Twiga Tours surges on 40 years; putting Kenya on global map

The company won in three top categories at the recent World Travel Awards (WTA).

In Summary

•Founded in 1980, the firm which prides itself on offering highly personalised African Safari experiences in Kenya and the East Africa region has stood the test of time.

•It has won prestigious awards in the global tours and travel arena.

Twiga Tours CEO Minaz Manji/COURTESY
Twiga Tours CEO Minaz Manji/COURTESY

Twiga Tours is arguably one of the most reliable and renowned companies in the tours and travel business in Kenya.

Founded in 1980, the firm which prides itself on offering highly personalised African Safari experiences in Kenya and the East Africa region has stood the test of time, winning prestigious awards in the global arena.

To boost their resume as a Quality Conscious operator, the Company won Africa's Responsible Tourism Award 2020, Kenya's Leading Inbound Tour Operator and Kenya's Leading Safari Company 2020, at the recent World Travel Awards (WTA).

It has been nominated for the World’s Responsible Tourism Award at the WTA awards slated for later this year.

The Star's Martin Mwita spoke to the company's CEO Minaz Manji on the 40-year journey and Kenya's tourism and travel industry.

Tell us about Twiga Tours, how did the company start?

Traveling and showing off the magic of our beautiful country is deeply embedded in my blood. My earliest memories are of my family and I driving across East Africa to visit our extended family. The thrill of these journeys was going through national parks and game reserves and having wildlife come so close to you – I recall a magical incident that happened when I was about five years old when we were visiting my grandparents in Pabbo in northern Uganda. I was outdoors and I could hear the rustling of grass in the distance which grew louder and louder. As an inquisitive five year old, I climbed up on the fence to see what was behind the fence and I saw some huge monsters coming closer and closer to me. I was totally mesmerized by these huge monsters and suddenly I heard panic shouts from my grandmother who rushed up to me and quickly grabbed me. Later I learned that these huge monsters were called elephants and as much as they are gentle they can be equally dangerous if provoked.  In later years I would take every opportunity to see wildlife and spent considerable time watching them. About 10-15 kilometres or so outside of Eldoret town, where I spent my teen years, one could see lots of plains wildlife such as Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, impala, zebra and particularly the graceful giraffe which, in those days, we used to call Uganda giraffe. Every now and again my father would drive the few kilometres and he would park by the roadside and we would watch these animals and enjoy a wonderful picnic. These special memories were forever etched in my mind and upon my return from the UK in 1976 I took every opportunity to visit game parks and experience the beauty of nature and wildlife. However, it wasn’t until August 1980 that my late father and I teamed up to start a small tour company from humble beginnings. We saw the need to offer visitors the traditional African hospitality and treat them as our long lost relatives who had come to visit us and that has been our philosophy to date but it wasn’t easy at the time to get international visitors overnight so we rented our minivans to tour companies that needed our vehicles whilst promoting our company both locally and internationally.       

What did you do then?

Fast forward to 1984….our personalised service, custom-designed minivans and well-trained guide/drivers quickly saw the fleet grow substantially but the urge to be a tour company rather than a rental company was getting stronger and stronger. That was always the plan... to be a tour company and not a rental company and show Africa through our eyes! Kenya in the 1980’s was still a destination for foreigners and whilst we were strategizing on our international marketing plans we were mostly concentrating on local marketing. I wanted the domestic traveler to experience this magic for themselves; to see the wonders of Masai Mara and the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro against the backdrop of Amboseli National Park. So we started promotions to the domestic traveler and participated in the first-ever Holidays Exhibition at the Sarit Centre in March 1984. By then we were already a ‘sought after’ company for offering superior quality and personalised service to enthusiastic travelers in Kenya and our fame was fast spreading beyond Kenyan borders with international visitors finding us mostly through referrals from resident family and friends.          

What was your game plan in going solo?

To play on my strengths…by 1984, Twiga Tours was a company that was known for quality and delivering an experience of a life-time. We were now confident that the experience and knowledge we had acquired over the past few years was strong enough to see us succeed globally. Hence, we now began concentrating on being a tour and travel company rather than a rental company.   

What niche did you carve for yourself?

We were keen on showcasing the magic of Kenya through our eyes and to offer to visitors an exceptionally high quality of personalised service and this philosophy has seen the company grow. After a long and tiring flight, an arriving visitor is usually tired and is a little unsure of the reception one would get at the airport and especially if it is their first time in Africa…imagine their expression when they are greeted with a broad smile and champagne. Now, these were the kind of experiences I set out to offer to all our guests.     

 When did you go international?

