By Mantoe Phakathi
Nestled in a pristine forest and overlooking the Ngwempisi River is Khelekhele Community Eco-lodge – an unspoiled destination for a tourist who wants to connect with nature. Based at Velezizweni Chiefdom under Ngwempisi Inkhundla, in the outskirts of Eswatini’s commercial capital of Manzini, Khelekhele is a demonstration of the environmental conservation, tourism and livelihoods nexus.
“We have over 200 species of birds, in addition to the many different species of trees plus the river which makes the place attractive to tourists,” said Mlungisi Nxumalo, the Chairperson of Velezizweni Chiefdom Development Committee.
He said the beauty and tranquillity of the place is what draws tourists who are interested in hiking, camping, bird viewing and swimming. The lodge, which is operated on a solar system, draws water from a borehole and accommodates 12 people, is the cherry on top.
The eco-lodge was a result of a partnership betweenthe Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs and UNDP, through Eswatini National Trust Commission (ENTC) and the Velezizweni Trust. Through this partnership, a six-year Strengthening the National Protected Areas Systems (SNPAS) Project was implemented with $29 million funding from Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNDP and the Government of the Kingdom Eswatini.
The project also built a new eco-lodge at Luzelweni in the Manzini Region and refurbished Mhlumeni Bush Camp, and Shewula Mountain Camp (Lubombo Region). It also refurbished Khopho which is also under Velezizweni Trust. E2.5 million was invested in Khelekhele alone, which is the biggest chunk of the funding. Khelekhele Community Eco-lodge boasts of a chalet, a shared sleeping room, a communal dining area and ablution facilities. Over 8 900 people under Velezizweni Chiefdom are beneficiaries of the project.
Nxumalo said the most important impact of the project was that it trained the community to appreciate the value of the environment to their livelihoods. He said the community appreciates that the lodge, which will generate income and create jobs for the community, exists because of the surrounding environment which is ideal for tourism.
“As a result, conserving the environment has become a priority for this community because we now understand the link between the environment and income generation,” said Nxumalo.
Majaha Ngwenya, Ngwempisi Indvuna Yenkhundla, concurs with Nxumalo adding that people used to cut down trees and kill animals anyhow before the implementation of the project, a behaviour that has since changed.
“We appreciate the support that we received from UNDP and partners because we didn’t have a place to host community gatherings,” said Ngwenya. He noted that community-based tourism does not only encourage a deeper connection between the host and visitor but it also promotes environmental protection, cultural exchange, social responsibility and the enhancement of livelihoods.
Both Ngwenya and Nxumalo formed part of the Velezizweni Chiefdom delegation which met UNDP Resident Representative, Ms. Rose Ssebatindira, who visited the facility on 24 September, ahead of World Tourism Day on September 27 under the theme “Tourism for Inclusive Growth”. Ms. Ssebatindira was leading a delegation of about 30 UNDP staff members who visited Khelekhele to appreciate the work of the project in partnership with the community. The UNDP delegation also got an opportunity to explore the facility and the beautiful surroundings that put Khelekhele in a class of its own.
“The tourism investment is critical to the direct benefit of the community for the conservation of the environment,” said Ms. Ssebatindira, adding: “Once the community sees the direct benefit – job creation and income generation – they are most likely to protect the environment which attracts the tourists and also look after this infrastructure.”
What made Ssebatindira even more optimistic about the sustainability of the investment is that the community contributed 2000 hectares of land to the project which is part of where the lodge is built. She said this speaks volumes about the community’s commitment to this investment,” said Ms. Ssebatindira.
She said Khelekhele is a project that speaks to many of the Sustainable Development Goals with an ultimate contribution to SDG 1 – ending poverty by 2030. She noted the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector but she was quick to add that Eswatini has a big enough tourism market to sustain Khelekhele and urged the UNDP staff to visit the place and to spread the word.
Speaking at the same event, SNPAS project manager, Lindani Mavimbela, said the community was trained to understand the management of an eco-tourism business. The training included financial and business management, risk management and fire management to protect the facility should there be a fire outbreak.
“We’re trying to leave this place as pristine as we found it with a little bit of management,” said Mavimbela.