The little-known lush Lepis woodland has the potential to transform the lives of the 2,000 community members in its midst - if they can successfully develop a sustainable community tourism business, as other communities have done in Ethiopia. Without any facilities as of yet, the site is one of the Rift Valley's best kept secrets.
Tashita Bararit, volunteer Lepis guide, turns around to see the reaction of the people he has just led to base of Lepis Falls. His smile reflects what he sees in their faces.
Imagine a place with a lush green forest, full of life, a rich multilayered under storey teaming with birdlife, many of them endemic. Imagine a cool oasis full of secluded nooks and crannies interlinked by trekking trails. Imagine an 80 meter waterfall tucked away in the grotto of a cliff, towering above and cascading down into a pool below, with birds flitting back and forth to cleanse their feathers in the cool mist.
That is a description of the natural resources of Lepis, a collection of four communities only 30km from the main road that connects Addis Abeba with Hawassa (Awassa). The turnoff is right before the Shashemane junction, at Arsi Negele, 231km from Addis Abeba.
Until the USAID funded Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) was tipped off by the Arsi Negele Concern for Environment Development Association (ANCEDA) and until ESTA brought various stakeholders in the tourism industry to Lepis, many of the community members had no idea that they were sitting on a potential income generating resource.
"An ignorant person gets thirsty as the water flows right past him," Lepis community member Ahmad Woya said in regard to his community's previous lack of awareness.
ESTA took Lepis community members to Adaba Dodola, which has already been developed into a successful sustainable community tourism project with the help of GTZ. They were then able to see for themselves the benefits of protecting and utilising such natural resources.
Sustainable tourism expert Brad Weiss has been working with ESTA for almost a year and a half.
"We do not want to tell the communities what to do. We just guide and facilitate the process," he said. "It has to be their project from the start."
ESTA has currently identified six potential communities to work with for the rest of the five-year programme. It is currently developing business plans for two of them, including Lepis.
ESTA is partnering with community conservation areas (CCAs), the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Gambo District of the Arsi Forest Enterprise, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS), SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, Horn of Africa Regional Environmental Centre (HOAREC), Selam Environmental Development Association (SEDA), ANCEDA, Hawassa University, and George Washington University in Washington D.C. ESTA has additional partners for other related projects.
Lizzie Weber and Ryan Foster from George Washington University came to Ethiopia for two weeks ending today, March 28, 2010, to guide the business proposal creation process for the community at Lepis and write up the things the community discussed and decided on during their meetings at the edge of the towering forest.
During one such meeting on Tuesday, they mostly just asked questions to help guide the process and took notes. This ensured that the motivation for the project and ideas for the business proposal came from the community members themselves.
The community members discussed where to locate a campsite within the forest. They selected four potential sites that were secluded, safe, scenic and accessible.
Another important part of the business proposal was the mission statement for the ecotrekking community venture, said Sintayehu Gurmessa, student head of Academic Affairs and graduating class member of Hawassa University's Hotel and Tourism Management School.
"The mission statement reads, 'By conserving our natural environment and using it for ecotourism development, we will improve the livelihoods of our community,'" he said.
A risk evaluation process was also tackled by the community, covering various doubts and fears regarding the project.
"What if the forest is cut or the wildlife poached?" Weber asked the 30 community members who attended the meeting. "This will also take a lot of difficult work, long meetings, and physical labour, and what if people in the community lose interest?" she questioned.
Foster was additionally concerned about whether there were times of the year when everyone in the community was busy, such as during harvest time. Even though the area is green year-round and the waterfall and river flows continuously, the community said there were such occasions.
Lepis is so beautiful and full of birdlife that some tour operators who were brought to get acquainted with the area said they could start bringing tourists even before any development work was done. This underlined the marketability of the site.
"The main thing is that these projects must be market based, otherwise a lot of work will be done for nothing," said Weiss.
He has experience working on sister projects in four other countries including Ecuador, Mali, the Dominican Republic, and Uganda, under the umbrella organisation Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance.
Another key to success is getting all the stakeholders to cooperate, all the way from outbound tour operators in market countries to the communities at the individual sites visited, from government offices to NGOs, even airlines.
"It is really important to get the whole system in the room," he said.
Some of the players know more than others and can help everyone including themselves by sharing their information. Everyone has to at least know their role in building a successful tourism market, he explained.
The timing for Lepis is great. Other birding locations such as Wondo Genet are being degraded and dropping off tourism itineraries.
On Friday, George Washington University students shared the podium with students from Hawassa University including Tekalign Lemma who introduced the team at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Archives near National Theatre on Sudan Street. The presentation was attended by Minister Tadelech Dalecho and almost 50 other people, many of whom were from tour operations based in Addis Abeba.
"Africa was the only world region to experience tourism growth in 2009 with international arrivals increasing by five per cent," began Weber.
But, she shared a bar graph depicting Ethiopia as the 23rd most popular country in Africa for international arrivals behind Madagascar. Egypt, South Africa, and Morocco were first, second, and third.
The George Washington University students identified bird watching as one of the most undeveloped sources of tourism income, due to its current low market share and lucrative nature of such tours which typically involve wealthier travellers who stay longer and spend more money. This was especially good news for Lepis, which has at least five endemic birds according to Tedesse Hailu of EWNHS.
Lepis will be competing with five other communities for continued support from ESTA.
"The amazing thing is that the community took the initiative to improve trails, and they even made a makeshift bridge over the Lepis River and served us lunch," said Jessie McComb, an ESTA consultant who recently joined the Lepis project with Mekonnen Gebre Egziabher who has been working on the project for nine months.
Mekonnen is frustrated with the undeveloped state of Ethiopia's tourism sector after decades of hold-ups during the Derg regime. He hopes that people will put the time and effort necessary into developing Ethiopia's true potential.
Some of the tour operators at the presentation on Friday voiced their eagerness to help Lepis develop its true planned project.
"That is the hope," said Weiss. "The nature of ESTA's project, like all donor projects, is that it has a limited lifetime, in this case five years."
Lepis can currently be visited as a day trip from Langano or Hawassa, but there is currently no accommodation (even campsites) for longer stays or any significant, well maintained trails for that matter. All this as well as a hygienic food a beverage service is part of the business plan for the small community of 2,000, tucked away in the foothills west of the Bale Mountains.