Q&A: How To Run A Community-Driven Tourism Venture In Africa

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Written by Lyn Eyb

Wycliffe Sande is a Ugandan travel entrepreneur.

As founder and CEO of Sandfield Travel, he claims to provide sustainable African adventures based on community-driven principles.

The company offers a range of tours, from traditional safari experiences to volunteer-based holidays and work experience programs at orphanages and animal sanctuaries, and on conservation projects. It returns 10 percent of all profits back to community projects, including medical centres, schools and social enterprises.

The company – and in particular its emphasis on volunteerism – was inspired by Sande’s childhood. A young, orphaned Sande spent his childhood in poverty in Uganda, attending school under the shade of a mango tree and working various part-time jobs to fund his education.

His life changed when he befriended a young British woman who was spending her gap year in Uganda. Her family later sponsored Sande through school, and he went on to study law in London before moving into the corporate world with the multinational giant, Nestlé.

For Sande, these were stepping stones that would lead him back to where it all started. He packed his bags and left London, returning home to set up Sandfield Travel in 2010.

His vision was for a company that would give international visitors – and, increasingly, Africans – a “real” African experience, while helping to develop community projects. You can read more of Wycliffe Sande’s back story here.

AFKInisder spoke to him about the tourism industry in Africa, and about the challenges of driving a start-up business on the continent.

 AFKInsider: You studied law in London before going on to work for a multinational. How valuable in terms of networking, investment and marketing was this experience?

Sande: To be honest, the company has been almost entirely funded from my own savings, so it’s not as if my corporate background gave me the inside track to huge financial backers. The most important investment I ever received was when a family agreed to sponsor my education in Uganda – that was what changed the course of my life. The biggest thing I took away from my previous career and education was the understanding of how a business should run, and the confidence and belief that I could actually use what I had learned to do something I really care about.

AFKInsider: What changes have you seen in African tourism in general and in Uganda in particular since you set up?

Sande: I think there have been some interesting steps forward in recent years for African tourism, with many countries embracing it as a key to economic development. Clamping down on poaching has clearly been key to protecting tourism long-term in Africa, and initiatives like the joint tourist visa for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda go a long way to spreading the benefits of tourism.

For a country like Uganda, whose annual marketing spend on international tourism is reportedly less than $1 million, there is a huge opportunity to attract visitors cross-border. However, if the country wants to really maximise the benefit trickling down into the fabric of the economy, it had better start reinvesting tourism revenue into smart ways of promoting the country or risk being outshone by its neighbours.

AFKInsider: International visitors still drive the market, but around 20 percent of your customers also come from within Africa. Can you tell us about this demand?

WS: As a company we love showing off the amazing sights of Africa to visitors coming in from Europe and America, but it is wonderful that tourists from other African countries are now also travelling with us. Africa is such a huge and diverse continent that it contains almost every type of landscape, wildlife and culture imaginable, so it is great that Africans are now spending their vacations exploring what is closer to home rather than heading to Europe, Asia or America.

AFKInsider: African tourism is competitive, with local enterprises competing with international heavyweights. What advantage do local operators have over international companies with a bigger reach, bigger marketing budgets and the capacity to offer a wider range of itineraries?

Sande: Admittedly being bigger does go hand in hand with bigger marketing budgets, reach and capacity, but everyone has to play to their strengths in life, and being smaller has its advantages too. We are flexible enough to offer tours that are completely tailored to every customer, we’re small enough to give truly personal service and we have such close relationships with businesses and communities in Africa that we can offer an experience that is truly authentic at an extremely competitive price.

It is difficult [competing], but all businesses need to play to their own strengths and embrace what it is that makes them different. Our local knowledge and connections with businesses and communities actually mean that rather than always trying to compete with big international operations, we can add value to them, and actually provide support on the ground in Africa for these businesses and their customers.

AFKInsider: You talk about your local ties and relationships, how important is it for local communities to engage with tourism?

Sande: It is vital. Of course some areas are always going to be more attractive to tourists than others, but it is vital that businesses and governments get the message across to communities that they must take a long-term view of tourism. Chasing the short-term dollars and either damaging the environment or creating negative experiences for visitors could have a catastrophic effect for the long-term development of these communities.

AFKInsider: Coming back to your background, how have your own experiences influenced your decisions as an entrepreneur?

Sande: I believe who we are as people is influenced by all the experiences we have had in our lives up to this point, so I’m sure my background influences my approach to business. Many people seem to focus on what they want, whereas I would say I always appreciate what I have. I also believe it is important to treat every person with respect as an individual – everybody you come into contact with has something to teach you, something which I think a lot of entrepreneurs forget when they make it big.

AFKInsider: What are some of the challenges facing other African tourism start-ups?

Sande: Building up trust and credibility as a business is one of the biggest challenges. Rightly or wrongly, people across the rest of the world often have preconceptions in their heads about what Africa and Africans are like, and they may sometimes prejudge your business based on that.

AFKInsider: Finally, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs considering a tourism venture on the continent?

Sande: Firstly, it is not something to be entered into lightly – it will need a huge investment in time and possibly money, so make sure you have researched everything thoroughly. Secondly always keep the bigger picture in mind. Whatever you do will have implications for other people – the community, the environment – so if you are serious about building a tourism business, make sure it is a sustainable, responsible one. Finally, don’t be afraid to be who you are – play to your strengths and don’t be too proud to ask for help and advice.