Henrietta Mwangola is the general manager of Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge in Tsavo National Park, the first game lodge in Kenya. Many safari lodges in Kenya are headed by men, so it is unusual to come across a woman who has been in this role for over a decade.
She was born and raised in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa, a major tourist destination. At the time, her uncle was the manager at Serena Beach Resort and her family would often visit him at the hotel.
Mwangola’s smile and easy-going personality will make any guest feel at home. Her interest in hospitality was nurtured in childhood, although initially, she wanted to become a chef.
“I applied to the Kenya Utalii College, but there were limited slots in food production and I didn’t make it,” said Mwangola.
After high school, Mwangola studied food and beverage service at Utalii College. Thereafter she enrolled for a degree in Hospitality and Business Administration at Les Roches School of Hotel Management in Switzerland.
Her work has taken her to various establishments, including Sopa Lodges, the Mara Safari Club, Jacaranda Nairobi Hotel and the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Michigan, US.
It was at the Serena hotels group that her career developed. Starting in 2006, Mwangola worked as an assistant lodge manager in Samburu, Tsavo and Ol Pejeta Serena lodges. Just three years later, she was promoted to lodge manager at the Kilaguni Serena.
Initially, Mwangola wanted to work only in town hotels. At one point she even considered quitting the industry altogether. But after working in a number of national parks, she says, “I got comfortable with lodges".
Now she has a passion for the job, made more enjoyable by her extroverted nature.
“I like meeting people, interacting with them and making sure guests are enjoying their stay,” she said.
Managing the lodge, she says, has broadened her knowledge and leadership skills. Whereas a manager in a town hotel may be focused on specific areas of a hotel’s operations, “in the lodge you become a jack-of-all-trades, because you are doing it all and you improve on areas where you are weak”.
Whether it is first aid, fire and safety, how the routers work or the level of gas and fuel supplies, the lodge manager must know it all.
She adds that a well-rounded lodge manager must have general knowledge including information such as the names of wildlife or keeping abreast of global current affairs, politics or sports events.
After 15 years in lodge management, there is little she has not grasped. But, she says, “learning is every day, especially as technology evolves.”
Being a woman leader comes with challenges, particularly when a sizeable number of the staff are from neighbouring communities that are patriarchal.
“We need to respect each other, then the rest will come naturally,” says Mwangola about her style of leadership.
Clear communication, professional work ethics, and following the laid down procedures, including in matters of discipline, are essential.
“Also, learn how to work with people from the local community and not look down on them.”
Lodge management means early mornings, late nights and long periods away from one’s family.
“We miss the town life and families because our children can’t go to school here,” said Mwangola. She accumulates her off-days and takes leave time to be with her family.
When she started her career, there was no mobile phone network, and a bus trip to the workplace could take a whole day.
“Now there is internet here. You can always reach people and it’s as good as if you were in a town,” she says.
Although there are more women working in safari lodges today than in the past, not many have risen to the rank of lodge manager.
“I would encourage women as it’s much better now, with good support systems and accessibility,” says Mwangola.