22 OCT 2014: “We don’t want to change their culture,” says one of Kenya’s top hoteliers over breakfast as we sit outside the Hemingways Nairobi boutique hotel with the backdrop of the famous Ngong Hills that Karen Blixen made legend in her novel “Out of Africa.”

Alistair Addison, CEO of the Hemingways Collection, a hotel portfolio of three stunning properties situated in the most desirable parts of Kenya (bush, beach and the tony Karen enclave), is referring to the hundreds of Kenyan tribes as he discusses some of his company’s sustainable programmes introduced to help preserve dwindling resources.

Things we Canadians take for granted such as water and energy.

It’s only my first day of an eight-day visit and I’m already sensing there’s so much more to learn about bush survival, human resourcefulness, and about making dreams a reality.

Kenya is in the midst of a rebirth. These people I connected with reflect the spirit of the country: a tough no-nonsense survival instinct that’s bracing for a new world.

During my travels I discovered innovative sustainable tourism projects, a topic that is gaining much heed among clients, especially those seeking luxury travel in remote locations.

Seventy-five percent of Kenya’s tourism revenue derives from wildlife-based tourism. The harsh bottom line: if the animals disappear who will come?

To me it feels like Kenya has always possessed this unique quality of going out on its own. It’s the old saying, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ Over the years history and governments just got in the way. One insider I spoke to explains it this way: “If we were only given the necessary resources we have the ability to fix things ourselves.”

Travelling through Kenya as I did, you get to sense this self-sufficiency. You see it in the vast landscapes with its changing colours from the black cotton soil around the Soysambu Conservancy to the red dirt of the Laikipia Plateau to the green fields of the Mara. You see man working with nature willing to make sacrifices for a bigger picture.

Now for the 411 on some of Kenya’s sustainable projects:

Wildlife

Animal poaching of endangered species is a sad reality. But in a forceful move the national government in 2010 passed a new constitution and recently enacted the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act. The new wildlife act heavily penalizes offenders with either a fine of 20 million Kenyan shillings (US$226,000) or life imprisonment. Modeled after Namibia’s strict wildlife act, conservancy stakeholders are more than pleased.

“They adopted it here and we are all very happy about it. It gives guidelines,” says Kathryn (Kat) Combes, CEO of the Soysambu Conservancy Ltd, a not-for-profit stewardship programme relying on tourism dollars to help fund this vast swath of the Great Rift Valley enveloping Lake Elmenteita. (http://www.soysambuconservancy.org/)

Many Kenyans have taken the torch in various grassroots movements to open animal orphanages and to save wild animals like lions, rhinos and elephants. Two people I came across doing noble acts: Dame Daphne Sheldrick from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Jim Justus Nyamu with the Elephant Neighbors Center (http://www.elephantneighborscenter.org/).

The Sheldrick orphan’s project is located near the Hemingways Nairobi hotel and is open to the public. Visit and learn about their great work on saving baby elephants and rhinos. While you can’t take one home you can become a foster parent and even adopt alongside hundreds of other likeminded souls. For more details see http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

Jim’s calling is to save the elephants of Africa one step at a time. He’s crisscrossed the wilderness, pounded the pavements with lorries zipping past him come rain or shine. I met him just before he walked 377 km on a 21 day #ivorybelongstoelephants campaign.

Water

Water is the mainstay to life. The Maasai are huge pastoralists who rely on rain for the pastures which ultimately feeds their cattle.

“The Maasai rely 100 percent on rain for their livelihood. They chase the pasture so the rain is essential, it really determines their lives,” says Maasai Lawson, a guide at the Sleeping Warrior Lodge and Camp.

Water is precious. At the Hemingways Nairobi, a 45-room luxury boutique hotel in the Karen enclave, a custom-made self-cleaning recycled water system is used throughout the property. The entire hotel is run on 100 percent recycled water. From garden irrigation to running water in the rooms, it’s all been scrubbed and cleaned. “If we didn’t have that water we would not irrigate the gardens,” says Addison glancing at a carpet of green grass. Yes the suites have potable water you could use but most choose not to do that.

At the Sleeping Warrior, rainwater is collected and used as the water source. “We store the rainwater in a reservoir, clean it up and pump it back for use,” says Stephane Perrier, an avid wildlife photographer whose in-laws own the eco-lodge.

