Childhood friends turn passion into a thriving tour company


Pancras Karema, Co-founder and CEO of Expeditions Maasai Safaris, in his office in Ngara, Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

What started as a childhood passion, has now turned into a thriving enterprise for two childhood friends. Mr Pancras Karema and Lawrence Gitonga are the co-founders of Expeditions Maasai Safaris; a tour company based in Ngara, Nairobi.

Karema says the company currently has over 50 employees, including drivers, guides, tour consultants and administrative staff.

“The idea of starting a tour company was born when we were in college. We both shared a passion for the beauty of Kenya since our childhood days, having grown up near the Mt Kenya Forest, where we used to sneak out for adventure," says Karema, who is the CEO of the company. His friend, Mr Gitonga is the managing director.

"As ardent adventurers, we wanted to share our love for and the beauty of Kenya; not only with our friends, but also with other Kenyans and the world. We actualised our dream in 2015 when we officially registered Expeditions Maasai Safaris as a business.”

He adds that they initially sourced capital from their savings from the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb); after he kept away some of the money they received for their studies at the university.

“We started with a modest capital of Sh10,000; with each of us contributing Sh5,000. We could hire a PSV matatu to take our classmates out for hikes on the weekends,” says Karema, who is in his early 30s.

He says that they chose to start a tour business because they have a deep love for Kenya’s natural beauty and wildlife.

“We wanted to create authentic and unforgettable experiences for travellers, both in Kenya and outside the country.”

“I have a Bachelor’s degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management from the University of Nairobi and was voted Kenya’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Under 30 in 2019 and East Africa’s Young CEO of the Year in 2020,” he says.

“We have focused on exceptional customer service, keeping our promise to our customers and partners, giving back to society and taking advantage of social media to get our name out to the adventure and holiday goers in Kenya and beyond," reveals Karema.

"Over time, we have established a strong online presence and solidified partnerships with international partners and have been nominated as Kenya’s Leading Travel Agency since 2019 by the prestigious World Travel Awards. We have also won the SME of the Year Award as well as the Leading SME in Hospitality and Tourism by Bizna Kenya’s SME Awards,” reveals Karema.

In the beginning, the entrepreneur says, they faced challenges in terms of competition from established companies, marketing and building a reputation.

“It was tough, but our passion and dedication kept us going,” he adds.

Other challenges that they have experienced include fluctuating tourist numbers due to factors like political instability, Covid-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living.

The entrepreneur reveals that the cost of a tour vehicle can range from Sh3 million to over Sh10 million, depending on number of passenger seats and customisations. They have a fleet of 15 vehicles.

“We own a fleet of safari vehicles, which are integral to our business. We also have a maintenance team to keep them in good condition. We primarily use our vehicles for land transportation, but we also collaborate with airlines and rail companies to give our customers more options.”

To establish a tour company, he says, one ought to have a deep understanding of the tourism industry - licenses and permits, knowledgeable guides, professional tour consultants and a network of partners in the industry.

“Running a tour company in Kenya can be challenging due to regulatory requirements, seasonal variations in tourism and competition. However, with dedication and a unique value proposition, it can be rewarding,” he says.


Pancras Karema, Co-founder and CEO of Expeditions Maasai Safaris, in his office in Ngara, Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

Karema reveals that they get clients through a combination of online marketing, partnerships with international travel agencies and word of mouth from satisfied customers.

He admits that the high cost of living in Kenya affects their business as it influences the service charges they can offer to their clients, ‘but we work to provide excellent value.’

The CEO says that they have a mix of local and international clients and that their international clients come from countries like the USA, Australia, Poland, UK, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

He adds that they take their clients to a variety of destinations, including Maasai Mara, Amboseli National Park, Tsavo National Park, Serengeti, Ngorongoro and the Kenyan coast.

“Our self-drive getaways to Naivasha, Sagana, Nakuru and Elementaita, are popular for the weekends. We also have outbound holiday offerings to some of the major holiday destinations in the world like Zanzibar, Dubai, South Africa, Mauritius, the Maldives, Seychelles, and Europe, to name just a few," he says.

"For the corporates, we have competitive and fun team-building packages and are proud to have worked with some of the big brands in Kenya like Co-operative Bank, Ecobank, Heritage Insurance, World Vision, Prime Bank, PWC, to mention just a few,” he adds.

Their service charges vary, based on the destination and the duration of the tour, but on average, a 3-day safari in Maasai Mara might cost as low as Sh14,500 per person.

His advice to those looking to establish a similar business is to be passionate about the industry, be patient, and focus on providing excellent customer experiences.

“Our plans include expanding our footprint in the region as well as more international markets, listing on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, and further sustainable tourism initiatives. We aim to continue promoting Kenya’s natural beauty, while contributing to its conservation and creating more employment opportunities for our people,” he says.

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