Protecting lands and empowering communities through tourism: Interview with Adumu Safaris

Adumu Safaris was created by husband and wife team David and Danielle with the aim of protecting and restoring thousands of hectares of Maasailand. Despite the exploitative practices of many in the industry, they believe tourism also provides the opportunity to empower millions of Maasai to hold onto their traditional way of life and ability to sustainably coexist with wildlife. Here Rebecca Waller talks to David and Danielle to find out more their social enterprise model and how they are working in partnership with local communities to bring about positive change.

REBECCA: What impact is the tourism industry having on the Maasai way of life and their ability to graze their animals freely?

Adumu Safaris co-founder David Ole Ngoseck
Adumu Safaris co-founder David Ole Ngoseck

DAVID: Foreign investors are buying large chunks of land for hunting blocks and to build permanent lodges for tourists. These practices limit the traditional way in which Maasai graze their livestock. For hundreds of years, Maasai lived freely with their cattle on the rangeland, co-existing and interacting peacefully with wildlife. Today, Maasai are seen as a tourist attraction – we have to change that mentality.

Adumu Safaris co-founder Danielle Heard Mollel
Adumu Safaris co-founder Danielle Heard Mollel

DANIELLE: Adding to what David has said, the Maasai pastoralist way of life requires full access to their ancestral homelands so that Maasai can freely move their cattle to green areas during different times of the year. Not being able to do this leaves Maasai food insecure and also leads to overgrazing and turning to agriculture that in turn leads to increased human-wildlife conflict. Foreign companies are also reaping huge profits from tourism activities occurring on Maasai ancestral homelands without giving much of it back to the community, a highly exploitative practice. In the worst cases, foreign companies are violently forcing Maasai off their lands.

REBECCA: In what ways can tourism also provide opportunities to safeguard Maasai traditions and empower communities? 

DANIELLE: While tourism poses a crisis, it also poses an opportunity to empower millions of Maasai to hold onto their traditional ability to sustainably coexist with wildlife. By incorporating Maasai more directly into tourism in the region through meaningful employment and by working with communities to leverage tourism to hold onto their lands for tourism and conservation, tour companies, Maasai, and the planet all benefit.

DAVID: Maasai need access to our land. Responsible tourism and community-based tourism brings opportunities for us to hold onto our land and bring generational wealth into our communities. We need education—at young ages and later in tourism and hospitality training programs. We need employment, and employment in tourism increases our income without compromising the rights of legal communities. Tourism has the potential to generate locally-owned business and job creation for Maasai economic self-determination.

REBECCA: Given their intimate knowledge of many of Kenya and Tanzania’s iconic parks, why have the Maasai been excluded from guiding opportunities for so long and not included in anti-poaching efforts?

DAVID: Mainly, this is due to a lack of education. Formal guiding school is required to learn specific skills necessary to host international travelers on safari. Education is also needed to be professionally engaged in anti-poaching campaigns. Maasai who have been involved are often not compensated equally for their work or are hired as servants or cultural tokens to add “authenticity” to the safari experience.  

DANIELLE: Another reason is simply that the safari industry has roots in colonialism and an exploitative, racist attitude toward local people. Until recently, foreign companies have seen no obligation to engage with locals as industry partners – but now we are seeing more of a cultural shift toward responsible tourism in the region and globally. However, there is still a lot of work to do to repair the gross inequities and injustices formed by decades of tourism entrenched in the colonial mentality. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of companies still acting without responsibility to local communities. 

REBECCA:Protecting lands and empowering communities through tourism: Interview with Adumu Safaris How did Adumu Safaris come about and how do you do things differently from your competitors? 

DAVID: In 2018, I prepared to start a Master’s in sustainable tourism while continuing to work on human-wildlife conflicts for California Fish and Wildlife. At the same time, my wife came across a study by the Oakland Institute documenting the erosion of Maasai culture through land rights abuses in the Serengeti, corroborating my own experience as a Maasai growing up in that area. In the context of my studies, my experience as a Maasai struggling to survive culturally and physically in the face of community land loss, and my wife’s work in Black Studies and social justice research, we began to brainstorm together how to lead safari tours in a way that not only avoids the problem but reverses it.

