A heart for Africa.
Passion. For many years, Hellmuth Weisser was co-owner, chairman of the board and supervisory board of Marquard & Bahls AG, a global energy trader and tank farm operator based in Hamburg. Now he is building a 22,000 hectare animal sanctuary in South Africa, investing around 30 million euros in the project.
Hellmuth Weisser is sitting at home in Hamburg. Not that he doesn't like it there. But he would actually like to finally return to South Africa. To see with his own eyes how his Babanango Game Reserve is becoming a Garden of Eden for animals and plants and how the people living all around are benefiting from his new protected area.
But he is now 73 years old. And in South Africa the pandemic is raging with similar devastation as in Europe. "In the past twelve months, I wanted to travel four times, but I kept postponing it," he says with regret in his voice. Fortunately, he has reliable partners on the ground who keep his project thriving and bring him up to speed. "This year we are getting the first elephants. The rhinos are already there. Then in 2022, lions will be released." And recently 40 men cut down the long ago introduced eucalypts, a species not native to South Africa but popular for its fast growth. "These trees are greedy for water. Since they've been gone, small streams are starting to carry water again, with forgotten species returning to the banks."
Anyone who hears the entrepreneur talk about his heart's project senses a deep connection with the Black Continent. Someone seems to have found his calling. The decades before, in which he left his mark on the family business founded by his father and made it even bigger and more successful, seem in retrospect merely like a gallop. Like a time in which he did his duty, sometimes even had fun doing it, and along the way achieved the financial freedom that today enables him to realize his dreams.
Weisser was four when he first heard about Africa. His parents had traveled through black Africa for six weeks in 1951 - a veritable adventure so soon after the war. "I still remember their stories today: How difficult everything was, how mysterious and enigmatic." Later, the father is back there to set up export deals. "Mail started arriving at home from Africa. I started collecting stamps from that continent."
In 1971, after a small foray as the founder of a steel tube business, the junior joins his father's company. Theodor Weisser had taken over the Hamburg grain importer Marquard & Bahls in 1947, because the British occupiers had not yet allowed Germans to set up businesses again. Later, the senior succeeds in trading lubricating and heating oils and expands the tank storage division into a second mainstay. As early as 1968, he handed over the baton to Hellmuth Weisser's brother Hans, twelve years his senior.
When Hans retired in 1985 for health reasons, Hellmuth Weisser, who until then had only managed those areas not directly related to mineral oil, took over the management of the holding company together with Joachim Brinkmann. "It was tough," he says in retrospect. Some veteran managers believe they now have an easy ride. But Weisser has a clear line. He insists on decentralized management structures, delegates responsibility, and in 2003 even lets a non-family manager, Dutchman Wim Lokhorst, take over - for his father, who died in 1997, that would have been a sacrilege.
Weisser was just 55 when he moved to the supervisory board. In 2013, he relinquished his chairmanship there as well: "I was delighted to do so. It was never difficult for me to let go." Later, he even parts with his shares, retaining only three symbolic shares. The company is doing well without him, he has set the right course: in 2019, Marquard & Bahls turned over 13.88 billion euros with almost 8000 employees.
Finally, Hellmuth Weisser now has time for travel. Together with his wife Barbara, who has long managed house projects independently of the company, he goes on safari extensively - in East Africa, but also in the south of the continent. He also often visits his niece, who had moved to South Africa, where the ANC now rules. At first he comes every two years, then every year, then twice a year. "During that time, I had a spark," he confesses.
The Africa fever grips him. In 2016, he met Jeffrey van Staden, with whose German-South African safari agency he had traveled several times. Van Staden is a seasoned veteran of the conservation and safari industry. Born in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), he knows Zulu culture intimately, and even had a Zulu nickname as a child. He tells Weisser about a community trust that wants to convert his 17000 hectares of land into a wildlife sanctuary under certain conditions.
The Weissers go to see Babanango for themselves - and are immediately enthralled by the rolling hills covered in grassland, by the densely forested banks of the White Umfolozi River, by this piece of wilderness that is becoming increasingly difficult to find even in South Africa. What is particularly interesting is that they are standing on historic ground here: 200 years ago, the center of the Zulu nation, long considered invincible, and its charismatic King Shaka, was located there. Another trump card: Babanango is free of malaria, which is especially appreciated by European tourists, whom Weisser has in mind.
The Hamburg entrepreneur and the tourism professional hire a South African accountant. He is supposed to show how a purchase of the country can be legally wrapped up in dry cloths. "When the report was ready after six months, the most important points were hidden deep in the small print," Weisser recounts. "It was difficult to read and interpret the report properly." Welcome to high-risk political South Africa. Where, on the one hand, political groups like Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters advocate expropriating white landowners without compensation. But where, on the other hand, projects like the Umfolozi Biodiversity Economy Node encourage partnerships between local communities, private investors and conservationists.
Weisser's solution: in 2017 he leased 17000 hectares from the community trust and bought another 5000 hectares from private game farms. He's getting used to the fact that not everything will go smoothly right away. For example, the trust had promised that there would be no people living on the land. But in fact there were four families. "We had to relocate them at our expense for a lot of money."
