This post is co-authored by Emmanuel Sulle, a researcher and PhD student at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies in South Africa. His research areas include inclusive business models, land tenure and rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many developing country governments have transferred large swathes of community land to agri-businesses, extractive industries, infrastructure developers and other investors as a way to grow their economies. These actions often come at the expense of local communities, who lose rights to the lands they’ve lived on for generations. The transfer of community land is especially pervasive and problematic in Africa, where 60 percent of the population is rural and dependent on land and natural resources for food and livelihoods.

But development doesn’t need to come at the expense of local communities. As one community in Tanzania is showing, alternative business models can allow citizens to retain their lands and resources while also capitalizing on economic opportunities.

An Alternative Business Model for Community Empowerment

Northern Tanzania is home to Kilimanjaro, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and some of the world’s largest populations of wildlife. It’s also the location of Ololosokwan, a village in Loliondo Division made up principally of the Maasai people. Maasai pastoralists raise livestock on communal rangelands across Tanzania’s northern drylands.

Ololosokwan is among the first villages in Tanzania to establish community-based eco-tourism. Beginning in the late 1990s, the Village Council (village governing body), representing the Village Assembly (comprised of all villagers above the age of 18), established several joint ventures with tour operators. One agreement is for the construction of a tourist lodge in a 25,000-acre concession area, for which the company is paying Ololosokwan an annual land rent of $ about 50,000, as well as a fee per tourist per night. Another venture allows selected luxury tour operators to establish campsites on village land in exchange for payments. In 2007, Ololosokwan earned approximately US$ 96,000 per year from the tourism operations.1 The joint ventures have also generated employment for villagers and helped establish a crafts market for local artists.

Ololosokwan’s Village Council has allocated much of its revenue toward education, especially building classrooms, employing teachers and sponsoring children to attend secondary school and university. The Village Council has also used some of its revenue to build a village dispensary, develop several water projects and reinvest in conservation to ensure wildlife populations thrive on Ololosokwan land.

Recipe for Success

Tanzania has relatively progressive land laws compared to other African nations. The 1999 Land Act and Village Land Act both recognize customary ownership of lands and allow local communities to lease their land and enter into collaborative business ventures. This legislation is complemented by the Local Government Act of 1982, which empowers the Village Council and Village Assembly to manage community lands and natural resources.

In addition to supportive legislation, local and international NGOs have aided communities by conducting capacity-building trainings with villagers. For example, the Catholic Archdiocese of Arusha assisted a number of villages in Loliondo Division—including Ololosokwan—to obtain title deeds for their lands in the 1990s. The Pastoral Women Council (PWC) helped empower village women to participate in community decision-making. And the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT) and Sand County Foundation trained villagers on land and resource rights, and on negotiating contracts with investors, specifically tour operators. These groups also worked with villagers on how they could spend their revenues wisely.

The trainings paved the way for Ololosokwan to enact village by-laws, which establish a land-use plan for the community and mandate that the Village Council enact and enforce conservation measures like controlling illegal hunting, and report to the Village Assembly the community’s wildlife-related earnings and expenditures.

Land Rights Challenges Remain

Despite successes, Ololosokwan—along with other communities in Africa—continues to face threats to their land rights. In 2013, for example, Tanzania’s Minister of Natural Resources announced a plan to demarcate 1,500 km2 of village lands in Loliondo, including Ololosokwan land, as a reserve under government control. Reports suggested that the government intended to grant a concession to a Dubai-based luxury safari company for big game hunting in the region.

While the Prime Minister suspended the plan after outcry from affected community members, recent reports indicate that the government has revived its plan to create the reserve, which would evict the Maasai from their ancestral lands.

This threat notwithstanding, the case of Ololosokwan demonstrates the importance of communities managing and benefiting from their own natural resources. It shows that, given appropriate legal support and the right tools, communities can take charge of their own development and lift themselves out of chronic poverty.

The case of Ololosokwan also supports the global movement calling for bottom-up business models that work for communities and investors alike, such as the Our Land, Our Business campaign made up of more than 260 farmers, NGOs and civil society groups from around the world. It is time to take note and replicate successes like Ololosokwan’s across Africa.

LEARN MORE: Check out WRI's Land and Resource Rights project.

  1. See Sulle, E. (2007) The contribution of tourism to local communities (Tanzania unpublished report) Arusha: Sand County Foundation.) ↩︎