Luxury with heart: Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy

A personal resolution was the catalyst for a broader philanthropic approach for the founder of industry powerhouse Abercrombie & Kent. Now the company’s not-for-profit arm is making a meaningful difference around the world.

In 1971, Geoff Kent went on his last hunt. The founder of luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent grew up in Kenya and had been hunting since childhood. But on this day, somewhere close to Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, he had a change of heart and put down his rifle. The company’s slogan became ‘hunt with a camera, not with a gun’.

A decade later, Kent took things a step further and Abercrombie & Kent began to raise funds for wildlife conservation in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Today, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (AKP) is a registered not-for-profit organisation with more than 30 projects operating worldwide and an annual budget of US$2.5 million. Projects range from elephant outreach with local communities in Botswana to a women’s mushroom farming cooperative in Chiang Mai and art workshops for disadvantaged Inuit youth in Arctic Canada. Keith Sproule is the executive director of AKP, joining the brand in 2014. Sproule has a long history in tourism and development, having worked as Tourism Business Advisor to the World Wildlife Fund in Namibia and been chairman of the International Ecotourism Society.

When Sproule met with Kent he was adamant – if they were going to do this, they were going to do it right. “We wanted to really make a difference in terms of what it means for a travel company or tour operators to give back,” he says. “I told Geoff at the start, it only works if we set a good standard and then try to elevate standards for the whole industry.” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Each of the programs is created in careful consultation with community leaders or local government and AKP has full-time development professionals working around the world. The programs are a long-term investment on the part of Abercrombie & Kent; the company continues to work with the communities over a number of years. “There’s a real commitment to genuinely giving back,” Sproule says. “It’s multi-year, programmatic, systematic – we’re not just airliftingin some soccer balls.”

The impact of the programs is far reaching. Providing school lunches does much more than just fill hungry bellies. It directly contributes to higher attendance levels, better test scores and gender parity in graduation, elevating the status of the school as a whole. Programs employ widows in the kitchen and use only locally produced ingredients to reduce the reliance on imported foods. Something as simple as lunch can have a huge positive impact on the entire community.

One of AKP’s newest projects is a maternity ward in Nakatindi Village, Zambia, built with a US$250,000 investment and opened in mid-November. The country has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world and the disease is often passed from mother to child. “The best way to get in front of it is to ensure births are taking place in a clean environment with medical professionals,” says Sproule. The local ministry has agreed to staff and supply the clinic, and the community will maintain and promote it. Women in the community who currently distribute antiretroviral drugs to those infected with HIV will encourage other women to attend.

Sproule is very clear that what Abercrombie & Kent do is not ‘voluntourism’, a practice that has begun to attract criticism within the industry. Guests will spend only an hour or two visiting their chosen project, speaking with community leaders and learning about the difference a school or well or maternity ward can really make. “Our goal is to put a framework of understanding in place so that when the guests have that time of genuine contact with the hosts they are given real insight into how the community is working to address their challenges.” Sproule is looking to create what he calls a “refrigerator moment”. Guests take thousands of photos on their trip, but the one that makes it onto the fridge is from the day they visited a local bike shop or worked with a wildlife researcher.

Many guests are so inspired that they continue to donate to the project long after their tour has ended. AKP guarantees 100 per cent of donations go to the nominated cause and, as a registered non-profit, all donations are tax deductible.

AKP commits to communicating with guests about the status of a project and providing a metric of understanding for what they are going to achieve. Though Sproule is justifiably proud of all AKP’s initiatives, his personal favourite is the Cambodia Clean Water Project, which has been running since 2008. Poor sanitation and waterborne disease are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Cambodia each year, with children under five the worst affected. Siem Reap is the second poorest district in the country, despite the fact that it is home to its most famous tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. Most people who live in the region do not benefit from the more than one million tourists who arrive each year. AKP has drilled at least 1,300 wells in Siem Reap, bringing clean water to more than 20,000 people. Each well costs US$400, a small sum when you consider what it offers in return. “The impact at that household level will change a family’s quality of life, health, income opportunities. It will transform their life experience.”

 

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