I made my first international marketing debut in 1981 when I attended the World Travel Market in London. This participation was more of a learning experience than a promotional visit as I had never previously been exposed to a huge global travel fair. Whilst I wasn’t successful in securing any meaningful business I came home wiser and the important lesson I learned was that I needed to be well known and recognised in my home country before I ventured into the global source market. This was now the more important be known in the domestic market before venturing internationally. Once we had established our brand locally I felt more confident and, once again, made my entry into the international market by attending several travel expo’s in 1986 and made this part of our regular marketing plan. I may add here that in 2003 Twiga Tours made an entry into the travel sector making all travel arrangements such as airline tickets, international holiday, and business travel bookings for the leisure and business traveler.  

Twiga Tours is famed for being the first company to do a bush breakfast in Kenya. Tell us about it and other unique experiences?

Oh Wow! Now that is a challenge, to answer this in just a few sentences because Twiga Tours’ is all about exceeding expectations and giving our guests a bucket list safari experience, and so there are many unique treats and experiences we have been a part of with our guests over the past 40 years.

I recall receiving a family of five American guests at Christmas in my early formative years and I went to the airport armed with wet towels and a bottle of champagne to welcome them. Not only were they blown away by such warm hospitable welcome but they intimated they had never been given such VIP welcome anywhere in the world and, that too, by the owner of the company. On that occasion, I also invited them to dinner at my family home prior to their departure from Kenya which, too, was much appreciated...these are traditions that we still continue to date.     

Now, to answer the first part of the question, we pioneered the commercial “Breakfast in the Bush” in 1986. We had an incentive from France and the brief to us was simple, to give our clients a unique experience. What is more unique than enjoying a full seated breakfast with live cooking stations, tables, linens, crockery, and all the comforts you would find inside a lodge dining room but now out in the bush? I persuaded my good friend, the Late Shadrack Karabillo who was then the Manager at Amboseli Serena Lodge to set up a full seated breakfast at the Observation Hill overlooking the swamp in Amboseli National Park. An event for 110 guests was a mammoth task and had never been done before but I was adamant that we had to do it no matter how difficult the logistics appeared to be and offer these guests an experience they would cherish forever. I wasn’t wrong as it was a roaring success...we had guests enjoying breakfast watching elephants bathing in the swamp below. I still get thrills from this incredible experience when I remember this incentive. 

Another unique experience we were a part of was having our clients get married on a hot air balloon over the vast plains of the Masai Mara. The wedding party was very intimate, the Bride, Groom, Justice of the Peace, the balloon pilot, and a pair of witnesses. The rest of the guests remained on the ground and celebrated with the couple at a bush breakfast we set up. That was way back in early 1987. 

It is an African tradition to welcome guests into your home with gifts and, as a proud Kenyan, I saw no difference. These were guests visiting Kenya, my home, and hence, showering them with gifts was a part of our tradition so we made an authentic safari pouch and filled this with a number of essential safari items among which was the hand sanitizer...well little did I know all those years ago that in 2020 this would become a mandatory hygiene protocol. 

There are countless other firsts that we are credited with but the list would be too long.

How were the parks in the 80s compared to now?

The parks in the early 1980s and 1990s were much “quieter” as the number of lodges and camps that were available were by far very few. There were no large settlements around these parks nor were there herds of cattle crisscrossing into the national parks but, instead, there was order. This meant that the animals had a vast dispersal area to roam around in. Today, the resident human population around these parks is increasing, lodges/camps are proliferating at an alarming rate, and some areas around the parks are being turned into agricultural land and all these are closing the animal migratory corridors that are important to these animals to survive drought, predators and human pressure with the result that there is more stress on our parks and reserves and, as a result, we are in essence “killing the parks” with all these human intrusions.

Tourists on board a Twiga Tours van watch elephants at the Maasai Mara/COURTESY
Tourists on board a Twiga Tours van watch elephants at the Maasai Mara/COURTESY

What do you mean by “killing the parks”?

I keep on saying we are selling an ecotourism product. You cannot have several hundred vehicles criss-crossing the National Parks...take the world-famous Masai Mara as an example. During the peak season, you will find more vehicles racing towards an important sighting and before you know it tens of vehicles have surrounded the poor animals probably restricting its movement or interfering with the kill which is not the right way to go because in time to come, we will destroy the park. We are encroaching on wildlife habitats with the result that wildlife numbers are decreasing. We need to control the development of new hotels, lodges, and activities in the parks, or else we will end up with more tourists and less sighting of animals which is the mainstay of our safari industry. Our wildlife numbers are already on the decline. 

How can we control crowds in the parks yet we are a renowned safari destination where everyone wants to come and experience?

