In 1993, around the time when Open Africa was conceived in the mind of its founder, Noel de Villiers, there were 97 websites in the world. By late 1995, when the organization was registered, the decision was made to move the initiative into the digital space by integrating Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology with the web. Today there are over 800-million websites and GIS has become part of everyday life.
In 1996 a journalist from Getaway Magazine interviewed Noel for an article about Open Africa. At the end of it he asked what do you wish for now, to which the answer was given that with this dream’s ramifications so large, something really helpful would be to draw a map of what it entails. Not long afterwards the then head of what is now the WWF, Dr John Hanks, visited Noel de Villiers with a copy of the map in his hand. Saying he was sent by renowned businessman and conservationist Dr Anton Rupert, he professed enthusiastically that this ‘dream’ coincided exactly with something Dr Rupert had in mind regarding transfrontier parks. Following this discussion and soon afterwards Dr Rupert established the Peace Parks Foundation, in which de Villiers was one of the founding trustees.
Later in 1996 Noel approached late South African president Nelson Mandela to be the organisation’s patron, which he remained until his passing in December 2013. Open Africa’s first travel route was launched in 1999 in the Overberg Region of South Africa and over the next five years Open Africa expanded its vision and routes into Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.
In 2007 the World Bank recognised Open Africa’s model as a tool to drive conservation and development in rural areas. This led to the expansion of the model in Zambia and Namibia through a four-year project. The model would again be recognised in 2013 by the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) that supported the adoption of the model as a vehicle for rural development by the Namibian government.
Thirty years from now there will be a far greater global emphasis on the environment and wildlife than ever imagined. Africa could be uniquely placed to occupy a niche that could be the equivalent of the industrial niche many developed nations occupy today.