One of Uganda’s most celebrated tourism entrepreneurs and ambassadors, Amos Masaba Wekesa, attributes his success to a drive spurred by the abject poverty he was born into.
“I started out 18 years ago as a sweeper, then office messenger, became a tour guide and then started my own tour company with $200 and an office under a staircase. You must have something that drives you as a person in order to achieve the best of your life. I was driven by poverty,” Wekesa told The EastAfrican.
Wekesa was born on April 22, 1973 in Lwakhakha, a little border town in the current Namisindwa district in eastern Uganda.
The family was so poor that the gomesi (a traditional colourful floor-length dress commonly worn by Buganda and Busoga women) their mother wore during the day was used as a bedsheet to cover themselves when they slept at night.
They lived in a traditional grass thatched house that leaked when it rained.
The family resorted to smuggling goods from across the border in Kenya and vice versa as a means of survival. They smuggled sugar, bread, tea leaves, toothpaste and sodas — goods that were scarce at that time in Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin.
Wekesa was barely seven years old. Poverty forced him to start school late at the age of 10 and he did not own a pair of shoes until much later as a young adult.
One day, Salvation Army missionaries who ran a home for the less privileged in the neighbouring Tororo district visited his village looking for two boys from impoverished families to sponsor through school. Wekesa was one of the lucky two. He was transferred to Tororo in 1983 and his life changed for the better.
Under the guardianship of Joan Linanker Scottish lady who worked at the Salvation Army home, Wekesa completed his primary education and went to Wairaka College for O-levels and St Peter’s Tororo for A-levels.
“I actually joined the tourism industry by default. I had failed my A-levels examination and a Canadian benefactor, a doctor came to the Salvation Army Children’s home where I was living then and asked my guardian to send me to Kampala to study a course in tourism.”
He enrolled for a nine-month certificate in tourism and in 1997, he got his first job as a sweeper earning about $10 a month.
His second job was as an office messenger at Nile Safaris, earning $20 a month. He later joined Habari Travels, where he was paid a dollar a day. His last employment was with Afric Voyage, where he earned $65 a month.
In 2001, with personal savings of $200, Wekesa started a briefcase tour firm, Great Lakes Safaris, without a single vehicle. His first office was below a staircase in downtown Kampala.
His early life shaped him. “I grew up in very challenging circumstances full of struggle and I have learnt that if poverty will not drive you, then nothing can. I value the source of my livelihood and when I earn, I respect the resources I have earned,” he said.
Influential tour operator
Today, Wekesa has become one of the most influential to-go tour operators in the country. He has been promoting tourism in Uganda for the past 20 years and is privileged to have seen a lot of changes in Uganda and East Africa as a whole.
Besides being the managing director of Great Lakes Safaris Ltd, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda and in the region, he also owns and runs Uganda Lodges Ltd, a collection of four unique eco-friendly safari facilities: Simba Safari Camp Ltd and Elephant Plains Ltd in Queen Elizabeth National Park; Primate Lodge in Kibale National Park and Budongo Eco Lodge in Murchison Falls National Park.
His business has a combined annual income of some $6-$8 million, employing 250 people.
“I am a very curious person and I love reading. I read for two hours every day and especially on tourism. I also make sure I surround myself with the right people.
“I also mentor others by telling them that moving away from our villages or just changing our environments we get to meet people with better ideas that open our minds,” said the award-winning tourism business leader.
“Tourism is exciting because it is purely a business about people and gives one an opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I know people from almost every part of the world and the money I earn is just a bonus,” says the self-made millionaire.
Wekesa says he cannot imagine himself doing anything else other than being in tourism. He has clearly found his calling and purpose in life.
Off the top of his head, Wekesa easily rolls out tourism figures and facts.
“Uganda’s tourism industry hasn’t taken-off yet because over 95 per cent of our tourism attractions haven’t been exploited at all. The future is very bright now because everybody including the political class has started to appreciate the sector.
“Research has shown that we have the potential of earning up to $12 billion annually but we are currently only earning $1.4 billion. The entire sector will require a lot of investments by different players for it to take off in the next 10 years.”
