Mountain gorillas, Safari Rally, M-Pesa and the vast possibilities of EA tourism

Saturday April 06 2024

Selling things nature and God gave us: wildlife, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and spectacular views (including sunrises and sunsets) is the way East Africa, and nearly all of Sub-Saharan Africa, makes most of its tourism money. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In February I attended a speaking event at Tanzania’s largest bank, CRDB. Banks are staid, mostly boring, places so you never expect big surprises. But I got one at CRDB.

Turns out that at its admittedly well-appointed headquarters building on Dar es Salaam Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road, CRDB is developing a museum of banking. It is a modest museum, but it is easy to see how in the distant future that is something that would be taken out and made into a fully fledged museum on money, not just banking. Perhaps a Great Museum of East African Money.

I imagine a museum showing the first currency, cowrie shells, the pennies with holes in the middle, and the East African shilling, would spellbind digital-era and other 21st century citizens.

Even present analog East Africans would be blown away to learn that the East African Shilling was the currency of not just Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the members of the original East African Community, but also the legal tender for Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

Read: OBBO: Tag East Africans like jumbos and let them roam the region

The lines queuing to enter could be long. That might be one way for East Africa to think about making serious money out of tourism, and how to outgrow the prison in which our imagination has been locked by nature.


Selling things nature and God gave us: wildlife, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and spectacular views (including sunrises and sunsets) is the way East Africa, and nearly all of Sub-Saharan Africa, makes most of its tourism money.

For East Africa, no country makes three million tourists a year. Last year, 14.9 million international tourists visited Egypt, over twice the combined tourist arrivals in the EAC.

The tourists go to Egypt to take luxury cruises on the Nile River, yes, but the overwhelming number go there to see what the Egyptians – ancient and present – made with their hands, like the Pyramids, and museums. Egypt is planning to have 30 million tourists by 2028.

It expects eight million of them will be contributed by the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which formally opens at the end of this year. GEM is set to be the world’s largest archaeological museum. Further north in the Gulf, there is the example of the Dubai emirate.

Before the pandemic, Dubai had nearly 17 million tourists. About 93 per cent of them reported that they visited the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. For 91 per cent of them, the attraction was the choreographed water show at the Dubai Fountains located on the artificial Burj Khalifa Lake in downtown Dubai.

This does not mean we forget the elephants, lions mountain gorillas, and lions. Rather we make them more exclusive.

Read: OBBO: Why you will love and fear these East African lands

At the end of last year, there were mouth-watering queues of tourist cars waiting in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, home to one of the highest concentrations of primates in Africa. The numbers were likely driven by Netflix’s chart-topping series, “Chimp Empire”, about the forest’s complicated chimpanzees.

Further northwest is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home of the prize jewel of the wild, the mountain gorilla. They also live in the abutting Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and the Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwanda has done such a good job marketing the mountain gorilla to the world, that some people think they exist only there and would be astounded to learn that the majority of them are on the Ugandan side. The Rwandan ones though, are more pampered.

For their labour, Rwanda can charge $1,500 per person per day to see the mountain gorillas. In Uganda, it averages $750.

If I were briefly joint president of Uganda and Rwanda, I would have my officials build drive-in cinema fields with 30-metre-high screens, and stream the mountain gorillas – or even elephants and lions. The sight during the night would be spectacular. Imagine watching Chimp Empire on screens. For that, I would charge $100. Many would come, but for some, it wouldn’t be enough. So I would charge them $3,000 a pop to see the real thing.

There are many other possibilities, but I am struck by two. This year’s edition of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) Safari Rally Kenya just ended. Today’s race is faster and is another technology, but the great history belongs to their predecessor, the East African Rally.

A museum of the Safari Rally, with clips, big photographs, memorabilia, cars driven by past East African kings of the sport like Shekhar Mehta, and the stories of the communities and wilderness they drove through, would be something.

Read: OBBO: May worst of East Africa’s fears never come to pass in 2024

If any of them who passed were cremated, I even would ask their families to lend the museum their ashes for display in a “sacred corner”, if they are still preserved.

Then there is Safaricom, and the not-so-little story of M-Pesa, the mobile money it launched in 2007.

The world’s first, it is also its leading mobile service, with over 50 million active users and more than 600,000 agents in eight countries. There is an opening for a museum of the mobile phone in Africa, and the wonders M-Pesa (mobile money) brought. Someone out there should be able to tell that story in ways that make people cry and want to return to cry again.

And we will find freedom, eating from the things we built with our hands, not just exploiting the gifts of nature we won in migration and the quirky border-making of European colonialists.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’. X: @cobbo3