Impact initiative of the year - Africa; Asset manager of the year - small: Conservation International

Winning the award for Impact initiative of the year Africa, Conservation International (CI) led an initiative that delivered investment capital in the form of loans to the Maasai Mara Conservancies in Kenya in a time of crisis, with the aim of sustaining livelihoods through ongoing conservancy lease payments and protecting the Mara Ecosystem.

Home to 25% of Kenya's wildlife and the greatest annual migration of animals on Earth, the Greater Mara ecosystem is one of the most important conservation areas in Africa, according to CI.

The land is owned by the indigenous Maasai people, who lease it to conservancies for tourism operations, which in turn fund conservation efforts that drive wildlife tourism.

However, within months of the Covid-19 pandemic, this model faced collapse. The loss of lease income due to the halt in tourism and future uncertainty threatened to force the Maasai landowners to sell or convert their lands to farming, putting wildlife conservation in the region at risk.

Recognising this threat, CI worked with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) to establish the African Conservancies Fund.

By the end of 2020 CI had created a loan mechanism, set up the African Conservancies Fund, raised the first round of capital required, and deployed the first set of loans to two of the conservancies.

This was the first step towards the creation of a $5 million loan fund which aimed to help the conservancies through the crisis, thereby indirectly supporting nearly 10,000 Maasai landowners and their dependants and safeguarding 140,000 hectares of wilderness.

Daniel Ole Sopia, chief executive officer of MMWCA, commented: "Over the last two decades, local communities and tourism investors have worked to find a way that nature and people can thrive together. Our conservancies both secure critical wildlife populations and benefit local people. This is what successful conservation looks like. Covid-19 has put this model at risk. This innovative fund will help us withstand this shock, and better prepare for future ones – it will help us, our hard work, survive."

Through the loan programme, conservancies across the Maasai Mara are now able to secure short-to-medium term funding to offset the revenue loss from Covid-19 and support long-term sustainability.

The loans will be repaid out of future tourism returns and conservation fees that the conservancies collect from tourism operators.

As a condition of the loan, the conservancies will be required to implement governance, operational and financial strengthening activities to ensure long-term sustainability of the conservancy model. These include commitment to transparency and inclusivity in leadership elections and resolving to build up reserve funds in the future as better financial practice.

One Impact Awards judge praised the initiative for its "innovative replicable approach combining conservation and sustaining livelihoods in times of crisis”.

CI said the fund had "demonstrated to the investment world that biodiversity and ecosystems are investible and can pay for itself even in the time of crisis, and as such this mechanism is scalable and replicable across multiple geographies where ecotourism funds landscape conservation... we are confident of being able to deploy up to $50 million over the next three years to secure conservancies in key landscapes and seascapes across Africa”.

CI is also exploring opportunities to diversify revenue streams through the development of a carbon offset project across the Mara ecosystem.

For its second award, the Conservation International Ventures fund (CI Ventures) – a global fund for enterprises that prioritises conservation impact – topped the category for Asset manager of the year - small.

CI Ventures aims to invest in small and medium enterprises that have the potential to deliver measurable and scalable conservation impacts in places that CI says other firms typically overlook.

“At the moment, investment is not flowing to those businesses with the potential to drive outsized change on the ground. They are often perceived as being too small, too new, too risky, or just too difficult to find and fund. As impact-first investors, we are laser-focused on doing just that, and with great results thus far,” said Agustin Silvani, chief investment officer for CI Ventures. 

Since 2019, CI Ventures and its co-financing partners have invested $14 million in 10 enterprises. According to CI, those investments have helped to create nearly 1,000 jobs, generate over $11 million in sustainable production revenue, and restore and protect more than 10,000 hectares of critical natural habitat.

Today, CI Ventures’ portfolio consists of eight sustainable enterprises around the globe. Those projects include businesses that keep forests intact, provide technological solutions to save mangroves, produce sustainable low-carbon protein, transform invasive vegetation into compost and create jobs for local communities.

As a revolving fund, it invests in companies that generate positive financial returns over a specified period, with returns flowing back into the fund to finance future investments. CI Ventures also provides financial backing to the CI African Conservancies Fund. 

CI Ventures aims to execute 100 “high-impact” deals and invest $200 million with its co-financing partners by 2028. Through those efforts, it intends to protect and restore 500,000 million hectares of land and sea while supporting 60,000 livelihoods around the world.