Each region of the world is fraught with its own issues when it comes to responsible tourism. This is particularly true of Africa, where the issues are paired with the deep cynicism from decades of development and “aid” projects. Around that thriving aid industry, however, runs the pulse of the tourism industry — and the massive influx of money that brings in towards innovation and new ideas. I visited East Africa for several months last year and each new day undercovered fresh highs and lows of the region’s tourism industry. From the exploitative and the confusing, to the truly innovative and unique, these projects form the fabric of traveling through East Africa.
My passion throughout my travels lies in finding interesting local projects and social enterprises. I’m vocal about my belief that the voluntourism industry is in need of change, and one way forward is by encouraging volunteers to look at responsible tourism as an extension of the volunteering industry. Supporting local social enterprises empowers travelers to invest money directly into a local solution developed to address local social issues.
One project that stood out during my months in East Africa is the work being done at Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya. On the surface, the camp is much like many eco-camps in various parts of the world: tourists interact with the local culture in an environmentally-conscious way. The details and the business model behind the camp, however, show how Maji Moto has created a strong and sustainable social business model that considers twin goals of maintaining the integrity of the Maasai culture while working with tourists for cultural exchange.
At Maji Moto, Salaton Ole Ntutu is the visionary Community Chief who saw a unique opportunity to use tourism to create and support projects that preserve his culture and environment. Tourists visiting the camp stay in mud huts modernized with just enough creature comforts to keep everything cozy during chilly nights on the Loita plains. During the day, Maasai guides lead nature walks, teach warrior skills or beadworking, and share what being a modern Maasai means to them. They talk of their culture and history, but also what led them to Salaton and to this very camp.
Tourist dollars from the camp are then funneled into a range of projects Salaton built from the ground up. There’s the Enkiteng Lepa primary school that sponsors vulnerable children and teaches a modern education alongside traditional Maasai learnings. He’s built a widow’s village to give the women a support network as well as an income — the widows teach beadwork within the tourist camp. Perhaps most notable is Salaton’s work to address and end practices such as female circumcision and early marriage. These ambitious projects take funding, and Salaton built a camp that directly supports every aspect of his goal. Tourists not only learn about the Maasai, but they learn about the projects and the integrative approach one Maasai chief is taking to address social change within his community. Salaton’s camp and the activities are structured with careful thoughtfulness that engenders a positive experience on both sides: tourists and Maasai.
Maji Moto is an intriguing tourism model within East Africa. You see, there is no shortage of NGOs working on ending female circumcision within the Maasai tribes, but Salaton has the unique position as a community chief and a leader to affect wide and lasting change within his own people. Decades of outside solutions to internal problems have led to a deep cynicism in the African development industry. Dark humor is their hidden whip; a taxi driver in Nairobi asked me with a straight face, “So, tell me how you have come to save us.” The point at which parody is the norm is a time to take stock and explore new models.
I’m not throwing out development, aid, nor voluntourism, but instead looking at the ways that new, responsible tourism projects are shaping the face of modern tourism. Projects like Maji Moto take the textbook concepts of social enterprise and put them into practical application within the tourism industry. Textbooks and development models miss the delicate nuances of culture brushing against culture, the messy work of integrating real people and communities into at-scale businesses. This is an industry where tourists visit rural projects with expectations and leave with armed with an opinion and social media at their beck and call to amplify their voice. One reason I love social enterprise is largely because these organizations are in the trenches figuring out what the modern responsible tourism model is going to look like when paired with a growing and thriving multitrillion-dollar international tourism industry.
Considering a visit to Maji Moto?
Where: Maji Moto is on the edge of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park. The next closest town is Narok, Kenya.
When: Open year round, though busiest during the safari season.
What You Can Do: The tours are family-friendly and can include warrior training skills, learning the intricate beadwork, educational walks to learn about plants and wildlife, and immersive experiences into daily Maasai life. You can also book a safari through Maji Moto and an experienced Maasai guide will lead you through The Mara searching for the Big Five.
Booking a Trip: Use their website and contact them directly. There are other similarly named camps so make sure you have the right one!