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Safari Cuisine Changes Lives In South Africa

February 21, 2014 Food & Beverage No Comments Email Email

569471THE “safari cuisine” made famous by game reserves across South Africa is not only enriching the lives of international tourists who depart with memorable taste experiences, but is changing lives closer to home too.

While guests are thrilled by Big 5 game-viewing, wide open expanses of African bush, and hearty Afro-fusion cuisine, few know the story behind the kitchen doors of luxury game reserves.

Private game reserves abound in the malaria-free Eastern Cape province of South Africa, where they have transformed the previously agricultural landscape by restoring indigenous thicket and roaming herds of the animals native to the area. At the same time, the safari and eco-tourism they attract has had a significant socio-economic impact – creating more, and better-paid, jobs for rural communities.

569474At Lalibela Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, head chef Linda Keevy arrived for her new job running the reserve’s three kitchens, armed with folders of meal plans, menus and recipes. An experienced cook and manager of large kitchens, she thought she was ready for the task ahead – until she found that most of her team of cooks spoke little English, couldn’t read and write, and had little cooking experience. “I threw the plan out the window and started again,” she laughs.

That was nine years ago, and Lalibela’s owners had appointed her to replace a succession of chefs who had struggled with the challenges of producing fine cuisine “in the bush”. The kitchen staff, mostly women, had been low-level assistants, doing basic food preparation and cleaning, but little actual cooking. They couldn’t read a recipe, had little knowledge of ingredients and cooking methods, and no idea about quantities, ordering or stock control.

569477Today, those same women are running their own kitchens – trying out new recipes, keeping an eye on stock and placing orders, laying on hearty daily buffet spreads for international travellers – and supporting their families

In an area where each employed person supports on average four dependants, game reserves are making a significant, positive economic impact.

Lalibela cook Thandiswa Mancan’s(“Tun-dee-swa”) story is typical of the life-changing impact of eco-tourism and game reserves.

Born in Grahamstown and raised in a rural area, Mancan completed all but the final year of her formal schooling. She has worked at Lalibela for 10 years, starting off washing and ironing in the laundry, and is now proudly running a kitchen.

569480A single mother of two children aged 6 and 11, she says her income has improved, enabling her to support her mother and her brother, and have her children at school in the nearby city of Port Elizabeth.

The impact of empowerment, though, goes beyond financial security to building self-confidence and a sense of purpose, making for far greater job and personal satisfaction.

“I used to just wash and iron all day. Now I am doing something I love – cooking and baking. The money is better and it’s much more interesting. I am proud of what I do. I love to see people enjoying my food and knowing that what I do is a part of why people enjoy staying at Lalibela. I feel like I make a difference,” Mancan said.

According to Statistics South Africa, the Eastern Cape is South Africa’s second-poorest province. The area surrounding Lalibela and neighbouring private game reserves is characterised by high unemployment, low levels of education and literacy, and the many social ills that accompany poverty.

569483Research by the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (“NMMU”) has shown that the conversion from traditional farming to game-based ecotourism has had positive impacts on both conservation of the natural environment and the socio-economic circumstances of the surrounding rural communities.

The NMMU studies have consistently shown that private game reserves employ 4.5 times more people than agriculture, and pay higher wages than other land uses. Even the lowest-paid workers on the private game reserves are better off financially than the average farm worker.

In addition to better pay, the owners of private game reserves, the researchers noted, also provide a number of employee benefits, including subsidised housing, pensions and medical insurance.

569486Lalibela shareholder and marketing head, Vernon Wait, says the positive impact of private game reserves can be tangibly seen at Lalibela, where many of the staff have lived on surrounding farms for all their lives.

“In the farming sector, these families usually had only one income. The employment created by game reserves means that many of these families now have dual incomes and far greater financial security than before. We see employees’ children now going to school, in an area where children sometimes don’t go to school simply because their family can’t afford the school uniform, books or stationery.

“As we build up people’s skills, they earn better and are better able to support their families and, through education, their children’s chances of a bright future improve. This is what empowerment is all about, both for Lalibela and for the community that is our home,” he said.

And as much as they’ve learnt from Keevy how to cook to please international guests’ palates, they’ve taught their boss a thing or two about African traditional ingredients and dishes, resulting in Lalibela’s unique “Afro-fusion safari cuisine”.

Guided by a seven-day rotating menu put together by Keevy, the chefs each add their own touches, vary the dishes according to what’s available on the day and deliver consistent quality across Lalibela’s three separate lodges.

“In the beginning, each cook did their own thing, not always with good results. Mealtimes and the food are such an important part of the guest experience; we have to deliver quality every time. We’ve trained our staff up to achieve the consistent product we have today. It’s wonderful to see how people have grown,” said Keevy. “A place like Lalibela changes lives. We’ve taken people who weren’t skilled, who were doing basic jobs like laundry, and we’ve taught them how to think on their feet, to adapt when things don’t turn out right. They might not have any qualifications or certificates, but they’re brilliant.”

And the Big 5 reserve’s guest books bear testament to that. They’re filled with compliments on the all-round safari experience that Lalibela delivers – the abundant wildlife, unspoilt indigenous bush, the friendly and knowledgeable rangers, the warm Eastern Cape hospitality and the mouth-watering, hearty meals.

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