Communities thrive on bringing tourists to the farm

The Kenyan agricultural industry may be viewed by many as a source of work not pleasure, but for an emerging class of tourist the thrill of life on the farm is seeing Kenya develop new brands of agricultural tourism and merchandising, with now an Agro Tourism Board of Kenya sat inside the Ministry of Tourism and a row of initiatives putting holidaymakers into tea plantations and factories, ahead of evenings spent in new ‘bush bars’, after a hard day picking tea.

At the forefront of the new drive is a project that set out, back in 2005, on a long-term vision to create the centre of the world’s ‘tea holidays’, in Meru. 

Officially opening this month, the Kilimo Talii initiative has been a ‘poster child’ project for The Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers (KENFAP), in partnership with Netherlands venture capitalist Agriterra, and the local community in Chogoria, Meru.

{include_intro 240 1 nested=0}
{include_intro 192 1 1 nested=0}

The community initially donated 1.6 hectares of land to put up tourist accommodation that included constructed cottages, a camping site and huts built in Meru’s housing style, all set in the scenic hills, green and lush vegetation, and beside the rivers, waterfalls and caves that are already the core tourist attractions in the area, which sits beside the Meru National Park, with Mount Kenya bordering Chogoria in the East.

However it is the tea plantations at Chogoria that have been the strongest pillars of Kilimo Talii.

When tourists visit the area, they are taken to the tea plantations, given tea plucking bags and join the locals in picking tea. Once done, they then load the tea in the trucks and escort it to the tea factory. Once in the factory, a waiting officer explains the whole process of converting the leaves and buds into tea, after which they are taken to a nearby tea café where they enjoy a cup of tea.

There is also an adjacent bush bar where the tourists can watch the sun set. “If you look at that whole chain, you can imagine how many jobs the initiative has created. This is the kind of initiative that we would like to see; that which benefits the locals who own these attraction sites,” said Mr. Charles Gitau, the programme Manager of Kilimo Talii, who also sits in the Agro Tourism Board of Kenya, created to promote the emerging form of tourism.

The tea holidays have already brought an influx of tourists to the area, but “we are working with local tour guides and ICT firms in the country, because we would like to capture the new way of doing things including tapping into e-tourism,” said Mr Gitau.

To encourage locals to commit to the project, KENFAP, the majority shareholder, initially sold shares to individual farmers at Sh100 a share, with a minimum stake of 50 shares to become a full member.

Community based organizations in Chogoria have also bought shares, but to avoid any group dominating the project, their stakes were capped at a maximum of 1000 shares, while an individual farmer was not allowed to own more than 100 shares. “Our idea was to have every member of Chogoria on board, and we wanted everyone to own a share of this project, that’s how we came up with the minimum and maximum number of shares that an individual and company can possess,” said Mr. Gitau.

KENFAP now plans to transfer another 30 per cent of its current 95 shareholding to existing shareholders by 2012, with long-term plans of letting the locals own 70 per cent of the shares by 2016.

It has also collaborated with United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to accompany the tourism development initiative with a parallel merchandising and branding project, marketing produce such as water, milk and yoghurt from the Mount Kenya region with conservation messages, depicting Mount Kenya as a World Heritage site.  ‘Let’s join hands and save our trees & rivers," reads one of the branding messages.

“The initiative is line with the government policy of spreading tourism earnings to the rural communities and ensuring sustainable utilization of tourism resources,” said Tourism Minister Najib Balala, while presenting cheques to the first beneficiaries of the program.

The thrust is also part of a growing interest worldwide in the potential for agricultural tourism. In May this year, the United Nations Tourism Organization, introduced the Sustainable Tourism for Elimination of Poverty Program, to further develop community tourism such as the Kilimo Talii program by injecting Sh16 million of funding.

As the world’s newest type of tourism, international organizations estimate community tourism may now grow by as much as 20 to 30 per cent a year in tourism numbers, by appealing to a new class of holiday makers who would rather share the lifestyle of hosting communities and learn about agricultural, environmental, cultural and social diversity.

With Kenya’s total tourism earnings now projected to hit Sh100bn by year-end, and the sector currently recording growth of 17 per cent per month in arrivals, it is hoped that agro-tourism will also now spread the benefits of the sector to the three-quarters of Kenya’s population that depends on agriculture for their primary source of income.

Early projects throughout Kenya allowing tourists access to local land and lifestyles have so far brought increased revenues through wages, land leases and development funds, and many have now gone on to fund boreholes, schools and clinics for the local community - structured either as complete community management projects or as partnerships with investors or trusts who provides the capital to build the guest accommodation and tourist facilities. 

Bob Koigi for African Laughter