How One Small African Island Is Setting the Standard for Sustainability
Ecotourism company HBD Príncipe offers immersive experiences for guests in the central African island country of São Tomé & Príncipe—while striving to improve the lives of the people on the island.
Birds are the soundtrack of Príncipe. Two-thirds of the island, 150 miles off Gabon and the west coast of mainland Africa, is a designated national park, and its cloaking rain forest is a symphony of whistles and pings. From high up in the branches comes the raucous squall of a pair of African grey parrots. I’m still watching them clatter through the canopy when my guide Wilbuir Tavares points out a Dohrn’s thrush-babbler, a vocal little endemic whose high-pitched twittering is bouncing off the oca trees around us.
We are working our way up the lower reaches of Pico do Príncipe, a phonolithic tower that pokes 680 meters above the forest floor. It was formed, like the rest of the island, by volcanic activity more than 30 million years ago. At occasional breaks in the foliage, Príncipe stands before me. Jungle has swallowed everything in sight, marching down to the coast on all sides. I don’t think I’ve seen anything so intensely pristine.
Through a gap in the trees, the little-and-large peaks of João Dias Filho (Son) and João Dias Pãe (Father) loom, perfectly framed, like a still from a Jurassic Park movie. Through another we can see the corrugated roof of a disused palm-oil plantation, in what seems like the only clearing on the island. “Things could have been so different,” says Wilbuir, motioning toward the building. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if HBD had never come here. I sometimes wonder what would happen if they ever left.”
In February, I visited the smaller half of São Tomé & Príncipe with Far & Wild, to explore an island in the Gulf of Guinea. Remote and isolated, Príncipe’s rain forest and reefs are among the most biodiverse on Earth. But things, as Wilbuir says, could have been so different.
São Tomé & Príncipe is on the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries, and in 2010 the national government was on the verge of allowing 1,000 hectares (2,474 acres) of land to be cleared for palm-oil production. Enter Mark Shuttleworth. The South African tech billionaire, who made his money in internet security, had arrived in Príncipe looking for a retreat halfway between Cape Town and his base on the Isle of Man. He liked what he saw and, as billionaires often do, decided to invest. In 2010, he founded HBD Príncipe (HBD), a sustainable ecotourism and agroforestry company, charging it with protecting the island’s biodiversity and igniting a mission for Príncipe to become an inspirational example of sustainable development.
I start at Roça Sundy, in the northwest of the island, once the second largest cacao plantation on Príncipe and now one of three hotels that Shuttleworth has built on concessions granted from the regional government. When the Portuguese “discovered” Príncipe around 1470, the island was uninhabited. They established sugar (briefly), coffee, and cacao plantations, using slaves from West Africa and indentured laborers from Cape Verde, Mozambique, and Angola, the descendants of whom still live and work in the grounds of Roça Sundy. The men harvest cacao and the women hand-sort the beans in huge dryers for HBD’s small-batch chocolate factory. But plans are afoot to distribute the wealth further.
“We want to make the plantation more socially inclusive,” Jon McLea, HBD’s agricultural director, tells me as we look down over the rows of cacao trees from Roça Sandy’s terrace. He explains how a scheme they’re piloting at the end of the year will divide up the company’s Paciência plantation into five-hectare plots, with each plot given to a local family to run. HBD will buy their cacao and pepper; any yams, sweet potatoes, or bananas that the families farm they keep for themselves.
The next day, I set off on a bumpy track across the island to Praia Grande, a wide slip of shelving beach on Príncipe’s northeast coast. It’s an important breeding ground for green, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles, and in February their eggs are starting to hatch. At the far end of the beach, Halton Carvalho is waiting to show us Nest 288. He works for ProTetuga, the turtle-conservation arm of Fundação Príncipe, a local nonprofit set up by HBD in 2015. There has been some recent movement in the sand, and we are soon watching green turtle hatchlings scrambling for the sea. Only 1 in 1,000 make it through to adulthood, but those that do will start returning to this very same beach in 25 years to lay eggs of their own.
Halton calls himself “the Turtle Protector” and tells me how he guards the beach, monitors the nests, and shows visitors round Kaxí Tetuga, a marine-life museum built by the residents of Praia Grande Norte. Money from turtle-watching and visits to the museum go directly to the local community.
Turtle-watching on Praia Grande is part of a program of immersive experiences that HBD offers its guests. Many of them plunge travelers into Príncipe’s wilder side, showing off the island’s rich biodiversity on climbs up Pico do Papagaio, hikes to hidden waterfalls, and boat trips to the Baía das Agulhas, where snorkeling reveals a kaleidoscope of coral-reef fish.
Other excursions shine a light on HBD’s work with local communities. At the workshop of the Cooperativa de Valorização dos Resíduos Ilha do Príncipe, on the edge of Santo Antonio, the island’s tiny capital, Zinha Gomes shows me how she makes jewelry from glass bottles collected from the beach.
It takes a day, in one-hour shifts, just to grind the glass down into sand, which is then baked in a mould and smoothed; she learned the technique on an HBD-sponsored trip to Ghana. Zinha started the co-operative in 2016 with nine other local women, who all made a small income harvesting giant land snails but were concerned about the impact this could have on the national park. The original idea was to transform the crushed sand into construction material, but the work was “too much for too little,” according to Zinha. Even now, a pair of earrings sells for just €6, although that’s good money in a country where the average income is less than €1 a day.
One of HBD’s main aims is to show how private investors can work together with regional governments and local organizations for the greater good. Within two years of the company’s foundation, their combined efforts saw Príncipe designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But there have been recent signs of environmental damage on the island: trees illegally felled, agriculture encroaching on the national park.
Príncipe’s regional government is working with the United Nations to make the island “a global reference of biodiversity conservation” by 2030, although the UN admits that the country’s institutional capacity to sustainably manage and safeguard its natural resources remains limited.
So HBD is countering with a “Natural Dividend,” an initiative to turn abstract benefits like conservation into tangible benefits for the people. It will compensate Príncipe’s residents for rewilding their land, for example, or for choosing to preserve a richer diversity of trees at the expense of agricultural profit.
“It’s a fusion of universal basic income and a payment for the people’s role as custodians of the Biosphere Reserve,” Malcom Couch, HBD’s CEO, tells me. He is clearly driven by the chance to make a difference, talking earnestly about the company’s social responsibility and environmental stewardship. “The last thing we want to do is to patronize the people of Príncipe” he explains, “but what we’re actually saying is, ‘This is your patrimony. How can we help you?’”
It’s a line that sums up HBD. And its holistic approach to the places—and the people—of this remarkable island.
How to visit Príncipe
HBD owns three hotels on Príncipe: the converted plantation house at Roça Sunday; the flagship Sundy Praia, a dozen or so tented villas hidden in rain forest on the ocean’s edge; and Bom Bom, Shuttleworth’s first hotel here, which will reopen after extensive renovations in mid-2024. Far & Wild organizes tailor-made trips to Príncipe, which include half-board stays at Roça Sundy and Sundy Praia, one HBD activity per day, return international flights to São Tomé, and internal flights between São Tomé and Príncipe.