Hillary Kewell’s journey to launching a tours company was marked by meanders and sometimes a tough climb of crude business rivalry.
An accountant by training, the proprietor of Atai Travels says what kept him going against the odds was his unfailing interest in tourism and chirping of birds.
“Along the shores of Lake Naivasha, it was interesting to watch ordinary kingfisher bully smaller birds as they fought for a catch,” Mr Kewell says, citing an incident that influenced his course of action.
He walked out of employment armed with “aggressiveness, with passion and a great sense of entrepreneurship,” he said.
He was keen on starting a transport company having worked as a tout when he was a student.
Right from his first year at St Paul’s University in 2008, he worked as a tout in his uncle’s company but “my diligence” earned him a managerial position, a role that gave him opportunity to explore the transport market, meeting business people, and learning.
He graduated in 2010 and secured a job, was paid Sh15,000 monthly, but quit because the salary was a drop in the ocean.
“Business is the way to go,” he told himself.
In February 2013, he got a better paying job, got a loan and bought his first car with his eyes on taxi business in Kericho. His home is in Kapsoit, a few kilometres from Kericho town.
He registered the car with a firm that promised handsome earnings. “But I didn’t have enough fleet of cars to qualify; neither did I have the capacity to buy others. I sold the idea to a friend who immediately bought and delivered three cars,” he said.
However, the taxi business had ups and downs, including business rivalry.
He tried a partnership in taxi business but it did not work.
“At the turn of events, I was the most aggrieved. The other directors had their jobs, but this business was my A to Z,” he recounted.
With his partners withdrawing their vehicles, he remained with two vehicles and registered them with Uber.
“It was a bitter tale of betrayal in the city by a confidant. I had to pick up the pieces and start all over again,” he said.
“In 2016, I netted almost Sh1 million and realised I was still afloat in business. But was it sustainable? A good businessman does audits and regular evaluations. If there is no business right now, are there opportunities in future?”
However, one day, Parklands Baptist Church, where he worships and one of his key clients, hired him for a tour of Nairobi, Mombasa and Naivasha. They were impressed and the church ministers told him he would make a good travel and tours operator.
Atai Travels started in January 2016 with the purchase of two game drive vans.
Mr Kewell registered a turnover of about Sh 1 million in 2016/ 2017 and Sh2 million in the subsequent year.
“The downside about tourism is that it is seasonal, especially in Kenya who has focused on the wildebeest migration every July to October.”
He says Kenya should market other attractions like Amboseli, which is “amazing for short game drives, Tsavo East and West for elephants and lions, lakes Nakuru and Bogoria are birders’ paradises while Rift Valley has interesting gorges, ridges and other land features,” he says. He is keen tourism growth, saying his business is “making sense”.