Now, finally, Barbara and Hellmuth Weisser can start thinking about what they want their game reserve to look like one day: Which animal species should be reintroduced? How many lodges of which price category should accommodate tourists? How do you get the surrounding communities on board? How is the fight against poachers to be won? The couple was helped by the fact that they had already seen many conservation projects on safari. One of the best they had liked was Phinda Private Game Reserve, also in KZN. "Phinda is my guiding star," Weisser says. "I want Babanango to shine that bright, too, one day."
The next step is for the trio to divide up duties. Van Staden is responsible for operations as COO of the newly founded African Habitat Conservancy (AHC), Barbara Weisser manages the construction and operation of the lodges, and Hellmuth Weisser looks after strategy and finances. A total of 550 million South African rand, just under 30 million euros, is to be invested by 2024. "Actually, we wanted to be ready by 2022, which is when I'll be 75," he says, adding that Corona has delayed the plans, with bottlenecks in building materials in particular. Nevertheless, three lodges - Babanango Valley, Zulu Rock and Matatane - are already operational, with a fourth due to launch-Easter 2022. "We plan to cash break-even in 2023, but whether that can be done despite the pandemic is uncertain. In 2020, we had almost only domestic guests. There are unfortunately many Covid 19 cases in KZN, including among acquaintances and friends."
There is plenty to do despite the lack of clientele. "Babanango is a big start-up in an industry that is new to me," Weisser admits. "I'm investing a lot more time than I thought I would." By no means does he only have the animals in mind, but also the social advancement of the reserve's partners, the communities of Emcakwini, KwaNgono and Esibongweni. They, above all, are expected to benefit from sustainable tourism. "We have created 180 jobs to date, 165 of which are for people born here." However, he said it was sobering to see "how few skills there are. We could have used a mechanic, for example, but there wasn't one."
It was easier to recruit female staff for service in the lodges, he says: "They take pride in their job." He would also like to give management tasks to locals, but that is not so easy, he says. At least van Staden was able to poach Phinda's vice president of animal welfare. Asked if he could imagine Babanango one day managing itself autonomously, without people moving in, Weisser gives an honest answer: "Probably not in this generation."
To help the communities bordering the reserve, the Weissers founded the African Habitat Conservancy Foundation (AHCF) in mid-2020 and endowed it with six million South African rand, about 326000 euros. Additional money comes from the safari guests: half of their conservation fee is used for the foundation and half for animal welfare. The AHCF uses it to finance school supplies, boreholes with clean water, sporting events, veterinary visits by cattle farmers or the purchase of seeds for farmers who want to grow lettuce and vegetables for the lodges.
At the height of the pandemic, food parcels containing high-energy sorghum porridge were also distributed. Eric Buthelezi, a respected spokesman for the communities, is therefore full of praise for the German investor. "He takes great care to ensure that the development of our villages and animal welfare go hand in hand. What Mr Weisser does for us cannot be expressed in words at all. When I was growing up here, our people and our region were at best ignored and neglected by the apartheid government. Sometimes our homes were destroyed, men disappeared for long periods of time. When I see how closely white and black work together today, it's like a dream to me."
Weisser is clear that the reality is not quite so rosy. He is familiar with the critique of so-called philanthrocapitalism and the related call to decolonise conservation because the influence of wealthy animal rights activists would go too far, however well-intentioned. US author Stephanie Hanes, for example, complains in "White Man's Game" that this only creates new parks by whites for whites, and takes too little account of the needs of riparian communities. The accusation that private giving sometimes leads to a misallocation of capital is also heard again and again. A baby lion, he said, attracts more money than, say, the fate of the Rohingya forced to flee in Myanmar. "Yes, I suppose that's true," Hellmuth Weisser reflects, "but I still have a clear conscience. I think the creation of the African Habitat Conservancy Foundation is a good thing."
And yes, he is quite simply pleased that leopards and even caracals are once again being sighted in Babanango. That buffalo, kudu, wildebeest, nyala, zebra, bushbuck, waterbuck and impala roam the hills of the fenced reserve. And that at the same time, reptile and butterfly fans will get their money's worth. "We want to turn the land back into a pristine wilderness with the flora and fauna that was here hundreds of years ago."
He said a "bio-blitz", a recent "census" of wildlife, had shown that 40 per cent of all bird species in South Africa are now native here again. Nature is recovering, partly because cattle are no longer allowed to graze in the Game Reserve.
Hellmuth Weisser smiles that life has also become a little easier for his family as a result of his African adventure. "Before, they never knew what to get me for my birthday. Now I got four hippos from my oldest. What could be better?" ®
A visit to Babanango Game Reserve.
// Arrival: By charter flight from Durban or Johannesburg direct to Ulundi Airport, where you will be met by the lodge teams. By car the journey from Johannesburg takes seven hours, from Durban three and a half hours. The Game Reserve has a helipad. So you can also arrive by your own or chartered helicopter.
// Entry and Exit: Observe current Covid-19 protocols!
// Activities: game drives, mountain bike tours, treks and walking safaris, special tours for bird and butterfly enthusiasts, bush dinners, history & heritage excursions, spa treatments.
Author: Dr. Günter Kast