‘How I partnered with Richard Branson in Mahali Mzuri’


Leena Gehlot, a Director of Mahali Mzuri and Finch Hattons Hotels in Kenya. PHOTO | POOL

Leena Gehlot's lean size hardly gives her away as the Kenyan who partnered with billionaire-investor Richard Branson in putting up the Sh100 million Mahali Mzuri luxury resort deep in Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

Ms Gehlot met Mr Branson, the founder of Virgin Group who is worth about Sh700 billion, in London where she was running a real estate development company, and they negotiated a 50-50 partnership for the development of the tourist resort.

“We met on several occasions and agreed the key aim of our investment is to restore flora and fauna under a controlled development infrastructure that ensures tourists’ numbers are kept at the bare minimum,” she says.

Ms Gehlot, who relocated to Kenya to concentrate on the development of the property leased 10,000 acres of land within Narok County that was transformed into a wildlife-only conservancy through two years of afforestation and landscaping.

“I had spent many years studying in the UK where I obtained a law degree from Nottingham University but I later changed careers and delved into construction management where I obtained a construction project management Master’s degree from Reading University,” she adds.

After several years working with a realtor firm, she set up her business that was involved in putting up residential houses in UK cities and that led to her meeting Mr Branson’s handlers. They convinced her to consider partnering with the billionaire for his planned Kenya investment.

“Mr Branson is an amiable gentleman who knows how to connect and is an extremely good listener. We discussed and I was shocked to learn his business strategy revolves around making an impact within local communities where he invests in,” she adds. Ms Gehlot says her family has been supportive of the venture that would complement their other family property, Finch Hattons, located in Tsavo West National Park. Finch Hattons has been in operation for 30 years.

While she sits in KG Company as an executive director, she is actively involved in the day-to-day running of their hospitality subsidiaries Mahali Mzuri with 60 employees and Finch Hattons with 70 employees.

The mother-of-two who is also the president of Entrepreneurs Organisation Kenya Chapter says they took advantage of the five-month complete lockdown announced by the government to refurbish the facilities, as well as re-train staff on safety and hygiene measures.

“Anything that does not kill you leaves you stronger and Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Kenya’s diversified tourism products which if well marketed can attract thousands of tourists to its shores and cities,” she said.

Ms Gehlot adds that Kenya’s strategy of marketing tourism products should be in a unified portal.

“Kenya is not only Maasai Mara and Coast, but it has an array of experiential activities that could stir interest among tourists globally,” she adds.

Her day begins at 6am with an hour-long lone moment where she reads a chapter (currently, she is reading ‘Power of Moments’ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath), writes down her day’s plans in a journal and then internalises the same for about 10 minutes.

“Intend and purpose guide my day. Any change from that routine leaves me confused and annoyed for apparently no reason,” she says, adding that ugali and sukuma wiki is her most cherished meals.

Her life’s secret is 100 percent family/work balance time where she creates time to help her children with their homework.

“My husband and I strive daily to be there for our children to prepare them for the future. I have to be home early to see them off to bed as well as to talk with them,” she adds.

Ms Gehlot, who is a regular jogger and cyclist at Karura Forest, says Kenya’s tourism sector could benefit immensely by marketing its outdoor excursions to the world.

“You have to be outdoor to enjoy wildlife or geographical features and that is what health officials say is the best remedy for Covid-19,” she adds.

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