His introduction to life may not have been the easiest, but he’s shaken this off to build a business that has a presence in Kenya, Tanzania and Norway.
“My mother died a few weeks after giving birth to me. I was very ill at birth, and my father, who was a road engineer, travelled a lot. When things became critical, my grandparents took me to a nearby mission hospital, Thessalia Mission. This is where I met the person who became my Norwegian mother,” he says.
Norbert later lost his father when he was 8 years old. After he sat his KCPE exams at Thessalia Mission Primary in Muhoroni, Kisumu County, he left Kenya for Norway.
“I went on to study shipping and started my career at Nor-cargo AS (today Bring Cargo). When I came back home for a visit in 1999, I was appalled at the state of my childhood home, Thessalia Mission. I decided to do something about it.”
This visit inspired the founding of Jambo Travelhouse, a tour company, in 2000. Its aim was to promote cultural tourism in Norbert’s hometown and improve the lives of the community.
Two years later, Nobert partnered with Kenya-based tour operator Mark Sang, and together they’ve built Jambo Travelhouse into a tours and travel behemoth.
Tell us about Jambo Travelhouse.
We handle safaris across the East African region. Most of our clientele comes from Europe, particularly Norway, where I live. We also hire out our vehicles to other tour companies, institutions and individual customers.
Why did you pick tourism as the vehicle you’d use to help your community?
I left Muhoroni when I was 14. When I got to Norway, I tried very hard to forget about my past because I had come from a place that had a lot of sadness and difficulty. Norway was an escape, a new beginning.
When I was 23, my girlfriend at the time insisted that I come back home and see my people. When I did, it hit me that my heritage would always be linked to Thessalia Mission. I wanted to give back.
The most obvious gift this place had was its natural beauty, which was undeniable despite the hardship and poverty that surrounded it. I thought to myself, ‘People should come here and experience the contrasts of life’.
Was there infrastructure to support tourism in the area?
I wasn’t interested in doing hotel-based safaris. I wanted people to come and see life through the eyes of the locals. It wasn’t something that was being done and I felt the Kenya we sold did not reflect on the true experiences of a majority of the population.
I had grown up in a missionary compound and had childhood memories of a sparkling place. That compound, though derelict, still existed.
I spoke with the mission’s management and the national board of the Free Pentecostal Fellowship of Kenya, and they allowed me to renovate the previous Norwegian boarding school to give guests a place to stay. These renovations cost Sh600,000, which I raised from my savings.
In August that same year, I returned with my very first group of tourists – three of my Norwegian friends.
What were you charging?
The cost for staying at Thessalia Guesthouse was Sh3,000 per person per night and Sh2,000 to participate in cultural events in the nearby communities of Koguta and Kapchebwai.
My guests were enthralled by the scenery, culture and traditions of the Luo and Kalenjin, and the warmth and hospitality of the locals, many of whom had very little but hadn’t give up hope for a better life.
In 2001, one of the guests who’d taken the trip wrote about it in a Norwegian newspaper. We got excellent publicity from this.
For the next five years, we organised five trips a year to Muhoroni. Each trip had approximately 15 to 20 guests and lasted 14 to 17 days.
What was the full itinerary?
We did Nairobi–Naivasha–Nakuru–Muhoroni–Maasai Mara–Mombasa. A different itinerary also included Mount Kenya. We still do these packages to date.
Most people who want to travel to Kenya think of Maasai Mara and Mombasa. How difficult is it to convince them to take trips to Muhoroni?
You’d be surprised at how many people would rather see something different. Kenya is more than the Maasai Mara. Whenever we do these trips, we take a survey at the end, and over 95 per cent of the guests say Muhoroni was the best part of their safari.
There is something magical about interacting with real people living their real lives. We explore the villages, go to marketplaces, learn how to cook local meals; we eat, dance, drink and share stories around camp fires under starlit skies. You can’t substitute that with a luxury hotel visit.
Don’t get me wrong, those are incredible, but this experience is completely unique because Muhoroni is completely unique.
You started the trips to give back to the community, how do you do this?
As the business grew, we saw the need to establish our own CSR organisation, Compassion Africa. Through this organisation, so far we’ve dug three boreholes, built at least 45 homes to house orphans, given scholarships for primary and high school, and initiated programmes to empower women. There’s still a lot more to do.
The tourism sector takes a hit whenever there’s instability around politics or security. How do you deal with this?
Our biggest strength has come from diversification. We realised, for instance, that we couldn’t survive on the Muhoroni trips alone, so we introduced tours all over East Africa.
We also acknowledged that because tourism is seasonal, we needed an extra avenue to take us through the downtimes, so we introduced transport services for weddings, funerals, school trips, conferences and so on.
When other tour companies were off-loading their vehicles because of the liability of maintaining large fleets, we made a purposeful decision to increase ours. Now, we have 30 vehicles, which include mini-vans, 28-seater buses and Land Cruisers.
Our next big thing is to go eco-friendly. We want to transform some of our vehicles from running on fuel to running on electricity. An electric car will charge for an hour at a cost of Sh160 and cover 410 kilometres.
A similar petrol car will cost Sh3,000 to fill up and cover 300 kilometres. The math speaks for itself.
Any company that makes it in this industry must stay ahead of the game. Innovation is everything.
With the stiff competition in Kenya, is tourism still a viable business?
It takes hard work like anything else, but yes. Our turnover in year one was $30,000 (Sh300,000). We stabilised in 2005 with a turnover of $250,000 (Sh25 million). In 2012, one of our best years, we hit a turnover of $900,000 (Sh90 million). There’s money, for sure.
What’s the secret to building a successful company in a sector that’s seen many others fail?
Partnerships are essential. I made the right decision partnering with Mark. We started off with just one car in a tiny office off Kirichwa Road in Milimani. At the time, I knew very little about tourism because I came from a shipping and oil industry background.
I worked full-time in Norway until 2016 when I resigned from my job. It was a big and scary step and my peers thought I was insane to walk away from a seven-figure salary, but I felt I had reached my peak.
I think the secret to success is to have a strong reason for doing what you’re doing, the courage to be different, the guts to step off the ledge, and a solid plan to see your idea through.
My mantra is if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space. I am always diversifying, looking for new things to try.
Apart from Jambo Travelhouse, I run a real estate company in Norway and still offer consultancies in the oil and gas industry. In Kenya, I co-own a club, Number 7, with TV producer Eugene Mbugua. It’s a project we’re very proud of.
In my life, there’s no time to be idle. It’s important to do things that keep your drive alive.
And what drives you?
I think the Western world has a flawed or incomplete image of Kenya or Africa as a whole. There are hardships on this continent, but that’s not what defines us as a people.
I want to be a part of the changing rhetoric, to show we are proud, hardworking, willing and capable of impacting positive change in our own lives.
Register to advertise your products & services on our classifieds website Digger.co.ke and enjoy one month subscription free of charge and 3 free ads on the Standard newspaper.