Awards 2002 The Trade Partners Award for Small Businesses in Africa

The Trade Partners Award for Small Businesses in Africa

This award is given to a company with not more than 150 employees for commercial activity which has contributed to viable economic development in an African community.

The winner: Art of Ventures

Receiving the award

After 20 years work with wildlife and tourists in Kenya, Anthony Russell decided that the only way to achieve a fair and stable future for them was to arrange for local people to have a stake in and later control of tourist lodges. Cash grants, schools and clinics are not enough because they do not acknowledge the locals' right to what happens on their land. They do not address the question of income from and ownership of the one moneyspinner in a remote area, the lodge.

So he set up Art of Ventures (Art stood originally for Anthony Russell Travels) to establish lodges jointly with local communities. He then spent three years earning the trust of the Maasai people of the Shompole ranch. They have joined him in his first venture, Maa O'Leng (Maasai for 'deeply of our people'), for which he raised $1.2million from investors. The lodge, with a sweeping view of the Rift Valley from a spur of the Nguruman Escarpment, opened in February. The Shompole Maasai own 30 per cent, in view of their contribution of land, a spring and materials. The plan is that, by reinvesting their earnings, they will raise this to 80 per cent in 15 years.

Shompole, the brown land, is on the Tanzanian border, three hours' drive south-west of Nairobi. It is one of several ranches set up by nomadic, cattle-herding Maasai in Southern Kenya. It supports an estimated 6,500 people, and covers a section of the Rift Valley between two flamingo-rich soda lakes, Magadi and Natron. It is dry, blasted by the sun, but the Brown River (Ewaso Nyiro) flows through it into Lake Natron. It boasts grassland, acacia woodland, papyrus swamp, glistening white salt pans and - along the river - a fig forest.

Antelopes, anteaters, baboons, monkeys, cheetahs, giraffe (under threat elsewhere in Kenya), leopards, lions, pythons, ostrich, zebra and over 300 kinds of bird live on the ranch, the Maasai having little interest in killing game for meat. Anthony Russell's first step was to persuade the Shompole people to set aside a sixth of their ranch as a conservation area where they would not graze their cattle and goats except in extreme circumstances. The European Union has backed this with $190,000, which is being used to build a road through swampland, equip and pay 25 local people as game rangers and educate the community about conservation. The relative safety of the conservation area has already attracted a herd of 85 elephants.

Shompole people have earned $15,000 helping to build the tourist lodge, which artfully combines river rock, grass thatch and wood with smooth white walls. Guests sleep in high canopied tents for two with muslin shade-cloth sides, under huge thatched roofs designed to mimic the silhouette of nearby mountains. Rooms have simple furniture, made by Maasai craftsmen, and each room has a cool pool. Spring water flows through the main mess, feeds the swimming pool and runs on to a watering hole for animals. Anthony Russell was keen that the lodge should be groundbreaking in design. Electricity is largely sun-generated. Maa O'Leng achieved 28 per cent occupancy in its first six months, much higher than expected. Guests - a maximum of 12 so they don't harm the surroundings - pay $330 a day, including drinks, activities and full board. They also pay a $20-a-day conservation fee, half of which goes to the Shompole community, for health, education or other community purposes.

Guests can go out for walks, night drives, river trips and bush dinners. They can visit Maasai homesteads, the lake flamingoes and Ologesaille, a pre-historic site. They can canoe, or float on rubber tyres, down the river. One couple remarked: "You don't need to die. You are in paradise here."

Forty-two Maasai have wage-earning jobs, as waiters, cooks, room stewards and guides, which they never had before. AoV brought in skilled roofers from the coast who have taught young locals their trade, enabling them to roof their own homes and earn money roofing other people's. Elizabeth Warner, Anthony Russell's American partner, has started a beadwork business with a group of Maasai women, their work being sold both in the shop and abroad. Pools have been built for fish-farming. Other income-earning possibilities for local people include beekeeping, furniture-making and the sale of dried meat and tomatoes.

Art of Ventures plans to set up more lodges similar to Shompole's and hopes that other enterprises will follow its lead. Anthony Russell told Vogue: "There are areas of Kenya that have more dramatic wildlife. What makes Shompole special is the people and the fact that this is a real wilderness experience."

The judges say

The thoughtful and imaginative blend of tourism and local community development marks this project out as a worthy winner. We particularly commend the commitment to local skill building, and the robust plans for graduated transfer of ownership to the community in the longer term. We found the model inspiring and, despite these being early days, it is already showing strong signs of delivering commercial and community benefits. Challenges lie ahead, but Art of Ventures' approach to up-market ecotourism deserves to be emulated widely by all operators. The Shompole project shows how effective co-operative ownership is when applied in such an integrated fashion. A beautifully simple concept, well applied.

ART of Ventures, P.O.Box 10665, Nairobi 00100, Kenya;
Tel: +254 2 883280 or (also fax) 884135