I think it all boils down to making a balanced decision. Yes, we need tourists to visit our game parks and bring in the much needed foreign exchange and create employment for our people but it is equally important to protect this heritage and conserve our environment. If we don’t do that not only will we have lost our heritage for which we will be blamed by future generations but we will also be guilty of impoverishing people who make a living from this heritage. Hence, I believe that our dream should not be to chase numbers that will eventually destroy our heritage and the environment but, instead, restrict our visitor numbers through a thought out and realistic pricing policy that will bring in fewer numbers but yield higher revenue from each visitor. This means that visitors get value for their money and are able to view our wildlife peacefully and without the pressure of numbers that crowd around the sightings of the ‘Big Five’ for example. 

Speaking of Ecotourism, what is Twiga doing on this?

My understanding of eco-tourism is enriching personal experiences and environmental awareness through appreciation for nature, local society, and culture. Before the phrase “being environmentally-conscious” became a buzzword we, at Twiga Tours had this notion of conserving our resources and it is ingrained in our company ethos. We are also conscious of our carbon footprint and that of our guests and so we started a tree-planting initiative in the 1990s, as part of our initiative to reduce our carbon emissions. Though we formally got certified in 2017 by Travelife, a Netherlands-based organisation,these practices were already part of our operations. I may add here that we were the first company in East Africa to attain this certification from Travelife. 

Our support to the local community in various parts of the tourism circuit is well known and particularly in the field of education where we have assisted local schools in remote areas of the tourism circuit with financial assistance to build dormitories, classrooms, provide uniform, food and other needs. Our emphasis is on empowering our children who are our future generation. 

We have also encouraged local communities to engage in ‘clean up’ exercises especially in Nairobi, Masai Mara, Samburu, Nakuru and Kilifi. We had encouraged the “Pesa for Plastic” initiative in Talek where we paid a shilling for every plastic bottle that was collected and brought to us. In total over 40,000 bottles were collected that had carelessly been discarded in and around Talek. Unfortunately, due to Covid 19 our scheduled “clean up” exercises for this year have been temporarily halted to avoid any community transmission of this disease.       

There are concerns that our product (beach and safari) is tired, what is your take?

Our safari and beach offerings are not a tired product but it is the lack of promoting our product with a more creative approach. Today, Nairobi and Mombasa have amazing restaurants and nightlife which can be integrated into a normal holiday package. Many of our camps in our game parks are adding spa and gym facilities to the list of available activities other than just doing the usual morning and afternoon game drives whilst other properties are adding more entertainment facilities at their resorts. Zip lining, for example, is now on offer in a number of our forests. We will simply have to be more creative and continue to understand our visitors to cater to varying tastes to attract different types of visitor interests. Our government has been gracious enough to offer a tourism stimulus package through the Tourism Fund and I would ask hotel owners to take advantage of this opportunity and upgrade their properties. Upgraded hotels, lodges, and camps on the beach and the safari circuit will give Kenya an upper hand in marketing Kenya as a high-end destination and, thus increase our earnings per visitor.      

How would you compare destination Kenya to other regions?

Kenya is a unique destination. Look at the diversity of our product. In Nairobi, we have everything from world class hotels, restaurants and superb nightlife. We have incredible landscapes across the country with natural offerings...vast savanna filled with wildlife, white sandy beaches, diverse cultures and the warmth of the Kenyan people. Our tourism industry is internationally acclaimed with well managed hotels, lodges, restaurants etc so there is nothing that we don't have. Kenya, in my opinion, is a winning product. We just need to tidy up some areas that need attention. 

Any low moments in your 40 years of operations?

Life is all about facing challenges and dealing with these in the best way one can. In my 40 years, I have had many challenges...from the attempted coup in 1982 to protests, riots, political instability, and terrorism incidents, and each time we have faced such challenges with a positive mind to find solutions and negate the consequences as best as we could. I believe that every challenge has a solution and, no matter how trying and difficult it may seem at the time if you are positive you will overcome these challenges. I have made difficult decisions to counter these challenges...I recall in 2008 when we were still reeling from the effects of the post-election violence and I decided to go on the defensive and sell off all my minivans…yes the entire fleet. My team members felt I was making a wrong call to sell all the vehicles whilst rumours spread within the industry that Twiga Tours were closing down. From the sale of these vehicles we now had substantial cash so I embarked on an aggressive overseas marketing campaign to woo back visitors and instead of buying minivans we opted to go into buying the 4X4 Toyota Land Cruisers. This decision has paid off as we saw an increase in our business.

It goes without saying that the present situation that the global economy and, more importantly, the travel and hospitality sector has found itself in due to the covid-19 pandemic is devastating but I choose to remain positive and I am holding up my head as I believe the global economy will find itself out of this difficult situation and travel will resume.       

What are some of your biggest achievements?

Being recognised locally and globally is one of our biggest achievements. Winning these global awards and being recognised by global networks as a leading company in Africa and the World is something I take pride in. I look back to my 40 years and say I did something right that I can now pass on to my family to continue.

Talking of awards, which is your most memorable one?

