By Dr. Jessika Nilsson, Entrepreneurial Anthropologist
African travel, especially in the safari segment, is a man’s world. My research as an anthropologist indicates that 98% of guides in East Africa are male. Southern Africa performs better but challenges remain for women to combine careers in the safari industry with family life. In East Africa the lack of female guide accommodation complicates the situation. Guides on tour often sleep in dorms and lodges cannot accommodate women in these shared spaces. Despite these challenges, more women than ever are starting out as boutique tour operators, travel agents, lodge managers and bush pilots. Women are breaking ground in community tourism initiatives, projects that give local communities a voice and income from the safari circuit. The greatest challenge of this industry is enabling those indigenous communities living with wildlife and living with the constraints of national parks and game reserves on their doorsteps, to profit from tourism and conservation.
Indigenous rights activist and veteran safari guide Loserian Laizer, a Maasai elder from Ngorongoro, Tanzania is also invested in giving local communities and local boutique tour operators more influence and better income. We met during my PhD studies, I was living and working with the Maasai community when we started talking about the imperfections of the industry. We spent countless evening by the campfire speaking about the enormous sums that Western travel agents cash in and how little money trickles down to the local ground handlers and the communities. Indigenous groups like the Maasai bear the cost of modern day conservation. Having been marginalized and pushed out of the Serengeti, facing eviction in Loliondo, under attack in the Maasai Mara, the Maasai have had to make way for conservation and tourism efforts. Whilst many do make a good living on tourism and some have found work as conservationists, it is unrealistic to expect conservation to be sustainable if those bearing the brunt of living with wildlife don’t benefit proportionately. Across Africa, local communities are sidelined when it comes to opportunities in the tourism or conservation sector.
We looked at ways of turning the tables on the industry. Not only does the current model, where safaris are outsourced via multiple middle men who all cash in before money ever reaches Africa, withhold tourism income from Africans, it is also expensive for tourists. Additionally, the lack of direct communication between those taking tourists on safari and the tourists themselves, leads to misunderstandings and disappointment.
We concluded that the biggest issue withholding local operators from selling tours directly to travelers is the lack of market access. We realized that we needed to create the marketplace. In May 2017 we founded Safarisource.com. Loserian represents the company in East Africa and I run the head quarter in Cape Town. Safarisource is a platform technology, tourists search and filter tours according to their desires, browse reviews and contact the tour operator they think is a good fit. Communication is on eye level between the traveler and the tour operator or guide. Payments are made via the platform and Safarisource takes a small commission on each transaction.
We also train our operators in communicating with the largely Western and Asian clientele (although more and more Africans are using the platform to travel). It is different selling a tour to a Destination Management Company or travel agent than it is to a traveler, travelers have doubts and insecurities and a wealth of questions and we prepare our operators for this. We also boost female tour operators along with community tourism initiatives. Any operator who can prove their income trickles down to communities, gets a boost in ranking. One year after inception, we are proud to be the widest network of local tour operators in Africa. We are active in 24 African countries, from popular destinations like Kenya or South Africa, to off the beaten path places like Angola or Malawi.
Safarisource is one of a growing number of African travel tech companies making it easier for Africans to market their destinations directly. Wetu is another South African company that helps operators design stunning itineraries. Activitar is a sales and inventory management software company that simplifies the work of operators and lodges. Hotels.ng is a Nigerian start up that rivals Booking.com and focuses on affordable, family run hotels and hostels across the continent and is very popular with African travelers.