After years of relying on foreign executives, more luxury safari camps and international hotel brands are appointing locals to run the show. It's long overdue because the Kenyan hospitality industry has trained professionals capable of running those establishments.
The pandemic has brought many changes in Kenyan tourism — the most important of them being in its hospitality industry. More travel companies are hiring locals to run hotels and high-end safari camps instead of turning to executives from outside of the country.
That’s a significant shift from many hospitality executives’ long-held belief that workers from beyond Kenya’s borders were better prepared to manage its hotels and safari camps. Those executives hired foreign staff because they wanted them to train local workers to reach their perceived higher standards.
But companies yet to fully recover from the pandemic are increasingly considering qualified local candidates, in large part because they wouldn’t command hefty salaries.
“It’s cheaper for the owners to (hire) locals as staff since having expatriates will require paying them triple … for the same position — plus paying for their work permits,” said Mariana Kathini, the manager of the Richard Branson-owned Mahali Mzuri safari camp. The property opted to look domestically to replace foreign hires who didn’t last long in their roles.
“We have more Kenyans who are qualified without jobs and it would be an opportunity for international guests to experience locals first hand.”
Azei Lago, the the general manager of luxury safari camp Angama, also also sees no shortage of Kenyans qualified to hold management roles at hotels and safari camps
“We have the skilled manpower to run …. the biggest brands across the world,” he said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be considered for such positions.”
But finding qualified local candidates for management roles hasn’t always been easy, believes Gerard Beaton, the director of operations at Asilia Africa, a group of camps. He acknowledged that Asilia has had to look outside of Africa to fill management positions.
So the company decided in 2016 to expand its training team with the aim of developing tour guides and future managers. That move has paid significant dividends for Asilia as 40 of its 44 camp managers during the 2022 safari season come from local communities. Beaton believes the camps benefit enormously from having locals in key management positions because they have a better understanding of staff needs. But he also views that power structure as beneficial for visitors to Asilia’s camps.
“For the guest, it is a richer experience as they get to interact with people that have grown up in the area and country they are traveling in.” Beaton said. “They can narrate the history of the area, give insight into life in the local communities and the related challenges that come with it.”
Kathini agrees, even although she acknowledges being a Black woman in a management role presents challenges.
“Most of the guests — especially, (women) — are happy to find a woman in such a position in Africa.” she said. “Secondly, they are happy to see a local person in charge instead of expatriates and it looks good on the hotel that we are an equal employer,” she continues.
“(However), the industry is still coming to terms with the fact that a woman can be in charge. A few guests still expect to find white people in charge. (And) there’s pressure to maintain standards — as a woman you have to put in twice the effort.”
But Kathini believes that hotels and safari camps should continue to look domestically to find workers able to maintain those standards, citing the quality of Kenya’s hospitality colleges. Azei, who has worked in hospitality for three decades, concurs.
“The natural DNA character that we have (for) being hospitable is what attracts both international and local guests,” he said. “I (have college friends) who would make great placements at some high-end properties.”