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Snapshots of Success from Developing Markets

In her first article in a series examining successful business models from developing markets, Cecilia Wandiga takes a closer look at the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary, a Ghanaian project which focuses on community development to achieve social, environmental and financial results.

Entity Name: Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary

Website: and

Business Partners:

Overview:  The Wechiau community is primarily inhabited by the Lobi people although the land belongs to the Wala people and the Lobi compensate the Wala chief for use of the land.  Established in 1998, the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary  is designated as a park and runs 40km long and 1.5km wide along each bank of Ghana’s Black Volta River.  It houses 17 villages, seven schools and two health clinics.  The Calgary Zoo became involved with the project in 1996, performing a feasibility study which was completed in 1998  which allowed the first tourist visitors to arrive in 1999. Official mutual acceptance between the Zoo and the Wechiau community did not occur until 2003. The project has been financially self-sufficient since 2006 and was  awarded a 2008 Equator Initiative prize.

Social Problem:  The location is remote and access roads are in poor condition; journey by road to Ghana’s capital, Accra, takes a full day.  Until the Sanctuary project began, there were neither schools in the community nor opportunities for gainful employment for the nearly 10,000 residents who live within the sanctuary boundaries. Training in skills such as English is hard due the lack of electricity  restricting the ability to work during the day and study at night. 

Environmental Problem: Hippopotamus are an endangered species in Ghana.  While they were once numerous, the hippo population in Western Africa has severely dwindled.  One estimate cites the population of hippos in West Africa is roughly 5% of total population of hippos in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The sanctuary’s hippo population varies between 15 and 17 hippos.  Hippos graze on land but spend most of their time in water.  While they are not carnivorous, they do attack those they perceive as invading their territory.  For humans this means that fishermen’s boats are bumped around or knocked over and on land they will exhibit hostile behavior.  As a result, humans will poach the hippos in order to eliminate the threat to their livelihood (i.e. the use of the river for fishing and the land for living).  In addition, the Black Volta River is infected with the guinea worm parasite making the water hazardous to humans.

Solution: Villagers moved all farms and fishing camps two kilometers away from the river. Since 2004, the Calgary Zoo has had a staff member living on-site year-round as a Sanctuary Advisor providing technical support to residents (to read Donna Sheppard’s updates click here).  Approximately a dozen full-time jobs have been created in the Sanctuary, including  guides, park wardens, cooks and maintenance staff.  Improvements to the area include a village and eco-tourism centre and a new primary school. Six water wells have built to provide clean drinking water for over two thousand people.  188 solar lights have been installed.  183 of the solar light recipient families were surveyed and the primary benefit being reported is education, specifically, the ability to study at night.

Business Model: Initial funding for operations came through tourism revenues from Earth Watch volunteers.  Earth Watch scientists served as both tourists and independent auditors for the project.  The Calgary Zoo provides staff and research support through its Conservation Fund.  In 1999 the sanctuary had its first tourists, a total of 17.  By 2008 annual tourists had increased to 1,815 of which 44% are international. Since 2006, revenues from gate sales (i.e. tourist visitors) have been able to completely cover operational expenses.  Gate sale revenues in 2008 totaled $14,439. 

Additionally, in 2005 the Zoo began selling artisan products (hand made clay hippo sculptures, hand made jewelry, paintings) in its retail store to support the project; the price per item ranges between $8.99 and $99.99.  Products are made by Sanctuary residents and proceeds go directly to the artists.  The Sanctuary was managed by a Peace Corps volunteer but is now managed by a Ghanaian administrator. 

Canadian Hydro is providing funding for solar powered lighting units.  The lights are built by Light Up The World Foundation.  In 2004, Canadian Hydro began to raise funds with a goal of $126,500 to cover the cost and installation of 550 solar powered lighting units (funding goal was attained by the end of 2005). The solar lights replaced kerosene fueled lamps, which were dirty, dangerous and expensive to operate.   .  The April 2005 goal was to install 512 lights in 229 compounds and 13 classrooms.  However, actual installation is taking substantially longer.  By the end of 2008, 439 (80%) of the 550 solar units were installed in 16 of the 17 villages.   Each recipient is required to pay $10 per solar unit; the funds are placed into a high interest savings account which covers the ongoing maintenance of the solar units.

At the request of the community, an Organic Shea Nut Cooperative was started in 2007.  716 women are registered and organic certification compliance is monitored by Eco-cert.  This project is still under development.  Plans for 2008 to 2010 include improving on boundary demarcation, construction of a new tourist lodge, creation of a headquarters compound, the creation of an environmental education program, biodiversity monitoring, improving ranger mobility, improved signage, materials and visitor transportation. The total development cost for these activities is $396,383.

Policy Implications: Overall the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary took 11 years from concept design to operational sustainability.  It has been highly beneficial to the community but does not follow the traditional 3 to 5 year profitability business model to which venture capital firms have become accustomed.  Focus is placed on letting the community set the pace for the project, which guarantees acceptance and true adoption of new technologies and behavioral patterns.  The community is also given the discretion to shape the project as they see fit.  Foreign partners are only present to lend ideas and technical assistance.  Reporting is done whenever a milestone is reached (not in predetermined time intervals such as quarterly reports).   Trust is gained by sharing experiences and long-term commitment, not by offering money.  Local community ownership of the land is  paramount so that the community feels secure and invested in its efforts. 

It is this model of compassionate community driven collaboration that has made the project successful.  Those interested in using this approach to create a sustainable social business model need to understand that the financial profitability for a project like this is a 15 to 20 year horizon.  Significant grant support revenues are needed to initiate the project as well as to create new components.  Total project return estimates must include social and environmental ROI because financial ROI alone will not justify the expense.



Equator Initiative:⟨=en


Conservation Source:


Mercy Corps


Natural Resources Institute


2008 Survey


Mampam Conservation


University of Calgary

Cecilia Wandiga is a self-described Responsibility and Empowerment Catalyst. She has a BA in Political Science and an MS in Public Policy. Her professional career includes work in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors with industries as diverse as education, city government, real estate and small business development. An entrepreneur in her own right, Cecilia founded and owns Her passion lies in using her skills to enable others to improve social and economic conditions for the less fortunate as well as contributing to our greater understanding and acceptance of each other as human beings. Cecilia also maintains a personal blog at

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