It was in 2013 when the World Travel Awards ceremony was held in Nairobi. Twiga Tours had been nominated in two categories and, interestingly, we picked up all two awards. It was a very proud walk up on stage in my very own country not just to receive the awards but to receive a standing ovation from all those present. Having been voted as Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award we were nominated for the World’s Responsible Tourism Award. I am proud to say that we have been voted several times as the World’s Responsible Tourism Company and the World’s Leading Luxury Safari Company. Now that is everything to be proud of! 

How has Covid-19 affected you?

The global travel industry is almost at a standstill with many countries still restricting travel to or from their countries. Hence, here in Kenya, we are not any exception…whilst our borders are open and we welcome visitors who have tested negative, the 96-hour window from test to arrival is quite restrictive to anyone wanting to visit Kenya. However, I am sure that the world will contain this pandemic sooner than later and once the vaccine is readily available everywhere, confidence to travel will grow. Tourism in Kenya has been a resilient sector and we have overcome many challenges previously so I feel confident we will overcome this challenge and see a vibrant tourism sector in the not too distant future.   

Do you think the tour and travel industry has gotten the right support?

I would like to express our gratitude to the government for the support and relief that was given to us all at the start of the pandemic. It may not have been to the extent that many other western countries have given to their citizens and businesses but it was a gesture that gave us a little bit of relief. The travel industry like all sectors would have liked more support, but in order to manage the pandemic effectively, resources had to be made available to our health sector, which is understandable. Let us hope as we enter into brighter days we can continue to have the unwavering support of our Cabinet Secretary, Tourism and Wildlife, we can begin to revive the industry and entice travelers to come back to Kenya in numbers we had in the pre-Covid days.  

Is the government doing enough to support the tourism industry at large?

It is important to understand how tourism is interlinked to other market segments…when tourism thrives so does the economy as the trickle-down effects are felt by the entire economy….hotels are probably the largest consumers of farm produce, beverages, manufactured items such as dry goods so everyone from mama mboga to manufacturers benefit. Tourism brings in huge amounts of foreign currency and we can see from the past few months our shilling has depreciated by at least 10% to 15% against major world currencies as there is barely any income from tourism. Obviously, tourism needs more investment in its marketing efforts and especially now that we will have to be more visible in the global market to entice visitors to choose Magical Kenya over other destinations. Hence, my humble suggestion would be to make a substantial investment in the sector to reap big from it.         

What do you consider the biggest challenge for Kenya's tourism?

I think one of the main challenges is the high cost of doing business in our country. Electricity, fuel, keeping our visitors safe, and the cost of finance at high-interest rates are some of the examples that make our operating costs fairly high. We must make Kenya a competitive nation with little or no wastage of the limited resources that we have so that the country is lean and efficient. If our costs are high as these are then we will out price ourselves in the global tourism sector.    

What is your take on how local and international media report on incidences in Kenya?

I think that both the local and global media must exercise responsibility when reporting matters of public interest. Sensational headlines or front-page coverage of matters of little or no importance does affect the overall perception of a visitor who may perceive the destination to be unsafe. Thus, I would ask and particularly to our local media to be mindful of what and how they report matters of public interest and particularly those that may have a direct bearing on the reputation of the country. And, this applies equally to those who are active on social media...they must be responsible enough to decide what should or should not be shared amongst their friends and within their network. Stories that are based on hearsay or rumor-mongering can cause panic and anxiety amongst residents and visitors alike so I would ask those who want to appear to be the first in ‘breaking news’ to be mindful of the consequences that such actions may cause.   

What advice do you give to someone who wants to invest in tours and travel business?

If one has a passion for tourism then it is a good business to enter into. However, one must understand that this is a highly sensitive business and any negative issues may have a significant impact on international visitors and thus, one’s earnings. It is also a highly competitive business as hundreds of other destinations are vying to attract the same visitors that we are. 

What is your parting shot?

Tourism is one of the major economic drivers of this country but it is also a sensitive industry and is reliant on peace and stability in the country. If you have a vibrant tourism sector you will have economic growth, so I believe that tourism must be given its rightful attention. There are hundreds of destinations across the globe vying for the same visitors that we are and, therefore we must invest in this sector if we want to see it grow. That does not mean we chase after numbers since I have said previously that our wildlife and beach are ecotourism products but we must carve a balance between numbers and price so that we have maximum revenue yield per visitor. In addition, we must be creative and add more flavour to our already famous beaches and safari sectors so that people with varying tastes can be attracted to magical Kenya. Our recently renovated waterfront in Mombasa is a fine example…Nairobi has the Uhuru Park where we can add lovely eateries or turn some of our streets into ‘pedestrian only’ with outdoor dining facilities like those in Europe…we are blessed with sunshine almost year round so why can we not add such facilities? As the saying goes...we need to think outside of the box.

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