With East Africa having a number of Important Birding Areas — an internationally recognised ecosystem with endemic and migratory bird species — birding is now one of the fastest growing sectors in the region's tourism industry.
In Kenya, the Tana Delta at the Coast and Kakamega Forest in western Kenya are certified IBAs. Yet it is only this year, on March 29, that Kenya launched the Kenya Women Birders Association, following in the footsteps of Rwanda and Uganda. The Uganda Women Birders was launched in 2013 followed by the Rwanda Women Birders in 2018.
Washington Wachira of Cisticola Tours, who was instrumental in the formation of the Kenyan chapter, worked closely with the Uganda Safari Guides Association to see its realisation. “The reason for launching a chapter for women is because despite having really top-rated women birders in Kenya, when it comes to bird guiding, they are represented by very few,” said Wachira.
But there are challenges for women. “I’ve had to deal with safari drivers who don’t take women guides seriously,” says Jennifer Oduori, who is one of the top rated bird guides in Kenya. “But you have to take a stand and show that you know what you are talking about,'' she says.
Oduori is a protégé of Fleur Ng’weno, the internationally acclaimed Kenyan woman birder who attended the launch of the Kenyan chapter and was honoured for her work. At 80 years old, she stills leads bird walks every third Sunday of the month and the weekly Wednesday mornings since 1971. Almost every bird guide in Kenya has passed through her ''school of birding.''
East Africa is a top destination for the estimated eight million US bird watchers and a few million more from the rest of the world.
Rwanda and Uganda are already tapping into this market and are investing in training of guides especially women.
“Cisticola Tours will host the Kenya programme to train professional bird guides. The plan is to have an East African group of women birders who can lead birding tour groups and research groups,” says Wachira.
In Uganda, women birders now own tour companies, hotels and support community projects. “When you empower a woman, you empower the whole community,” says Lilian Kamusiime, owner of Kigezi Biota Tours Ltd based in Kabale town, which she started in 2013. She is a driver-guide herself.