In this second and final part on East Africa’s notable local tours and travel players, is the story of Sarah and Simon Kabu and their award winning company Bonfire Adventures.
Kenya’s domestic tourism has changed for the better, and among the many players who in the past decade have disrupted it for the better is Bonfire Adventures.
The company is synonymous with affordable domestic and international leisure travel, thanks to its mass tour model.
Started in 2008 by Simon and Sarah Kabu, Bonfire is now the to-go tours and travel company in the country for all classes of people.
Walking into the Bonfire offices on the 4th floor of Yala Towers in Nairobi’s Koinange Street, you are immediately transported to far off exotic lands by the life sized wall posters of destinations Bonfire promises to take you to with minimum hustle.
Sitting across from Mr Kabu in his office, he casually tells me, “There is nowhere that Bonfire Adventures cannot take you, from Alaska to Cape Town.” I don’t know whether this is self-reaffirming braggadocio. Whatever it is, it is not entirely unwarranted.
His foray into tourism was, to say the least, accidental. In early 2008, then an employee of Unga Group Ltd, Kabu was at the Masai Mara for a meeting of a group of professionals.
He ended the evening sitting around a camp fire next to lady called Sarah who, just like him, had volunteered to make arrangements for the meet up.
They got to talk and wondered what it would take to organise a leisure trip to the Masai Mara as a business venture.
And it is right there as they sat around the camp fire that they came up with the name of a company: Bonfire Adventures.
Someone in the group approached them and asked them to plan a team- building event for a local bank at Mt Longonot for Ksh30,000 ($300). It was the first trip they had organised, and they expected to be paid informally via mobile money service MPESA.
The bank, however insisted on paying by cheque. Between the two of them, they did not have a company, let alone a bank account in which they could bank the cheque for payment.
Sarah decided to quit her job to start and run the company. They pooled Ksh10,000 ($200), bought office furniture from a relative and moved into a shared office in Arrow House on Koinange Street in Nairobi.
Simon joined her a few months later and Bonfire went full time into the tours and travel business.
Ten years later, Bonfire has taken up one wing of the fourth floor of Yala Towers on the same street, operating different departments and handling up to 5,000 travellers a month.
It was not long after that night in the Masai Mara that they got married.
Over the years, Bonfire has grown into a multimillion shilling enterprise and is today recognised as one of the leading travel companies in Africa, offering various destination packages to adventurous travellers at affordable rates.
Mr Kabu, a graduate of Egerton University in Economics and Statistics, knew early that he wanted to be self-employed and started off by selling bootleg music and movie CDs to pay for his tuition. At one point, he even worked as a matatu (public service commuter minivan) tout in Nairobi.
Before Bonfire Adventures came into the tours and travel space, leisure travel was largely a preserve of the elite few.
“To spend a couple of nights at the Masai Mara,” Mr Kabu says, “travel agencies were charging upwards of Ksh50,000 ($500) per person.” Even by today’s standards, that is still lot of money for a few days’ holiday.
Bonfire had to find a way to make domestic tourism not just possible for more people but also affordable.
The first people to dismiss the Kabu's approach to travel were not even the competitors whose lunch Bonfire Adventures was eating. It was the very clients they were out to serve.
“They said it was impossible for someone to travel for as little as $150 to the Masai Mara,” Mr Kabu recalls with a smile. “Some even claimed it was a con, until the people we had taken there posted their pictures online.”
He says the business concept was based on economies of scale. Getting a certain number of people to book the same tour means discounted travel and accommodation rates, what he calls “a low margin-high volume” model.
For example, Bonfire offers three days in Tsavo National Park for Ksh17,999 ($170) per person sharing. Five days in the Seychelles for Ksh110,999 ($1,110), and seven days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for Ksh145,999 ($1,450) per person.
Bonfire is designed to offer tours for all categories of travellers and tourists; honeymooners, wedding parties, family holidays, anniversaries and leisure groups and solo travellers. Mr Kabu says they tailor-make tours according to the client's means.
