Interview with Jenna Seiden, Co-Founder of Zambezi Partners
Zambezi Partners mission is zero poaching through venture capital and technology. Zambezi Ventures invests in high growth industries in sub-Saharan Africa in parallel with deploying The Zambezi Project, a SaaS platform of anti-poaching technologies for protected wildlife areas reserves.
Please tell us more about Zambezi Ventures. What inspired you to build this investment firm?
Zambezi Partners is overhauling the war against poaching through venture capital with Zambezi Ventures and technology with the Zambezi Project.
We created an ecosystem model whereby investments made in high growth sectors in sub-Saharan Africa deliver returns for investors without sacrificing profits and purposely stimulate the economy, creating jobs and lowering poverty levels for those once dependent on poaching income. We are a triple-bottom line fund focusing on profit, people, and the planet. In tandem, with the Zambezi Project we deploy a scalable anti-poaching tech stack and predictive AI-based IoT platform in the region, directly combating illegal activity.
Unbeknownst to each other upon meeting in 2018 while consulting for a European impact fund, we were independently lifelong conservationists in our personal lives. Our mutual dedication to the issue and shared sentiment of a lack of progress in conservation, specifically that species were still disappearing and at a faster rate despite all the time and money we assumed was going towards this battle, served as the foundation for our inevitable solution. We started by asking ourselves the simple question, “If conservation was our client, how would we approach and solve the problem?”
I am a Connecticut Yankee who went West to become a Hollywood talent agent only to happily land at the intersection of media and technology working in acquisitions and partnerships; My family also once ran the largest domestic and wildlife animal sanctuary in the Northeast. My classically schooled engineer, Netherlands-born business partner, Bastiaan den Braber, is a former management consultant and emerging tech entrepreneur; He is also a certified FGASA field guide in Africa and wildlife photographer. To answer the above question, we humbly yet proudly looked at our respective professional experience advising on investment and market entry strategy for some of the biggest media and tech players in the business, acknowledged our decades-long established network of innovators, paired it with our entrepreneurial spirit and some Silicon Valley pixie dust to conclude we needed to commercialize conservation.
We identified two main problems. The traditional landscape for wildlife and biodiversity conservation support comes from philanthropic or academic organizations. Measuring their effectiveness comes down to many factors, from overhead costs, transparency, governance, leadership, and results. However, in our evaluation those variables are moot when minimums of total funds raised go towards the cause and efficacy lacks as proven in wildlife population declines. We then looked at the innovations in technology, from infrared cameras to animal collars to drones to data visualization software, only to discover these beneficent inventions are built in silos, often uninformed of the specs of complementary products from competitors in what economists would call co-opetition. This creates unintended friction and possible dire consequences for those at-risk locations who need to wisely allocate limited resources in what they are hoping to be easy to integrate, result-oriented solutions.
Then after careful diligence of the sub-Saharan economy, the political climate across countries and our on-the ground relationships across sectors and even generations, we set up Zambezi Ventures to first launch in the former breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe. Its challenges offer unlimited potential and the beauty of the land and its people are unparalleled. The investment opportunities in agriculture, eco-tourism, technology, and micro-financing abound, making our thesis of using finance and technology to not only accelerate change, but to stop poaching in our lifetime achievable. Zambezi Ventures is fiscally beneficial for all stakeholders and the most measurably impactful for the socially conscious.
Share with us more about the African wildlife. How is your VC aiming to solve its conservation challenge?
Every 15 minutes an elephant is killed for its ivory tusks. That is about 100 lost a day. They will be extinct in less than 10 years at this rate. Everyday 4 giraffes, 3 rhinos, 2 lions, and 300 pangolin are illegally poached. In less than thirty years, all of this wildlife will be gone. The Northern White Rhino left us completely in 2018. The most endangered large carnivore, the African Wild Dog, has lost 98% of its population with only an estimated 6,600 left in the whole of Africa. The list goes on.
Although Africa seems so far away to many, what people need to realize is that when a species leaves the planet it has a global cascading effect on the environment and the economy. When hunters kill key species, it triggers secondary extinctions affecting the whole ecosystem, from other animals to plant loss. The disruption to the biodiversity balance ripples worldwide. International criminal organizations make the illegal wildlife trade a $70B – $213B a year industry. At the final destination markets, ivory retails for $3,000/kg and rhino horn for over $60,000/kg. Locally, poachers make only $500 per kill, but this is comparable to a farmer’s annual income which makes poaching financially incentivized. Poaching infringes on the natural resources of countries and the wealth of their businesses. With our investment fund, we bring cash flow to spur these depleted but high potential economies. Zambezi Ventures is built around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 1 (No Poverty), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and 15 (Life on Land). With this as our DNA and a goal of financial and impact-driven ROI, we flip the stagnant model of depending upon philanthropy.