Fuel

Fuel is precious. The new Hemingways Ol Seki Mara, a 10-tent safari camp in the heart of the Naboisho Conservancy, has devised an uncanny idea of making fuel...from cow dung. Melinda Rees, the Ol Seki camp manager, compares the environmental silver-rated eco-lodge to a big experiment that works.

“We have our camp kitchen and hot water showers using natural methane gas,” she says explaining how an intricate bio-digest bag system that uses cow poop to create compost and gas works.

“These are literally large canvas rectangular bags with a large diameter pipe at each of the ends with a thinner pipe coming out of the top. All biodegradable waste goes in at one end along with a tub of cow dung and grey water. Each week the local Maasai ladies collect the dung providing them with an income as well,” Rees says. describing the process in which heat from the sun on the bag helps the waste to decompose creating methane gas.

At the Sleeping Warrior Lodge and Camp, it’s 100 percent green energy using solar power. “On some occasions we use a generator pump but only for a short time,” says Perrier.

Land

One phenomenon making an impact in Kenya is the emergence of private conservancies. These are land tracts most of which appear on the edge of national parks and reserves and interestingly enough around the famous Masai Mara, home to the Masaai tribes.

It was at the new Naboisho Conservancy, a 50,000 acres private reserve adjacent to the Masaai Mara National Reserve, where I learn the details about an innovative partnership to help wildlife conservation between the Masaai land owners and select tour operators who now rent the land.

Gary Cullen from the Hemingways Collection gives the backstory on how the two entities came together.

“They (the Masaai) approached real seasoned Kenyan tour operators who are local like us and said we want to team up with you. In this conservancy there are 595 landowners with different opinions on everything but to get 595 families to agree to sign a 20 year lease to allow us to have tourism on their land they have to move off the land with their houses, their bomas and their cattle.”

They did. The result: The game has returned so much thanks to the conservancy’s design. Only a handful of lodges and vehicles are permitted compared to the increasing numbers of camps inside The Masaai Mara National Reserve putting big stresses on game.
When animals get stressed they move to quieter areas.

The Naboisho Conservancy, says Cullen, “has one tent per 700 acres. It’s only one car per two tents, so the pressures on the land are minimal.”

The new arrangement has resulted in a happy accident. “We are finding more animals within the conservancies. They are left alone since we limit the number of vehicles and the land itself we are finding is becoming more fertile,” says James with Ol Seki Mara.

Around Lake Elmenteita the Soysambu Conservancy which began in 2007 is headed by Kat Combes who has got a bigger dream. It is to see a massive wildlife corridor connecting Lake Nakuru National Park to her area. “Someday to create a wildlife corridor connecting Lake Nakuru, Lake Elmenteita and Lake Naivasha that would be wonderful for us then we have the corridor with the lions coming through.”

The other dream: to finally get all the nations from the Great Rift Valley from Jordan to Mozambique to sit together at one table. “We’re trying to preserve a part of the world for humanity. It is one of those great wonders of the world. It’s one of the spectacular areas, Africa’s Great Rift Valley.”

The People

Kenya’s biggest asset, I don’t think there’s a word for “no” or “forbidden” among the Kikuyu, the Masaai or any of the other tribes.

At Ol Malo House, for instance, lodge proprietors the Francombe’s have demonstrated how important it is to see the tribal groups continue thriving in their natural elements. When I visited a school started by the Francombe’s daughter Julia, an advocate for community programmes and the visionary behind the Samburu Trust, the first thing that struck me was hearing the children’s laughter.

Some trekked as far as one hour away by foot leaving their pastoral family behind to play and learn classroom basics in their Samburu language at this simple thatched roof school.

Outside the classrooms, a plastic container of water dangles on a string suspended between two branches. “We have the children wash their hands to help combat the deadly trichoma eye disease which is massive here,” says Chyulu Francombe describing the simple hygiene practice using a cooking lard container and a thorn pricking a hole that releases rainwater for hand washing. “Water is very precious here.”

Ol Malo House spearheads several community-focused projects via its trust involving education, water, health, and wildlife services, and is a big advocate on wildlife conservation and the conservation of the ecosystem.

“Much of our care is to help villagers who have faced accidents within the home, burns are quite common,” explains Chyulu as she glances onto the beautiful bead making from a mother who has been in mourning for her warrior son.

For more details visit http://www.olmalo.org/ and http://www.samburutrust.org/

Wildlife Conservation and Management Act http://www.nrt-kenya.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Wildlife-Act-2013-review-NRT-Jan14.pdf

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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