It is hard for this kind of success to go unnoticed and unrecognised. Bonfire Adventures was named Africa and Kenya’s Leading Travel Agency 2018 at the World Travel Awards held in South Africa.
“These awards show we have the support of the clients, fans and our professional team.” His face lights up with pride as he mentions some of the awards Bonfire has received through the years such as Top 100 Midsized Company, Company with the Best Use of Social Media and Kenya Leading Company on Honeymoon.
He says credit goes to the dedicated staff led by his wife.
That being said, if there is one recognition he takes particular pride in is the one received from the United Arab Emirates as the biggest supporter from Africa.
“Sometimes we take more leisure travellers to Dubai than to Mombasa,” he says in explanation.
One thing is certain about Bonfire: That the company has changed Kenya’s tour and travels industry for the better.
To encourage more people to travel, Bonfire Adventures has come up with products such as Lipa Pole Pole and Travel and Pay Later.
In the first product, travellers are allowed to pay for their trips in instalments on a discounted rate, while in the latter, Bonfire has liaised with a commercial bank to enable travellers pay after their tour.
The second option is basically a loan—the bank pays for your travel, and then you pay the bank back. If you pay before the end of six months, the loan is interest-free but interest accrues after a lapse of six months.
Kabu foresees a future for East Africa’s travel space in which agents come up with new ideas to make it even easier for travellers rather than copy-pasting from each other.
He says the various tourism bodies should also think of other products beyond the “beach and bush” safaris.
He cites Spain’s annual La Tomatina Festival held every August and the Running with the Bulls festival held in July as being world famous cultural tourism events.
His advice to those wishing to enter the tourism industry, is: “There is space for all of us, but nothing comes easy.”
But Bonfire’s success has not escaped controversy. Recently, domestic travellers wishing to use Kenya’s passenger train service between Nairobi and Mombasa have blamed tour and travel companies including Bonfire for hoarding tickets through block buying.
The people who are feeling the pinch of Bonfire’s successes are, ironically, the same people it set out to help.
During peak travel periods, for instance, passengers can miss out on train tickets, bringing into question the fairness of a multimillion company dominating a public service for profit.
But Mr Kabu sees it differently. First, he argues that this is purely a consequence of high demand and happens throughout the year, since Bonfire Adventures is a primary client of the train service throughout the year.
Second, he says the company is simply booking on behalf of travellers who have the right to the service too.
But beyond that, recently Bonfire management had a Twitter spat with Mohamed Hersi, a well-known Kenyan tourism official and Twitterati, over the implications of mass tourism for the ecosystem.
The issue was a picture posted by Bonfire of tourist vans allegedly being driven off-track in the Masai Mara. Mr Hersi expressed concern over the alleged lack of concern for the ecosystem and animals.
Mr Kabu denied claims the claim saying; “There is no person or company that has assisted the practice of sustainable tourism the way Bonfire Adventures has. Our drivers and guides are trained, vetted and licensed by the Tourism Regulatory Authority. They also go through refresher courses.”
He called the allegations ‘‘a fishing expedition for publicity by some people.’’
Not long after, Bonfire Adventures was again caught up in another controversy when local competitors Trippy Go Tours and Travel and Bountiful Safaris contested in court a move by Bonfire in which the latter had bought and registered domain names with the former’s identity.
This allegedly resulted in all online queries on Trippy Go Tours and Travel and Bountiful Safaris being redirected to Bonfire Adventures website.
While the complainants use bountifulsafaris.com and trippygotours.net respectfully, Bonfire Adventures had acquired their .net and .org domains.
Then there was a case filed by photographer Mwangi “Mwarv” Kirubi, who was suing Bonfire Adventures for using his images to advertise its businesses without his consent.
Mr Kabu would not comment on these issues, saying that they are in court. There is no denying, though, that these cases offer a perspective on just how cut-throat the competition is in the travel industry in Kenya.