VENTURES AFRICA – A Kenyan businesswoman has succeeded in increasing the customer base of her ecotourism company in the face of numerous obstacles. She has added a new face to a sector that is predicted to contribute much to sustainable development in Kenya and the rest of the region.
Having started the company in November 2008, Liz Kimotho has grown the client base of Exclusive Eco Travels to 200. This has been achieved in the face of multiple problems, from the country’s erratic power supply to a poor road network and even the knock-on effects of Somali terrorism.
Successful examples of ecotourism are eagerly sought by Kenya, where the services industry, dominated by tourism, contributes 63 per cent of GDP. Tourism is the country’s third highest foreign exchange earner, but has contributed significantly to the degradation of the environment.
With ecotourism more expensive than its less environmentally-friendly cousin, Kimotho says she is forced to target slightly wealthier clients as she seeks to grow her business, with greater numbers of people attracted by eco-tourism.
“We prefer the mid to high end as travel is not cheap, hence the clientele would need adequate disposable income to find it appealing and affordable to them,” she says. “By and large people are becoming more conscious of eco travel, as the other attraction of it is that most eco-rated facilities are not big hence there is better personalised service due to there being fewer guests and the chance to have a more quiet experience.”
Customers certainly have positive things to say about the Exclusive Eco Tours experience. Tabitha Muema visited Tawi in Amboseli National Park with the company and had rave reviews of the trip.
“The stay at Tawi was exceptional. Nothing close to what we have experienced in the past,” she said. “The service was personalised and classy. We loved the lodge, setting and all. We only had regret after that for not being able to stay longer.”
Yet building any kind of successful business in Kenya has its problems, not least in the tourism sector. Everything from power supply to terrorist attacks have provided challenges to Kimotho, who has must always be quick on her feet to avert disaster. With regular power cuts affecting the company’s ability to respond quickly to enquiries, she has been forced to work out of coffee shops on occasion to ensure her business is not affected. The cost of obtaining credit is another issue, with interest rates very high, meaning she has resorted to asking friends and family for funds in order to invest in the company.
Other problems include “harsh road terrain in some areas that we take clients, such as the Mara, which causes vehicles to have higher maintenance costs. Unfortunately this is passed onto the client which then forces us to think of ways of adding value to the travel package.” A handful of kidnappings in northern coastal areas at the end of last year also forced the company to focus its marketing on other areas as foreign tourists reconsidered their options for Kenyan holidays.
The success of Kimotho’s company is a boon for those who are pushing for the environment to be protected even as Kenya looks to capitalise on its popularity with tourists.
Kahindi Lekalhaile, CEO of Ecotourism Kenya, has called for ecotourism to be more widely adopted as a responsible way of capitalising on Kenya’s natural attractions while preventing environmental degradation.
“It should be viewed as distinct from other categories of tourism,” he says.
“When properly understood, ecotourism further extends respect and benefits to the natural environment as well as the people therein.”
“Within the tourism sector, it focuses on minimising the environmental and cultural consequences, contributing to conservation, community development and environmental education.”
While hailing the work of the likes of Kimotho in promoting more eco-friendly travel, Lekalhaile says that more needs to be done by the government to allow the sector to grow and prevent tourists from damaging Kenya’s beautiful natural surrounds.
“The growth of ecotourism in Kenya is however constrained by a weak policy, legal and regulatory framework; limited level of community involvement, market penetration and product development; limited financial incentives; and increasing environmental degradation,” he says.
“Around the world, ecotourism has been hailed as a tool for economic development and environmental protection through funding conservation and scientific research, protecting fragile and pristine ecosystems, benefiting rural communities, promoting development in poor countries, enhancing ecological and cultural diversity, instilling environmental awareness and a social conscience in the travel industry.”