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Robert Okubo: How my safari company reached calm waters

By Ishaq Jumbe | Published Wed, March 14th 2018 at 12:58, Updated March 14th 2018 at 13:10 GMT +3
Johnny Be Good Safaris owner Robert Okudo on his company's boat

NAIROBI, KENYA: Robert Okubo, an entrepreneur based in America in the late 1990s couldn’t resist his wanderlust. So despite his busy schedule, he planned an elaborate vacation for himself and family at the Kenyan Coast.

“I diligently saved as travel has always been my hobby and I believe Kenya is one of the best destinations in the world,” he said.

He, however, made an interesting observation while in the country. “Most of the clients were wazungu and this got me thinking,” he says, later realising that the imbalance in guest representation was partly due to holiday rates that were out of reach for ordinary citizens.

After talking to hotels and striking deals that ensured packages that were tailor-made to encourage local tourists, Robert set up a company, Johnny Be Good Safaris in 1999. Hustle caught up with him and learned how he achieved his dream business.

How does one start a tour company?

You have to have the passion for the many aspects of the job. It involves creating networks and meeting new people all the time.

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Therefore, you should be patient with all the people you interact with, acknowledge the fact that they come from different cultural backgrounds and even get to learn what they like.

Kenya is one of the best destinations in the world with amazing safari destinations, great beaches and incredible cultures.

Marketing, however, is key. People have to know what is on offer and if you prepare easy-to-pay packages, the message has to be disseminated fast and efficiently.

What are some of the challenges?

Setting up is not easy. You need capital. I invested my entire savings in the business and I still had to struggle initially. We needed safari vehicles, a secretariat, staff as well as a host of other requirements of a new tour business.

But all that goes down the drain if you do not allow the business time to start yielding returns. In my case, it took nearly two years before we were making a profit after clearing all the overheads.

And for a business to establish itself in the midst of competition, it has to have a unique edge . We targeted Kenyans, we got them to visit the Coast and we revived local tourism.

This of course was made possible by support from associates in the hotel industry such as Amani Tiwi Beach , Kaskazi Beach and Travellers Beach hotels, with whom we were able to move over 400 people in the Easter of 1999.

Has it been smooth sailing since that time?

Like any other business, we were seeking to expand and I travelled to the US to market. A series of unfortunate events around the time almost brought the business to its knees.

The US Embassy in Nairobi had been attacked by terrorists a couple of years earlier and Paradise hotel in Kikambala was hit next. If that was not enough, Kenya got a lengthy travel ban from America and Europe.

How did you survive?

With the investment yielding no returns and my marketing capital gone up in smoke because of the ban, I took a job and established a cleaning company to survive. But we stayed focused on travel and coordinated the travel requirements of the few guests we could procure.

Did the company manage to regain its footing?

Coming into the market 10 years later is no mean feat. You find that the industry has been flooded with new players and competition that was hardly there before. But competition is healthy when you are open minded. With free market economic principles, everyone gets a share of the cake. Employees end up getting great deals, there is greater awareness and the industry generally improves in many aspects.

The new generation of Kenyans are more aware digitally and as long as you market online you will get the chance to serve this particular group along with your earlier clients who are familiar with your operations.

On making a company stand out from the rest in a crowded market...

I ensure that my destinations are exclusively unique. This Easter, we are taking our clients to Wasini Island in Kenya’s South Coast. We are offering them a chance to swim with dolphins in their natural habitat.

A service like that in the US will set you back $250 (Sh25,000). You also have to wait for the right season, and you will be quarantined. In Kenya, dolphins are always there. All you pay for is the hotel board and transport.

We are marketing an all-inclusive package that is tailor-made for locals. We market throughout eastern Africa and have been making bookings for clients from Uganda and Rwanda. We have been getting positive response because of our installments which allow clients affordable safari.