We learned from Maasai activists that tourism poses a crisis but also an opportunity for Maasai attempting to hold onto their ancestral homelands. We learned from friends in the social impact world how social enterprises are efficient tools for scalable impact solutions. Soon, we came up with the idea of “Adumu Safaris”, a social impact safari company named after the “jumping dance”, an emblem of Maasai cultural pride, tradition, sustainable coexistence with wildlife, and metaphor for Maasai uplift. 

Protecting lands and empowering communities through tourism: Interview with Adumu Safaris
Adumu Safaris is named after the traditional Maasai ‘jumping dance’

DANIELLE: How do we do things differently? Firstly, we are a social enterprise, which means we are as interested in achieving our social impact mission and vision as we are in the success of our business. 55% of each year’s proceeds go to Adumu Impact, our partner non-profit, which implements the programs in our theory of change, the ultimate goal of which is to protect and restore thousands of hectares of Maasailand for sustainable coexistence with wildlife.

Also, while we are an international tour operator, we are equally community-based, employing locals and partnering with smaller community-based tourism initiatives to provide unique, off the beaten path experiences for our clients. We are also community-accountable in ways few, if any, tour companies are.

REBECCA: Your itineraries successfully combine the traditional safari experience with opportunities for cultural immersion and cross-cultural understanding. How is this achieved and are the majority of tourists who choose Adumu Safaris interested in these types of experiences and social impact itineraries more generally?

DANIELLE: Currently, we work with our community partners to provide authentic cross-cultural experiences that are life-changing for our travelers. It is important to us that Maasai and other host communities have complete control of how they represent themselves to foreign visitors. This ensures respect, authenticity, and truly meaningful experiences. We want to avoid any form of cultural voyeurism while we also understand the value for both sides of authentic cross-cultural experiences.

Maasai have a lot to teach the world about the region, about wildlife, about their unique history and culture, and about how to live with little to no carbon footprint. Many of our clients have formed deep friendships with those they have met on our tours and continue to converse with and support them from abroad. I can think of one client who recently told us that they were surprised that the cultural immersion experiences were their favorite part of their safari.

DAVID: We have been lucky to convince our clients and travel agents to use our customized itineraries that include cultural immersion. Clients see the value of supporting local communities in the region, even if such a consideration hadn’t crossed their mind when first looking for a safari tour operator. We do cater to the socially conscious traveller, and fortunately more and more travellers are socially conscious these days. Another point: we Maasai are a very proud people, very proud of our culture, and we love to show others how we live and teach visitors about our way of life. We are also a very warm and hospitable people, as are most East Africans. If we are in control of how we represent ourselves to others, we are very happy to bring visitors into our culture and show them our Indigenous ways.

REBECCA: One of the long-term aims of Adumu Safaris and your partner, Adumu Impact, is to purchase land for Maasai communities instead of it going for foreign-owned tourism developments. How achievable is this aim and what kind of timeframe do you have in mind?

DANIELLE: Tourism is a leveraging tool that pleases all parties when done responsibly—the industry, the tourists, the governments who profit from tourism, the communities, and the environment. For this reason, it is an extremely effective tool for achieving the restoration of thousands of hectares of ancestral land in a relatively short period of time. However, as of yet, no one has created a model like ours with such ambitious aims. Hence, we shall see if it works! But based on our conversations with activists and researchers in the community, and based on our detailed theory of change, we believe that we can accomplish most of what we set out to do in 10 years’ time. 

DAVID: Yes, take a look at our theory of change model. It outlines all the steps to achieving our goal. We also hope to do a lot of leading by example, which will accelerate achieving our goals when others in the industry follow our model.

Protecting lands and empowering communities through tourism: Interview with Adumu Safaris
Group of zebras in Tarangire National Park / Tanzania.
Protecting lands and empowering communities through tourism: Interview with Adumu Safaris
Flamingos at Lake Bogoria, in Kenya
Rebecca Waller
Rebecca Waller
Rebecca Waller holds an MSc. in Responsible Tourism Management and specialises in sustainable tourism product development, with a focus on Latin America and East Africa. She is also a freelance writer and currently edits the news for Travindy and the blog section for Sumak Travel.

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