He is nevertheless optimistic because Uganda is a unique destination and has a vast array of wildlife and bird species. It is a miniature Africa.
“Uganda has the world’s best average weather, 53.9 per cent of the world mountain gorillas, more lakes and rivers than any other African country, these including the River Nile and Lake Victoria, forests with a variety of primates. The Murchison Falls is one of the world's most powerful waterfalls.”
“Tourists come here and are shocked by the beauty of the country and the people. The landscape is equally divided across the country. Uganda has both the West African wildlife like the chimps and the savannah wildlife like the big five.
“The Ugandan tourism offering is rich. For example, while in Budongo Forest, one can take a boat ride, go birding and see the chimps at one go. No country can beat Uganda in terms of diversity. The only problem is that we have not fully marketed our potential,” he adds.
But there is hope as “domestic tourism is starting to grow too as more Ugandans are paying more attention to nature although more marketing is needed.Kenya is doing better on this front because there are more local tour companies specifically targeting Kenyans unlike in Uganda where we still target foreign tourists only. More Ugandans travel abroad than tour their own country.”
Social media has helped a lot and he says “With more young people visiting national parks and sharing their selfies, they are attracting others. Domestic tourism is important because it redistributes resources in the economy and it is the best way to market the country,” he adds.
Wekesa decries the lack of updated data to allay the fears of sceptics who doubt arrival numbers that are currently put at over one million tourists annually.
“One of the challenges we have is capturing data. The numbers of tourist arrivals at Entebbe International Airport have grown from 1.2 million in 2012 to 1.8 million in 2018. This is an increment of 600,000 visitors and yet the government officials keep mentioning the figure of 1.4 million arrivals from 2012. In business you have to keep updating your figures,” he says.
He is not particularly worried about the country's infrastructure even as tourism expands since he believes ‘‘investments follow opportunities that come up in an economy. The government has improved the road network and you can now reach the national parks in matter of hours or a day on good quality roads.”
He says Uganda still suffers scanty knowledge about the tourism potential, denying citizens business opportunities.
Training in tourism and hospitality too would improve service provision and address the persistent complaints of poor service by tourists.
“We should have one centre like the Utalii College in Nairobi that has enabled the growth of other similar institutions. If we don’t do this we shall become a labour market export destination,” he says. And because of this, he says, ‘‘Of the 10 national parks in the country we are only exploiting six.
The others are not operating up to 5 per cent. We can only improve this through marketing and having more knowledgeable people getting involved in the industry,”
Wekesa says he is thankful to many people in Uganda and abroad who mentor him like the late James Mulwana, who taught him the general principles of doing business, one being honesty and hard work.
Although his days as a full-time tour guide are behind him, he occasionally takes clients on game-drives in Queen Elizabeth National Park or Budongo Forest, in Murchison Falls National Park.
A well-known advocate of social and economic development, he is frequently invited to speak at national and international conferences and is a leading consultant on all matters tourism.
He has received countless awards, sits on several company boards and is a former president of the Uganda Tourism Association and member of the Uganda Tourism Board of directors. He is the chairman of the Presidential Investment Round Table – Tourism Technical Working Group.
He has addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on entrepreneurship for development and has been featured in Forbes magazine and on CNN’s African Voices programme.
He was awarded the 2014/15 Titan Regional Award and Continental Award in Leisure and Tourism for his success in promoting local tourism in Uganda.
Wekesa is married to the American Susan Amy and they have two sons and a daughter. He plays tennis and basketball with his children or jogs to unwind. He is also a chess enthusiast.
- Zainab Ansell: Entrepreneur who conquered Kilimanjaro
Zainab Ansell is the founder and managing director of the Moshi-based Zara Tours, which also markets itself as Zara Tanzania Adventures.
Ansell takes pride in operating the largest ground tourist handling company for Mount Kilimanjaro climbing expeditions, and operating a chain of tourist hotels and lodges.
She did not set out to be a tour operator. Her childhood dream was to work as cabin crew for Tanzania’s national airline, Air Tanzania Corporation.
