Bushwise founder Sophie Niemann is originally from the UK, but found her calling in the African bush. Now based in Hoedspruit, South Africa, Sophie shares her story from arriving in Africa to establishing the world-class field guide training company that is Bushwise Field Guides.
My story might sound familiar to many other international arrivals who long to work in the wildlife and conservation industry. When I first came to Africa, many moons ago, I struggled to get a foot in the door to live my dream of working with large African mammals. After a long, slow road, I decided to train on my own to become a field guide and gain the experience and skills that would get me where I wanted to be.
Back in the early 1990s, there were no FGASA training providers and it was all just self-study and self-motivated learning. Slowly but surely I gained my qualifications, experience and skills, which springboarded me into guiding and wildlife research positions across the continent, and into the journey of a lifetime.
In 2001, I joined GVI in its infancy, where I set up and ran the GVI Karongwe wildlife expedition. Back then, GVI consisted of only myself in the field and the founder of GVI, Richard Walton, who ran the office in the UK.
As GVI grew, I went on to set up and run wildlife and community conservation programs across Africa. These included predator projects in Venetia Nature Reserve in South Africa, community and marine conservation programs in Kenya, and SANParks internship programs, to name a few.
tells her story
During the eight years I worked for GVI as a regional director, I constantly battled to find staff with the qualifications, skills and ethical professionalism we required. There was clearly a great need to assist young passionate conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts in getting these skills and qualifications to start their careers. So, Richard Walton and I embarked on setting up Bushwise Field Guides. The vision was to develop a high-quality, all-inclusive safari guide training course. We wanted to offer a platform for students to gain all the relevant qualifications, practical experience, and importantly, to develop the professional ethics and soft skills they needed for the industry.
In 2006, we ran the first Bushwise course at our Mahlahla campus. Looking back to the early days, the Bushwise ethos and vision has remained the same. But the program has evolved tremendously. Over the years, we have grown and expanded our long-term courses, which provide the best platform to gain the quantity and quality of knowledge and skills needed. We have also introduced a 60-day safari guide course, which is ideal for students looking for a shorter FGASA course, or those seeking a unique gap year experience.
We work closely with the lodges to develop and tweak the program according to industry needs. This ensures our students get the necessary experience, not just for their employment prospects but also to adhere to the lodges’ standards. We have added numerous qualifications, fine-tuned the training, refined our soft skills development and built an exceptional Bushwise team – which I am so proud to be a part of.
Over the years, Bushwise has trained and placed over 750 graduates in lodges and wildlife organisations around the world. Bushwise has also sponsored nearly a dozen local students who have excelled during and after the course. Bushwise has built an exceptional reputation in the industry and is known as one of the best training providers for producing well-rounded, high-quality guides. We are thrilled that most of our graduates walk straight into high-level jobs as guides or into roles in other wildlife-related fields, both in southern Africa and internationally.
We are proud of our program’s success rate – since 2012, 100% of South African graduates from our long course were offered permanent employment.* We also support our graduates well into their careers with Bushwise recruitment and our alumni program. We will continue to work proactively with the lodges in this ever-changing industry, to ensure our Bushwise courses are the most relevant and of the highest standard. We also guarantee that our graduates are world-class and professional. Not only do we have a lasting relationship with our alumni, but Bushwise also plans to develop additional courses and programs to build on their skills and further their careers.
I always sit in on the introductory braai and listen to the stories and dreams of the fresh-faced students starting their year-long Bushwise Professional Field Guide course. They remind me so much of myself when I started my journey, back when there were no formal training courses or support. It really hits home for me – all the hundreds of students who have achieved their dreams with the support of the Bushwise team. I feel privileged to do this.
I’m so proud to be present at the start of our students’ journeys, and I know I will be astounded by the personal and professional growth of each and every one of them while on the course. This is a truly rewarding job, to be able to witness the growth of these young passionate individuals, and to have a chance to really give back for all the amazing opportunities I have been afforded in Africa.
*Not including Covid-19 lockdown period when many companies had hiring freezes.