USF Magazine Fall 2013

Volume 55 | Number 3


World Classroom

USF graduate students partner with Malawi to develop a sustainable tourism plan.

| USF News

Patel College students Anthony Pooley, Darcy Everett and Amanda Whatley traveled to southeast Africa for a six-week internship.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Pooley

Traveling thousands of miles from Tampa to one of the least developed countries in the world, USF College of Global Sustainability graduate students Darcy Everett, Anthony Pooley and Amanda Whatley didn’t know what to expect.

But what they found during their six-week summer internship in Malawi was optimism, hope and the promise of a brighter future.

The students were on a mission to develop a draft master plan for sustainable tourism in the Liwonde National Park, the jewel of the national park system in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

The internship was the capstone course in the students’ Master of Arts in Global Sustainability degree program. It was the first internship offered by the college in any of the world’s least developed countries, where transportation, communication and other issues can often be a challenge.

“The experience was everything I envisioned for the students and more,” says David Randle, faculty and director of the Sustainable Tourism Concentration in the College of Global Sustainability. “All of them really had their lives changed. They will never again look at these issues in the world in the same way. How can you ask for more than that?”

Working under the guidance of MacDonald Sembereka, presidential advisor to Malawi President Joyce Banda, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the students conducted research and field studies to develop a plan designed to minimize impact on the environment and culture, while creating positive experiences, employment opportunities and income sources for the local community.

“There is such a lack of knowledge about the beauty of Malawi and the potential for tourism,” says Pooley, an environmental consultant who earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science and policy from USF in 2003.

The team hopes to tap into that potential to benefit Malawians.

“We want to teach them about conservation and sustainability,” he says. “We want to find a way to put park concessions in the hands of Malawians.”

A successful sustainable tourism plan could pave the way for economic recovery in the country known as “The Warm Heart of Africa.”

Liwonde National Park

The birds sit on the back of another animal.

Malawi’s Liwonde National Park — the jewel of the national park system — is home to as many as 390 species of birds.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Pooley

Situated at the southern end of Lake Malawi on the banks of the Upper Shire River, Liwonde National Park is one of five national parks in Malawi. It is one of the only parks in the world where visitors can see all of the “Big 5” — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalo — as well as antelopes, zebras, hippos, leopards, and as many as 390 species of birds. In addition to jeep safaris and walking trails, the 220-square-mile park offers riverboat safaris along the Shire River.

But for all its magnificence, the park faces significant challenges, says Everett, whose professional interior design background first piqued her interest in sustainability issues.

Among the challenges she lists with her colleagues are human-animal conflicts, lack of infrastructure, poaching, lack of coordination among tour concessions and interested parties, and a near-extinct lion population.

Setting the wheels in motion

Whatley, a student in Randle’s spring 2012 sustainable tourism class, was intrigued when she first heard about a possible internship in Africa. She’d been to Africa before as a Fulbright Student Scholar studying life and culture in Tanzania, and was eager to return to the continent.

“Every time Dr. Randle talked about it, I got excited,” she recalls. “When he presented it, I thought this is absolutely where I’m going.”

In January, Whatley signed on. Everett and Pooley followed. Together the students set the wheels in motion for their African experience — planning, coordinating with field contacts, and researching topics ranging from poverty and ecosystems to culture and tourism.

By semester’s end, with their legwork complete, the students were prepared to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they’d acquired in the classroom in a setting far from home.

“We really try to give the students more than just a good education experience,” says Randle. “We give them an opportunity to do something and make a difference.”

On May 26, after nearly 20 hours in flight, Whatley, Everett and Pooley landed in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe. Mike Labuschagne, a project manager for the IFAW and the group’s on-the-ground contact, greeted the students.

“As soon as we met Mike, he said plans had changed and we were going to head to Zambia to get perspective on one of the country’s successful parks — South Luangwa National Park,” Whatley recalls. “I knew this was going to be great.”

With Labuschagne as their guide, the students explored every facet of the park, spending two nights in Zambia before retracing their route back to Malawi. And while they witnessed up close a level of poverty they’d never imagined, the beauty and joy throughout the region was foremost in their minds.

No typical days

Amanda Whatley and Darcy Everett meet with park tour operators as part of their field research.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Pooley

At Liwonde National Park, the group’s final destination, there was no typical day. The students met with tour operators; toured the Mvuu Wilderness Lodge, the park’s only inside lodge and interviewed Peace Corps volunteers, park visitors and residents of the surrounding community. They created a survey to learn more about tourists in the region, reviewed marketing materials, walked the park’s fence line and met with officials from the Malawi College of Fisheries.

One day, the students met with the German Ambassador to Malawi and toured a fish farm project led by Labuschagne and the IFAW. Germany is a stakeholder in the project, which aims to alleviate human/wildlife conflicts and provide alternative income streams for villagers, while ensuring the protection of elephants and other species in the park. The day included a boat safari where, along with hippos and elephants, the students saw Malawians illegally fishing in the Shire River.

“They have no other choice,” says Pooley, explaining how overpopulation in the region is a “huge problem which snowballs into all problems, like poaching and overfishing.”

Problems, he believes, that are best addressed with education and innovative programs, such as microloans, which empower women in Malawi to develop small commercial ventures that can help feed families, educate children and inspire other women to help break the cycle of poverty.

Living with nature

Everett never expected to see people living so close to a national park. She was stunned to learn that residents of the Liwonde Park community live with wild animals at their doorstep — animals, like elephants, that penetrate the park’s fences, consuming crops and endangering residents.

“A lot of people live right next to the park,” she says. “I didn’t quite understand that.”

Everett believes involving the community is key, citing the success of the Majete Wildlife Reserve in the Lower Shire Valley, which until a decade ago, when the government intervened with a public-private partnership for the rehabilitation, development and management of the reserve, had no positive economic impact on the livelihoods of its surrounding communities.

Village life

Villagers in Njobvu village pound maize.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Pooley

In Njobvu, a village situated next to the park, Whatley, Everett and Pooley experienced village life. For Everett, the two-day stay was a highlight of the trip.

“There was no electricity, no running water. We saw villagers going to the borehole to pump water; women pounding maize by hand,” she recounts. “You hear about poverty, but just to be there and experience it firsthand is very eye-opening.”

“The culture was absolutely amazing,” Whatley adds. “What surprised me is the love and joy we experienced. Everyone wanted to talk to us; they were eager to figure out how we could help them — how our plan will be used.”

Despite very poor conditions, Pooley says, “Malawians are very happy to see you, to shake your hand, to talk to you. They have so much gratitude that you’re there.”

Forever changed

In July the students returned to Tampa, eager to put words to the plan Sembereka intends to present to government officials as a model for sustainable tourism in Liwonde National Park — and perhaps other parks in Africa.

“This internship has opened a long-term partnership between the university and the park as we strive to ensure that tourism translates into development of the students and the communities around the park,” Sembereka says. “This is a dream and we have to collectively work toward its realization.”

The internship, Randle points out, would not have been possible without a counterpart in Malawi to help make contacts on the ground, keep students safe and provide access to resources.

“MacDonald Sembereka deserves a lot of credit,” Randle says. “He grew up in the area and has a dream to protect and preserve it, and to use its resources as a means for economic development of the country.”

While the students focus forward, they have been forever changed by their Malawi experience.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Whatley says. “Every person we met, every experience we had, I will take with me forever, and believe it will help me be better at what I do in the future.”

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