“I had a sense of adventure and wanted to explore the world, to learn and share about the world’s diversity,” Ansell says, adding, “My dream came true when I was recruited by ATC. My father was not happy with my career choice but was impressed when later I was promoted to reservations and sales officer, a job I did for eight years.”
She was born in Hedaru in Kilimanjaro region in a family of 12 siblings. She moved to Moshi for work and still lives there.
In 1985, she decided to quit her job and set up a travel agency. With her experience in the hospitality and travel industry from ATC, it was not a big career leap and she knew what it takes to sell tickets for various airlines flying to northern Tanzania.
“It was a hard in the beginning because the Moshi business scene was male-dominated,” she says.
It immediately dawned on her how hard it was to start a business when she struggled to get a licence and accreditation from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Even when she eventually got the licence, she got no clients and made no money from the business for more than a year.
She recalls: “Getting the operating licence and registration was not easy but operating in the industry was even harder. It was aggressive and male-dominated.
“With the IATA registration, I started booking and selling tickets for international airlines such as KLM and Lufthansa. Unfortunately, three years later, the industry suffered a downturn and I could barely break even.
“One day as I was having my morning cup of coffee, I glanced up and saw the shining snowy cap of Mount Kilimanjaro. I had a epiphany moment and the idea to establish a tour company selling safaris and expeditions to Mount Kilimanjaro was born. That is how Zara Tanzania Adventures came to be,” she says.
With her savings and only three tour vans, she set off on an adventure.
“Of course, back then, we didn’t have all this technology, so I relied on word of mouth to market my business. I would even go to the bus terminus to tout for clients. The few clients I got were very impressed with my service and referred others to me. It is that drive to go the extra mile for my clients that earned me my reputation,” Ansell says.
“I am humbled and excited every time I shape people’s adventures and enrich their life experiences. I am contributing to global diversity by selling memorable experiences,” she says.
Zara Tours has grown into one of the largest safari operators in northern Tanzania, the epicentre of the safari in Tanzania.
The company is currently managing various tourist hotels and tented camps on the northern Tanzania tourist circuit; High View Hotel Karatu, High View Coffee Lodge, Serengeti Wild Camp, Ngorongoro Wild Camp, Serengeti- Ikoma Wild Camp, Serengeti Safari Lodge, Serengeti Wildebeest Camp and Ngorongoro Safari Lodge.
Zara Tours is known for its VIP safaris and honeymoon holidays. But it also offers regular tours, airport transfers, city-to-city transfers and ground handling services for individuals, groups and corporates.
“Being a woman has never stopped me from pursuing a career in tourism. I am very strong willed, always ready to work hard and I was determined to break the glass ceiling to realise my dream,” she says.
In 2000, Zara opened the Springlands Hotel, a true “home away from home” in Moshi, with 80 rooms and that which also serves as the company’s headquarters.
Ansell started with three tour vans and today the company has a fleet of over 70 four-wheel luxury safari vehicles.
Because it focuses on expeditions to and around Mt Kilimanjaro, Zara Tanzania Adventures has over 70 mountain guides and around 300 freelance porters.
As a way of giving back to the community, Zara encourages the guides and porters to join relevant professional organisations through which they are supported to buy health insurance, operate bank accounts and get skills training to serve international tourists.
On the proposed cable car project on Mt Kilimanjaro, Ansell says it is still a concept that could have both negative and potentially lucrative effects.
Like any other idea being introduced to a community for the first time, Ansell thinks it may unlock a niche for Kilimanjaro.
However, a cost-benefit analysis needs to be done to preserve Kilimanjaro’s glory as the rooftop of Africa and its significance to the host community and destination Tanzania at large.
In 2009, Ansell launched Zara Charity to help in the provision of free education to a marginalised communities. Currently it supports the education of 90 children in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Last year, Ansell was among top 100 women in Africa honoured for their excellence in tourism development on the continent during the Akwaaba African Travel Market in Nigeria.
She received an award in the category for Leaders, Pioneers, and Innovators in Africa category.
*Next Week: Part two of this article on tourism investors will feature Kenya’s Simon Kabu, co-founder and managing director of Bonfire Adventures, best known for making domestic and international tourism affordable to ordinary Kenyans.