The invisible and catastrophic cost of the pandemic

Former Baldrine woman’s battle to save African Island paradise from disaster

By Simon Richardson (Editor)

As countries around the world battle to minimise the repercussions of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is inevitably the plight of the first world nations that grab all the headlines. But the tentacles of this terrible scourge on humanity have reached many of the poorest corners of the planet – not always in terms of direct infections, but through the devastating economic fall-out.

A tiny Islet within the ecologically important Mafia Island Marine Park in Tanzania is the unlikely location for a former Lonan woman’s battle to preserve one of the world’s finest examples of genuine eco-tourism, and to save the local community from returning to the grinding poverty and malnutrition it last suffered during the 1980’s.

Anne de Villiers (nee Bennett) and her French husband Jean, launched the Chole Mjini Conservation & Development Co. Ltd. on tiny Chole Island, in the heart of the marine park. They are justifiably proud of their business model, which pioneered ‘responsible’ tourism and has contributed massively to the community over more than 27 years. 

Anne and Jean are passionately committed to the people of the area and to the conservation of the cultural & natural environment. 

Anne is internationally acclaimed for her work and has picked up numerous prestigious awards including – The Africa CSR Leadership Award 2015, and the CSR Impact – Global award 2016. Meanwhile Chole Mjini was a World Responsible Tourism Gold Award winner for best beach in 2014 – and the Green Hotelier Award in 2017.

It’s a far cry from Anne’s home patch of Baldrine. She was brought up on the family farm at Ballakilley and completed her secondary education at St Ninian’s High School before going on to study Tropical Agriculture at Edinburgh & Reading Universities. Her children Didier & Maya were born at Ballakilley and christened at St. Adamnan’s, the historic old church on the farm.

Moving on to the present day and the COVID-19 crisis is a double whammy for Anne and Jean’s adopted home – Chole Island. Not only does it threaten to wipe out the significant gains that they have made in healthcare and education on the Island, but the sudden halt to tourism means no income and no jobs for the Islanders. The spectre of poverty, malnutrition and anaemia once again looms over the area and threatens to devastate their community and natural environment. Stunningly beautiful and ecologically critical coral reefs – along with the magnificent marine life that depends on them – are under threat from increased harvesting, fishing and a desperate lack of funding for marine patrols. There is no Government support and loans to local businesses carry a 22% interest charge.

The dream of breaking free of the poverty of their birth has become a reality for the children of Chole during the past 20 years; many have benefitted from educational scholarships: “It would be heart-breaking to see the dreams of the Chole children snuffed out by COVID,’ Anne told Business365.

Anne and Jean’s company and its two lodges, Chole Mjini Tree House Lodge & Kitu Kiblu Beach Lodge are key drivers of social development & conservation in their community.  

They employ more than 60 people & their UK charity, The Chole Mjini Trust Fund, pays for a kindergarten & meals for the children, provides scholarships for 100 or more older children in secondary schools, and ten or more young women and men at university.

Meanwhile, Anne and Jean initiated, and still support critical Whale Shark research. They also pioneered initiatives that saved the last of the Seychelles Fruit bats from extinction. The couple are heavily involved in a host of cultural heritage and other wildlife conservation initiatives, which could all cease if their company is unable to survive the effects of the pandemic. Anne explained the gravity of the situation they face: “All of our bookings (and hence income)  have been cancelled or rescheduled to 2021 and 2022 due to COVID 19. We are grateful to my sister Linda and our neighbours, the Ballakilley crew for helping us to fundraise to survive the next twelve months.” 

She continued: “With this immediate relief we will be able to stay operational, hang on to our key staff, secure their livelihoods and focus our attention to meet the future. If we survive the immediate challenge we will have the time to seek funding (grants and impact investment) to sustain our projects and pivot our business to meet the new post Covid market. We have already started this process and have been identified as a flagship project by WWF. It takes time though for these grants, loans or investment to be secured. 

“We are confident that even if tourism does not recover in one year we will have found a way to keep our business and projects afloat and to sustain the gains that have been made in development and conservation. 

“We are also founding members of who are leading the way in defining what that new future of travel might look like. 

Move Over, sustainable travel, regenerative travel has arrived.”

With the 20 years of job security their staff have enjoyed under immediate threat, the fear is that to survive many will resort to exploiting the natural resources around them. 

Already the tourism revenues, that fund the marine park conserving this remarkable environment, have dried up completely. Most adults who now find themselves suddenly unemployed are reverting to unsustainable livelihoods, like dragging fine mesh nets through the coral or making charcoal from the mangrove forests. The hungry children are raiding birds’ nests and hunting small animals to eat.

Desperately in need of help Anne and Jean are now looking to Anne’s homeland for support; “We do so whilst fully recognising that people on the Isle of Man are also enduring difficult times,” explained Anne.

Meanwhile Anne’s Island based family members, along with their friends and neighbours Stewart and Barbara Clague, and the current owners of Ballakilley – the Goody family -have all pitched in to offer help. 

A sell-out fundraising afternoon took place recently at Old Lonan Church Farm Cottages, Ballamenaugh Road, Baldrine as part of the ongoing fundraising effort.

Anne & Jean are heartened by the warmth of the support from those attending the event and give their sincere and grateful thanks.