To see how tourism is helping with conservation and community development, we talked to Jon Brown, of Virgin Limited Edition, about Mahali Mzuri, their camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara
s the world entered a new millennium, Jon Brown, then director of La Residencia – a boutique hotel in Majorca – took up the offer to manage a small collection of properties for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Limited Edition (namely Ulusaba in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa, Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, and The Roof Gardens in London). The opportunity was “timely”, says Jon, “because it presented itself [just] as the sale of La Residencia to Orient Express was approaching… and here I am 17 years later.”
Since then, the company has added Mahali Mzuri to its portfolio, a lavish tented camp in the Motorogi Conservancy in Kenya’s Masai Mara ecosystem. Jon, now Managing Director of Virgin Limited Edition, says the decision to establish a lodge in the area came about because of Branson’s long-held affection for the area: “Sir Richard has always had a personal interest in Kenya, so it was a natural step to introduce a property there. In his own words: ‘There’s something about Kenya that makes you feel there’s magic in the air, wonder at every turn and an ever-present sensation of oneness with nature’.
“Our aim was to create a modern safari tented camp that remains visually discrete in its immediate environment with sensitivity to the history and personality of the site,” Jon says. “Our key priorities were to ensure a minimal land footprint while promoting high-value, low-density tourism, which creates less pressure on the environment.”
Tourism is vital for the long-term conservation of the Mara, not to mention the economic benefits it provides to Kenya as a whole. “It is so important for tourism to be managed responsibly and sustainably so that the ecosystem can continue to flourish creating a fantastic safari experience.” A major part of this philosophy is that Mahali Mzuri restricts the number of visitors allowed into the area at any one time and ensures that guides adhere to a strict code of conduct.
“A key component to this is ensuring that the community sees the direct benefit of conserving the land and understanding that there are benefits to using the land in this way, which can be comparable to (if not better than) other land-use patterns, such as agriculture.”
Jon believes that being located in a conservancy as opposed to the national reserve itself offers a considerable number of advantages, not just for guests but conservation and the local communities alike. “Operating within a conservancy means that we are able to better control the number of vehicles and guests. This, in turn, means it is not crowded and is better for the animals. It has also enabled us to create our own relationships and friendships with the local communities, who see the direct impact of the work we are doing.”
The strong relationship the team has fostered with the Maasai is a case in point, with the majority of staff at the camp coming from nearby. Indeed, this principle applies to each of Virgin’s properties.
Sustainability is also at the heart of Mahali Mzuri’s operations. “Take the tents, for example. The interiors have been sourced from local manufacturers and markets, and local craftspeople made the furniture out of indigenous wood,” Jon explains. “When it comes to dining, the camp is part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, which recognises the work hotels and restaurants do to source food more sustainably, manage resources more efficiently and work more closely with their community.”
Initiatives that Mahali Mzuri is involved with include providing safe drinking water to the Olkuroto community, a small, remote neighbourhood in the Maasai region of southwest Kenya; and supporting The Maa Trust’s crucial conservation efforts in the Mara, something Mahali Mzuri guests can become involved with themselves through village visits.
What’s more, the whole cost of a tour is redirected to the local people, with 40 per cent going directly to a host family and the remaining 60 per cent to The Maa Trust.
Learn more at http://www.virginlimitededition.com/en/mahali-mzuri