From the moment he started Nappet Tours and Travel, Thomas Agutu knew his company was going to offer tourists more beyond just their sojourns in Kenya. He, therefore, established a mission tours and travel company that offers purpose-inspired safaris.He narrates how travelling with missionaries has helped him see the world differently.
Yours is a tours company catering to missionaries and volunteers. How did you narrow down to this niche?
I have pastor friends who would on numerous occasions come to me asking if there were affordable rates for volunteers and missionary pastors looking to take the gospel beyond Nairobi. At the same time, I was getting complaints from churches that paid for tours and travel services and were disappointed in what they were offered.
It was then that I spotted a gap in the industry. I figured that mission tourists, domestic or international, requires a different kind of tour experience. So I started on a quest to offer just that. That was in 2004.
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What regret in the tours and travel services did churches have?
Among the disappointments were the high prices of the safaris. A short-term mission safari takes a minimum of two weeks with longer ones lasting well over a month.
To charge these mission tourists without giving discounts would mean hundred of thousands of shillings spent on travel and accommodation, which makes little sense to someone on a mission. The logistics of handling the relief goods was also a challenge.
How did you remedy this?
Since we work with groups of a minimum of 10 people who stay for at least two weeks at their mission destination, we are able to negotiate missionary rates with hotels – favourable rates due to the numbers we bring them, and offer affordable transport due to the economies of scale.
Having a background in clearing and forwarding helps a lot with handling logistics. Also, focusing on mission travel has helped us understand from first-hand experience that mission trip planning is unlike any other traditional safari planning.
You work with Serve Ministries from the USA. How did this partnership come to be?
My clearing and forwarding company was clearing Serve Ministries’ containers of relief food that were coming from USA to Kenya through their Food for Christ mission.
Looking at the cost implications of transporting the foods from the USA to the Coastal port, from the port to Nairobi, Nairobi to Turkana, not forgetting the tax rendered on the goods, I figured that money could be put to better use.
So I told them that the food – lentils and rice – they were shipping could be found locally. We reasoned that besides the cost savings they would make, this was an opportunity to empower Kenyan small scale farmers.
They were on board with the idea, so we reached out to farmers in Nakuru and asked them to plant green grams and lentils which are very high in protein.
With the savings made, we identified other areas we could reach out to, as Serve was only targeting Turkana at the time.
What other areas did you identify?
Among the areas we identified was Rarieda in Siaya County where I was born and bred. We specifically target widows and orphans. Instead of giving them food, we empower them financially to cater for their families.
Why empower widows and not any other group, say the youth?
We empower widows through the Nyogaya foundation established five years ago, because widows suffer most upon the demise of the husband.
In the rural village where I grew up, employment opportunities are scarce and often, subsistence farming is one of the sources of livelihood for the family.
Upon the passing away of the husband, one would expect that the widow would continue depending on the family land for livelihood, but that’s not usually the case.
The land together with any other property the late husband had acquired is sometimes taken away from the widow by the husband’s family and sold off.
In extreme situations, the widow is sent away with her children by the husband’s family. Other times, she is forcefully married off.
Refusing to get re-married can get her excommunicated from the village, making it hard for her to fend for her children.
Using the widows to bring change to the villages is our way of changing this culture. By equipping and socio-economically empowering widows to take care of orphans, we show people that widows are well able to manage households and do not necessarily need a man to make household decisions.
How successful have you been in changing this culture?
First, success in changing any culture requires an understanding that different regions have different needs and abilities, so we don’t force our will on them. Instead, we identify what they want and empower them in that way.
Those that are good in working with sisals, we give them the necessary tools to start them off. There are those who are good in pottery.
For the farmers, we have pumped water from Lake Victoria to farms for their goats and to water their greenhouses. Some of it goes through a purification process for home use. So far, we have seven villages relying on that water. To make it safer for drinking, we have partnered with Uzima to distribute water filters.
The proceeds from these activities have enabled them take their kids to school and provide food and shelter. They have also set up savings and loaning schemes.
They are no longer taken advantage of by fishermen due to their desperation to feed their children and their children are not ending up on the streets or in orphanages for lack of food, shelter and education.
We also organise about five free medical camps annually, where volunteer doctors from the US and locally attend to the villagers.
With these, we accomplish the six pillars of the Nyongaya foundation; shelter, sanitation, nutrition, health care, education and economic security.
What challenges do you face as a mission tours and travel company?
Our main challenge lies in dealing with emotions of missionaries. When we visit some places, it is hard to convince the missionaries that there are people living there, given the conditions. They end up crying the entire day.
Some get so frustrated at their inability to do more than they already have. We get reports of some of them having fallen into depression on returning home.
To manage this, we always have a devotion every morning. Besides sharing the word, we try and prepare them for what they are about to encounter. We encourage them to know that despite what they might experience, there’s a God behind all of it.
There’s also the interaction between the missionaries and the locals that we try to limit, due to susceptibility to communicable diseases.
However, in as much as we want to limit contact, emotions get the better of us and we want to greet and hug and give love to them.
To mitigate this, we advise against eating anything without thoroughly sanitising your hands.