As the world adjusts to life with Covid-19, stakeholders in the tourism industry are also making efforts to ensure that the sector untangles itself from the shackles of its main income: tourism and grants. Last year, Conservation International, in partnership with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, established the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, a loan program to help cover lease payments owed to Indigenous land owners.
The implementation of the programmes is being spearheaded by Daniel Sopia, the association’s Chief Executive Officer.
Sopia’s career in the conservation started off in 20003 when he was a room steward and laundry attendant and went the industry ladder to become a tour guide in a company called Rekero Camp (now Asilia Camp) and by the time he left the company in 2010, he was the Head Guide.
“I left on my own accord to work a freelancer guide. Later, I was employed as the Community Development Manager in a local non-governmental organisation, within the Mara,” he says.
His experience helped envision the creation of the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancy Association (MMWCA).
“This came about after I attended a conference in Nairobi that gave birth to the national conservancy umbrella body, Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association and I was elected in that meeting as the Mara representative. I came back to the Mara with a huge task because by then, there was no regional body representing us,” he reveals.
Sopia managed to lobby and mobilize different stakeholders, and towards the end of 2013, they finally agreed to the formation of a regional association, leading to the registration of MMWCA that November.
“Early 2014, we had an AGM where I was approached to take over the position of CEO, but I refused though was elected chair to the council, a position I held for three years. When my term came to an end, I wanted to go back to tourism business wise,” he says. After a few months, however, he joined the secretariat as the chief programmes officer. In 2017, he took over as the CEO
“Each time I would be approached to become the CEO I would refuse because it was never my interest to spend my life in front of a computer, wheeling around the office and in board meetings. The CEO whom we recruited lasted only four months and after that, we knew the organisation was going to fall. I decided to take the bull by its horns because this was my brainchild,” he adds.
MMWCA represents 17 conservancies covering an area equal to the Masai Mara National Reserve. Over the last 10 years, since the coming up of the community conservancies, the area under conservation has doubled up, covering of 3000 square kilometers, half of the Mata system. There is still a lot of potential to grow the conservancy’s movement in the area and the country.
“It’s been a great journey as our capacity has grown as an organisation, having influenced a number of policies at both the county and national Level. We have also built capacities of conservancies committees and boards to make sure they are complaint with the laws and regulations, know their roles and responsibilities while ensuring it’s an inclusive process for all land owners including women and the youth. I believe good governance is the foundation for every institution,” he says.
Sopia adds that the association has also been a life changer to the host community as 15,000 members are getting a monthly income through lease fees, a guaranteed revenue paid per hectare per year. This is incremental every three to five years, and as of 2019, the amount paid to land owners was Sh500 million. Last year they were expecting around Sh900 million but because of Covid-19 pandemic, they missed their target by half.
“As an organisation we have mobilized resources to run operations including paying 370 conservancies rangers, and also worked with other stakeholders get soft loans for our partners to pay half of the lease fees to the land owners. This has been our strategy and we are planning to do this until the industry recovers.” he reveals.
Land is one emotive issue and in the past has led to conflicts, something that Sopia is keen to avoid. About 20 years ago, the land in Mara underwent subdivision and those fortunate to get land were those 18 years and above.
“The youth of today were not fortunate to get that and as an organisation we had to restrategise and make sure that women, who are not primarily land owners, are part of the journey and this includes making sure they sit and participate in the committees and board meetings,” he adds.
“Another challenge we faced was how to empower them economically and that this is why we came up with the Mara Vocational Training Program. This provides us with accredited vocational skills that respond to the employment and entrepreneurial needs in the Maasai Mara ecosystem, including in tourism, agriculture, natural resource management, wildlife conservation and business management.” he adds.
Programme includes quality beadwork, beekeeping and harvesting, hairdressing, tailoring, masonry, plumping, hospitality and soap making, which made a significant contribution during this Covid-19 period. MMWCA has also partnered with a number of technical institutions supported by the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education (DIkU).
One of the success stories from such partnerships has been the establishment of the Wildlife Tourism College of Maasai Mara, which according to Sopia, is re-imagining the link between education, sustainable tourism and job creation for community managed wildlife conservation.