mountain gorilla tourism and ultimately create a safe haven for the critically endangered primates.

It’s the three organisations’ shared notion that the biggest threat to the existence of mountain gorillas – which are currently numbering slightly more than 1,000 individuals worldwide – is human activity.

“Humans are the main threat to the survival of mountain gorillas because these apes are not targeted by any predators in the wild,” Herbert Mugisha, founder of the Mgahinga Cultural and Crafts Centre, said in a recent interview with Chwezi Traveller.

Communities that live around the Virunga Massif, home to the mountain gorillas, threaten the primates’ existence by engaging in vicious activities such as poaching, war, deforestation and encroachment on gorilla habitat, among others.

Majority of the people who live around the Virunga Massif, which is a chain of eight volcanic mountains spanning Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are steeped in poverty and have for years been depending on the forests that protect the gorillas for survival.

These forests have been their primary source of livelihood, providing them with firewood, construction materials, medicine (herbs), farmland and even meat for the pot. So, denying them access to the forests in the name of mountain gorilla conservation is like denying them their bread and butter.

Helping communities do well by doing good

Perhaps this explains why the idea of social enterprises is proving to be one of the most effective ways of curtailing detrimental human activities in the Virunga Massif and subsequently improving the fortunes of the world-famous mountain gorillas.

Social entrepreneurship is the use of start-up companies and other entrepreneurs to develop, fund and implement solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues, according to Wikipedia.

The social enterprises in the Virunga Massif are applying commercial strategies to promote conservation and tourism while securing a sustainable livelihood for the local communities.

But if they are to create a real safe haven for mountain gorillas and wipe them off the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of critically endangered species, they have to work hand-in-hand, to speak the same language.

“The Virunga Massif is shared by three countries, and we are all trying to protect the mountain gorillas. As social entrepreneurs, we should speak the same language. Whatever is done in Uganda should be done in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo if we are to be successful in our quest to save the mountain gorillas from extinction,” says Mugisha.

Red Rocks Initiatives for Sustainable Development’s tagline says it all: Great Visions Need Great Partners. And it’s perhaps this tagline that has informed the idea of joining forces with its Ugandan and Congolese counterparts.

“We want the socio-economic value of mountain gorilla tourism to trickle down to communities in all the three countries in an equal manner,” Mugisha says of the partnership his organisation recently entered into with Rwanda’s Red Rocks Initiatives for Sustainable Development and DR Congo’s SCPNCK. “The way communities in Rwanda benefit from gorilla tourism should be the same way communities in Uganda and DR Congo benefit.”

Mugisha argues that for mountain gorilla conservation to be successful, the approaches used in the three countries should be standardised lest success in one country will be undermined by failure in the other countries.

“For instance,” he says, “if Rwanda has succeeded in stopping poaching while the vice is still rampant in Uganda and the DR Congo, chances are that the poachers in Uganda and DR Congo will easily cross over to Rwanda. We need to have the same approaches for sustainability.”

Joint sensitisation and training programmes and joint marketing of products (mainly crafts that are sold to tourists who visit the Virunga Massif to trek gorillas) made by local communities working with these three organisations are some of the goals of this partnership.

Mugisha continues: “Communities living around the Virunga Massif have a lot in common regarding culture, lifestyle, values and socio-economic challenges, which we can leverage to stir development and create equal opportunities for all. We should also use some of the things we don’t have in common to diversify tourism experiences in the region.”

Greg Bakunzi, founder and CEO of Red Rocks Initiatives for Sustainable Development, said that this partnership will go a long w

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