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A series of profiles on personalities in the Namibian tourism industry
by Sven-Eric Kanzler
Albi Brückner: Businessman and Patron of Nature
“Hobbies: Wildlife Conservation.” This modest phrase refers to one of the largest and most successful private-sector conservation projects in Africa. It is written at the bottom of the curriculum vitae of Johann-Albrecht (Albi) Brückner, owner of the flourishing company Namibia Engineering Corporation (NEC) and founder of Namib-Rand Nature Reserve in south-western Namibia, south of Sesriem/ Sossusvlei. The 1 800 square kilometre nature reserve is a popular tourist destination that is known far beyond Namibia’s borders.
It all began almost exactly 20 years ago when Albi Brückner bought farm Gorrasis at an auction. Many farmers at the edge of the Namib, following the crippling drought of 1984 coupled with the worldwide collapse of the karakul industry in the early eighties, were forced to give up their farms. So why does a businessman involved in technical products buy a farm with which the previous owner could obviously not make a living? “I grew up on a farm,” Brückner explains. “Ever since my father sold our farm in 1964, I felt the need to live in the countryside again, at least occasionally.”
Albi Brückner, born on August 14, 1930, in Windhoek, spent his childhood at farm Okazize near Okahandja. When he was four years old, his mother Ruth died. His father, Gotthard, moved to Germany in 1936, and Albi started school in Wolgast in Pomerania and continued in Potsdam. After the war he returned to Namibia and matriculated at Windhoek High School. From 1949 to 1954 Brückner was a trainee with Barclays Bank (today the First National Bank). This was followed by ten years of work and further training as a technical merchant with Lurgi Agencies (an agency for MAN, amongst others) in Johannesburg. In 1955 he married Antje, whom he’d known from childhood.
Back in Namibia in 1959, the 29-year-old became a partner of the South West Engineering Company (SWE, renamed NEC in 1990), which trades in pumps and other farm equipment. “I often travelled to the south for SWE. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this on record, but I prefer the spaces of the south to the bush savannahs of the north. I like the open vistas.” Brückner says. And he finds the desert fascinating. “One evening I was sitting on a dune at Gorrasis for sundowners with my farm manager, Helmut Schumann. Suddenly he turned very quiet, and I asked him what was up. He answered: Just imagine, here we are and for the next 10 000 km there is absolutely nothing – first the sand, then the ocean and then, somewhere, South America.”
In 1986 Brückner acquired the neighbouring farm, Stellarine; in 1987 Wolwedans and Jagkop; and in 1990, Die Duine. Initially he continued farming. Then, in the early nineties, he invited an expert from Zimbabwe, David Peddie, to develop a utilisation plan. Peddie’s advice to Albi was that he convert the farms into a nature reserve. No sooner said than done. Fences were dismantled, car wrecks and rusted drums were taken to Maltahöhe, waterholes were dug for the game. Game numbers, previously virtually decimated by extensive hunting, soon started to increase. “After good rains last December I counted more than 1 000 springbok, 300 gemsbok and a large number of zebra in an area with a diameter of about 4 km,” says Brückner, his eyes sparkling. Since then we’ve added 50 wildebeest, and three giraffe were released last year.
The funds required to manage the reserve are raised through a “gentle” form of tourism. The number of visitors is limited to a ratio of one bed per 2 000 ha. “My youngest son Stephan has put his heart into the project,” Albi Brückner says proudly. “He’s the one who developed Wolwedans.” By now Wolwedans consists of three establishments with a total of 36 beds. The older son Andreas and his wife Mandy transformed the farmhouse at Stellarine into a “family hideout” for Namibians.
In return for their business concession, these establishments transfer part of their income directly to the reserve, which today consists of 13 farms (held by nine owners). The same system applies to Namib Sky Adventure Safaris (hot-air ballooning), Tok Tokkie Trails (desert hikes) and Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge. Garbage is taken to Mariental for disposal; firewood is brought from outside the reserve. “Protecting nature is the highest priority,” Brückner emphasises. Economic interests are secondary. Nevertheless, NamibRand is one of the few private reserves that survive without subsidies, he says. “We’ve even managed to accumulate reserve funds, which can be used for reintroducing local animal species or purchasing more land.”
Local communities also benefit from the care bestowed on the land. “More than 100 people are employed – a lot more than were previously engaged in farming,” Brückner stresses. And their living standards have improved immensely. They live in brick houses with water and electricity. All people are remunerated substantially better than previously and will receive a pension to cover old age. Workers are also able to improve their positions: two members of the local Nama community, Erich Simon and Lazarus Isaaks, have already advanced to lodge and camp manager respectively.
And the future? Albi Brückner still has many plans. Even though – or perhaps because – he transferred the management of his company, NEC, to his sons Andreas and Nico in July 2001, he still seems far from “retired”. Current plans include a research centre, in co-operation with the Desert Research Station at Gobabeb. Warden Peter Bridgeford’s initiative to protect the Lappetfaced vulture is already supported by the reserve. Other plans involve a cheetah project, possibly with transmitters for satellite tracking. Educating people and raising awareness of the environment is also high on the agenda.
Despite his success as a businessman and patron of nature Albi Brückner’s feet are firmly on the ground. He does not speak of NamibRand as its co-owner, but as a custodian. He likes to tell the story of a journalist who encountered a snake in the desert and was told by his guide to leave it alone “because the snake belongs here and we are the guests”. Where does this humility come from? Perhaps from his master, the desert. Perhaps because Albi Brückner has not forgotten that he worked hard for what he has achieved. He recalls the years of his bank training when he played his accordion in Seeis and Aris Hotel. “Well, I got my supper and a little bit of pocket-money,” he says with a smile.
This article appeared in the April ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.