GRANT: Masai Mara investor supports Narok county and new leases

Director of Tor’s Camp says he was not reluctant to sign a lease and is excited about new plans put in place.

In Summary
  • The informal relationships that built Maasai Mara tourism made for an uneven system built on shaky, half-hidden foundations.
  • Too often was financial muscle flexed in such a way that made relationships unequal in ways that benefitted the wealthier party.
Narok governor Patrick Ole Ntutu in Maasai traditional wear (seated left) leads the signing of new leases at the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
MANAGEMENT PLAN: Narok governor Patrick Ole Ntutu in Maasai traditional wear (seated left) leads the signing of new leases at the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Two weeks back, the Star published an article titled “Mara investors warn of graft as Narok county drafts new leases”. In that article, investors were quoted as predicting a “mega scandal” over Narok county’s ongoing drive to codify land leases within the reserve.

The article presents “the investors” as a bloc that is largely united in its ill-feeling towards the new lease structuring framework. “[T]he majority of property owners”, the article states, “have been reluctant to sign the leases.”

My name is Cameron Grant and, as the director of a company that runs Tor’s camp in the Maasai Mara, I am one such investor. I was not, however, reluctant to sign the new lease. I was excited then and I am excited now. I am as excited about the new leases as I am about many of the new plans put in place by this Narok county administration.

So, for the sake of offering an alternative argument to that which was presented by nameless ‘investors’ in the earlier article, I intend to illustrate my position.

Maasai Mara: a resource so great it needed a management plan

Regardless of whether it is ever given the stamp by UNESCO, the Maasai Mara is a world heritage site. For many people from around the world, perhaps unfairly, the face of Africa is safari. And, despite that, many of this continent’s countries cater to the industry, and even considering a few notable contenders, the face of African safari is the Maasai Mara.

It is the best place in the world to experience that unique, humbling experience of seeing lions in the wild. It is one of the best, if only, places in the world in which you can realistically hope of seeing all the big five in one day’s game-viewing. It plays host to the most exciting, most iconic moment of the Great Migration: the Mara River crossing.

For these reasons, and many more, the Mara is Kenyan tourism’s greatest pulling factor. The numbers vary yearly, of course, but the Maasai Mara attracts some 300,000 visitors each year.

With their cameras and khaki clothing, these wageni bring the weighty expectations of being on their once-in-a-lifetime holiday. They arrive with the burning need to get the photographs the brochures promised them. They come with standards set half the world away and with little to no prior experience of Kenya and its culture. They arrive having spent huge sums already.

The county government has to cater to these high expectations even as it juggles the needs and aspirations of a growing local population. What’s more, and despite that wildlife safety is the ultimate responsibility of KWS, Narok county’s government is also expected to ensure the security, well-being and natural existence of wild animals. The latter’s needs, it needn’t be reminded, are often in direct contrast to the needs of the tourists and the Narok residents.

This is an awkward juggling act. It is not just that the needs of these three different groups are often in competition with one another; it is also difficult because the stakes are high. Narok county’s job is to administer what previous Governor Samuel Tunai once called a Sh2.5 billion per annum generator. They must do so even as they protect and provide for some of the world’s most dangerous, if majestic, animals.

This isn’t an easy job. Over the last couple of decades, investors in the tourism sector and local beneficiary groups have managed to build something of a workable relationship. It was informal, however, and despite that it has positioned the Maasai Mara as one of, if not the greatest safari destination in the world, the informal relationships that built Maasai Mara tourism made for an unlevel system that was built on shaky, half-hidden foundations.

Too often the benefits of this system weren’t equitably divided between beneficiary groups. Too frequently the working relationships that built genuine industry institutions were broken by the very intimate breakdowns of personal relationships. Too often was financial muscle flexed in such a way that made the relationships unequal in ways that benefitted the wealthier party.

The Narok county government, despite these working relationships created outside of their purview, was of course expected to be both policy-maker and mediator when it came to administering and mediating these relationships.

It may not please every Mara investor to hear this, but a resource this important needs a more regulated operating framework within which it is managed. This jewel in Kenya’s tourism crown needs a playbook so it can continue to be the world’s greatest safari destination.

The lease standardisation process that the previous article’s ‘investors’ denounced is a part of this new playbook.

What the Maasai Mara Management Plan really means for camp operators

This process to codify all the tourism-related land leases in the Reserve is the cornerstone of the new Greater Maasai Mara Ecosystem (GMME) management plan.

The GMME management plan is a wide-ranging document that considers a great many of the factors at play in managing the Maasai Mara. It is the culmination of extensive studies, surveys and stakeholder summits. Give its ‘Acknowledgements’ section a read and you’ll see how widely the document’s authors cast their net in their search for collaborative voices.

Of course, this document advocates changes in the way that they will operate in the Mara. It examines and sets policy on biodiversity, on the National Reserve’s image, on its economic capacity and potential, and on its socio-economic impact on both the county and the country as a whole. It considers all these factors and is designed to stand as the guiding document that will now shape their future.

As the previous article states, this has brought changes to the way things are done in the Mara. The National Reserve’s entry fee structure has changed. The community bednight fees and the process with which they are paid has also changed. What and how we, as the camp operators, are allowed to build in the reserve has been regulated differently.

I understand as well as any of the other investors the changes this new operating framework has brought. At Tor’s Camp, we’ve found that some of the design choices we made prior to the gazetting of the GMME plan mean we’re not compliant now and need to make changes. The new entrance fee structure has also prompted us into a bit of a product pivot. With the higher entrance fees, we’ve decided to target a slightly different demographic within the market.

We’re a young business and of course, at first, we grumbled at the prospect of having to make these changes. We’ve since, however, had the chance to digest the GMME a little better. We also attended the March 15 new-lease launch event. Now, the benefits of this plan, the bigger picture part of it all, is now firmly in our sights.

These changes are certainly going to be influential and, just like Tor’s Camp, the other operators will be forced to make certain changes. These changes aren’t, however, without design. They are all made with the intent of making the Maasai Mara, as a whole, a better, more polished product.

The hope is that with this new plan, beneficiaries will be better, more equitably remunerated by, and enfranchised into, the local tourism industry. The county will also have greater funding to administer the park; this is something that can already be seen in recent road and airstrip refurbishments. Sure, the camps will have to make design changes – the expense of which they may gripe about, just as we did – but, really, where in the world, in areas in which image and reputation are of such importance, is construction not shaped by building standards?

We have had to make changes and we will certainly have to continue to adapt as the GMME management plan’s policies take effect. However, at Tor’s Camp, we’re excited about many of these new developments. The new leases, the GMME plan, the change to the ways things were formerly done, are all combining to give us a greater sense of security in the investment we’ve made in the Maasai Mara.

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