Philanthropy is noble but does not stimulate economic growth at scale nor does it incentivize financial independence. We recognize many factors that go into increasing a country’s GDP but studying how the Zimbabwean economy historically moved forward and its geo-political setbacks, we navigate our investment strategy to bring out the best of this country within these parameters. By setting up a traditional fund, with a recognizable structure and conventional sector investment targets, we aim to deliver profits and do good. We are not a classic impact fund, but a fund that has impact. We believe an investor does not have to sacrifice returns because the priority is to first do good. Our diversified portfolio strategy weighted towards verified industry sector comps mitigates risk, projecting higher than market level returns and inextricably driving economic impact on the ground. The uptick in jobs and lowering of poverty level compels those once dependent on poaching to new safer, honest, reliable and rewarding financial opportunities.
Why are the philanthropic efforts to curb poaching have proven ineffective and fiscally wasteful?
We have immense respect for the public and private conservation philanthropies and foundations, but there is overhead waste and creative accounting from select groups. In addition, budgets bestowed to protected areas and sanctuaries are increasingly being indiscriminately lowered without explanation or warning. There is great momentum to compel transparency in financing and redefine what is called ‘overhead ratios’ when evaluating non-profit effectiveness, but that is time consuming and political. We decided to leave that accountability to more bureaucratic and watchdog entities, instead avoiding the politics by deploying an alternative and profitable economic approach.
We work with amazing conservation partners on the ground in Zimbabwe. They have dedicated their lives for over two decades to rescuing and rewilding orphaned elephants among their menagerie of other animals. They are representative of the many sanctuaries and protected areas dependent on philanthropies yet are bound by many NGO dictated budget and operational constraints. These hindrances are not only distractions from their everyday operations of minding the animals but also make it nearly impossible for conservationists to efficiently plan for and invest in the technologies out there proving to deliver massive fiscal and ecological efficacy. We seek to decrease the friction and maximize the impact that these amazing people can have by providing a no-nonsense, apolitical, pragmatic, and impact-oriented integrated economic and technology approach.
What makes your geographical focus, sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest return on direct foreign investment in the world? Why did you decide to focus specifically on Zimbabwe?
One cannot choose poorly in today’s world where to contribute time and money. Even though we come from different parts of the globe, we ironically were both drawn to Africa early on. Combining the attraction of the people and land with the opportunity in this emerging market, it was natural for us to entrench ourselves in the history and the current culture. In 2018, when we began our journey, the World Economic Forum declared that half of the world’s fastest growing economies have been in Africa. Population growth in middle- and upper-classes will stimulate higher demand for goods and services and infrastructure investments are teeming in the region. The Harvard Business Review prognosticates that Africa has the potential to become “the world’s next great manufacturing center,” where jobs once held by workers in China will migrate to Africa.
As we did our diligence, fate brought us to Zimbabwe and the aforementioned conservationists with whom we now are blessed to work alongside. Their progressive thinking how to evolve the conservation space with technology and investment aligned with ours. Each side independently formed this hypothesis and is willing to test it. This led us to dive deeper into the Zimbabwean landscape, identify its opportunities and challenges and commit to deploying our energies there. As more attention is focused on high profile countries such as South Africa and Kenya, we found Zimbabwe to offer a wealth of positivity and opportunity for us to be early movers in this region.
Please tell us more about the types of sectors your fund is allocating capital for.
Zimbabwe was once known as the “Jewel of Africa”. We invest in innovative and early-growth stage businesses with clear exit potential. Our diversification strategy, to mitigate risk and optimize portfolio performance, range between stable, high return ventures such as eco-tourism and agriculture – specifically cannabis – to new, disruptive high-growth businesses in technology, and directly supporting local communities with microfinance investments. Everything is viewed through our lens as a triple-bottom line fund where these investments are based on financial returns and direct effect on the communities in terms of reducing poverty rates and providing alternative income sources to poaching.
How can our readers get involved?
We welcome the opportunity to share more about how finance and technology are transforming the conservation space and how we are being recognized globally to amplify the discussion. We of course also gladly accept inquiries on the LP opportunities with Zambezi Fund I. Ours is a model meant to be replicated across the region and plans to eradicate poaching in our lifetime with the support of like-minded socially conscious investors.