Startups Playbook: How I Channelled My Passion for Conservation into Building an Ecotourism Business
Conservation enthusiast Lara Dendy Young is at the forefront of the rapidly growing ecotourism movement. A passionate entrepreneur and recipient of an Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Scholarship as a ‘Future Female in Conservation’, Lara completed her MBA at the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation. As the co-founder of Conservio, a new platform that enables sustainable and transformative travel experiences, she is committed to safeguarding ecosystems for future generations.
Lara shares her journey of launching a startup during the Covid-19 pandemic, how she’s harnessing the power of digital innovation to address inefficiencies in African tourism, and her ambitions to grow Conservio into the go-to platform for planet positive travel across Africa and the globe.
A Passion for Conservation
From a young age, I had a strong affinity for wild spaces, wildlife and, of course, travelling in Africa. So many of my early memories consist of driving around the bush, going on forest walks or long road trips, with my parents pointing out different birds, trees and animals, as they explained how each fitted into their small but essential ecosystems. I was fascinated by the interlinked systems of the natural world and how everything had its role.
I have always been in awe of Africa’s raw beauty, along with the incredible innovation and entrepreneurial drive that exists throughout the continent.
During my teenage years, I started learning about biodiversity loss and how this was happening at an unprecedented rate. I couldn’t help thinking about how many ecosystems were being disturbed and destroyed and what this could mean on a global level. I decided to choose a career path that would contribute to protecting the precious ecosystems that I admired and loved.
Even though I studied in the United States, I was drawn to returning to Africa and building a future that would enable me to contribute to this continent and keep my passion alive. I have always been in awe of Africa’s raw beauty, along with the incredible innovation and entrepreneurial drive that exists throughout the continent. There is so much opportunity on this continent and a willingness to work hard to make things happen.
Learning through Experience
My first professional window into the conservation-tourism industry was through Classic Portfolio, where an industry pioneer, Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, mentored me. This role allowed me to travel extensively across Africa and experience the outcome of successful conservation first-hand. It helped me gain in-depth insight into how crucial (good) tourism is to sustainable conservation. I quickly identified the inefficiencies in tourism from a commercial point of view and how these directly translated to conservation. I was encouraged to put my business hat on and start thinking of solutions.
In October 2019, I was awarded the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Scholarship as a ‘Future Female in Conservation’ to complete my MBA at the African Leadership University in Rwanda. This 18-month journey dived into building businesses in Africa for Africans, developing effective leadership, understanding conservation economics and what it takes to ensure long-term sustainability and viability. Whilst completing my MBA, I conceptualised and built Conservio with my co-founders, Justin Rijnberg & Bas Hostenbach. It was an incredible opportunity for a cross-pollination of ideas and learnings!
Ecotourism for Impact
I firmly believe that if people travel this continent, they will want to contribute to its thriving future. Travel creates ambassadors for change.
Ecotourism is used as a vehicle to support the protection of biodiversity, growth of communities, preservation of culture and achievement of economic viability. Without tourism, most of our wild spaces would cease to exist, and the knock-on effect of decreasing tourism in Africa would be catastrophic. Most importantly, ecotourism in Africa is incredible — we have some of the most diverse, unique and exciting offerings globally. We want to educate and enable people to become conscious travellers and expose them to the very best of this continent. I also firmly believe that if people travel this continent, they will want to contribute to its thriving future. Travel creates ambassadors for change.
Addressing Inefficiencies in African Tourism
Responsible ecotourism is the best tool to combat biodiversity loss at scale. However, I don’t believe the tourism industry in Africa is operating optimally or efficiently. The Covid-19 pandemic brought this to light. It is not sustainable for the industry to operate on deep channels with high margins and high operational costs, making African tourism too expensive and decreasing our resilience to change. Conservio was established to support ecolodges in building resilience by creating a direct channel to the market, growing awareness around impactful stays and experiences, and generating interest outside of the high seasons. We are building a platform that aims to increase efficiencies for our partners, the ecolodges.
We aim to be THE platform for planet positive travel across the globe.
I have always been struck by how difficult it is to find and book ecolodges from a consumer perspective. There is no single platform that makes this process enjoyable and simple. If you are looking online, you will likely be inundated by too much information, uninspiring photography, and logistical knowledge gaps. The adoption of digital technology has also become a significant trend across Africa and the globe, but the ecotourism industry is yet to catch up. The booking process still requires many back and forth emails and phone calls. It’s ready for an upgrade! People are far too tech-savvy to be booking in this way.
We wanted to create an online space that solves all of this and makes booking travel in Africa easy, accessible and enjoyable — all in one place! Our tech speeds up the entire booking process and adopts a quick, at-your-fingertips approach.
We aim to be the platform for planet positive travel across the globe — and we want to ensure that we can increase revenue to a curated and handpicked selection of ecolodges who create meaningful impact for the environments in which they operate. We want to change the conservation narrative to focus on biodiversity protection and its different facets — people, environments, and economies.
Looking to the Future
Launching a business during the pandemic has had its challenges, especially with building a new team and company culture. We had a remote first team (with team members located in South Africa, Uganda, the UK & Kenya) and did not meet in person for the beginning stages of operations. Although this has been difficult at times, we have developed strong channels of communication and created a space where our team is empowered to take the initiative and reach out for collaboration. We are also looking to meet periodically and focus on building structures to get to know each other.
I love problem-solving for impact, and the fact that you can build a business around that is the most exciting part.
We are an Africa-first company and intend to keep this at the core of our business. We aim to develop diverse teams in major hubs across both Southern & Eastern Africa. Aside from our ambition to be the first direct marketplace for ecotourism, we also want to focus on enabling resident/local travel. This is, sadly, a largely overlooked demographic but incredibly important. Not only do we want to create local ambassadors for travel, but we want to contribute to more of an inclusive industry and increase year-round bookings by strategically using these channels.
I love problem-solving for impact, and the fact that you can build a business around that is the most exciting part. There have been so many highlights along this journey — most recently, the launch of our new platform and the first booking we received. It’s a small reward for a tremendous amount of work. However, the most rewarding aspect continues to be the validation we get from ecolodges that we are building something that will make a difference.