As a young moran, Nelson ole Reyia used to dress up in his traditional clothing and working as a tour guide for international tourists. His mission was simple — to earn a living.
Every year, the world famous reserve attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors keen on experiencing the African safari and catch a glimpse of the big five.
“While entertaining guests at Keekorok lodge, and acquainting them with Maa culture, it helped me earn a living, but the income was not sustainable, and an idea struck me that I should set up my own camp,” said the Maasai warrior.
The father of two started by setting up a temporary picnic site targeting visitors who could not get accommodation in the few camps in the area.
But on realising the business’ potential, Mr Ole Reyia quit his job as a hospitality lecturer at a college to start Oldarpoi Mara Camp in 2009.
So far, he has pumped about Sh50 million in his Oldarpoi Mara camp, just outside Maasai Mara Game Reserve main entrance.
The camp sits on 40 acres and has 15 tents, which can accommodate up to 22 people. There is also an expansive camping ground where visitors can set up their own tents and cook their food.
Local visitors pay Sh5,000 per night in the camp, while foreign tourists part with Sh9,000 full board per night or an equivalent of 100 dollars.
To increase his revenue, Mr Reyia also runs a travel business that organises safaris and transport for international tourists to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi.
“The camp’s clients are tourists from around the world, with about 60 per cent coming from the US, Australia, Europe, Norway and Africa especially in Kenya,” he said.
He attributes his venture’s success to quality services and a unique experience offered to guests. For the last three years, his centre has been voted one of the best camps by American travel website TripAdvisor
But beyond making money, Mr Reyia is also a philanthropist. Already, he has built a Sh1 million primary school that has 300 pupils. He has also established an educational centre and library within the camp where the youth get skills on guiding tourists and environmental conservation.
“We are training Maasai warriors to exploit the tourism potential of their land,” he said.
“We want to show them that if they have skills and some training, they can do more for themselves.”
Mr Reyia said he started the camp after initial attempts to address low literacy levels and female genital mutilation among the Maasai, through a community-based organisation, faced huge financial challenges.
“We had to approach individuals to sponsor girls go to school. Unfortunately it was not sustainable. We were always asking for support from others. I figured I should start a business that would fund the education project and benefit the local community,” he explained.
He was the first person in his village to go to secondary school and knows all too well about the troubles children in the area face in pursuit of education.
“I used to walk for 20 kilometres to school. I have a passion to help children access education more easily,” he said.
At the moment, he is inspiring young people from the Maasai community to get actively involved in the tourism business. And to achieve his dream, he has entered into partnership with a section of his customers who have offered to sponsor some of his community-based projects in order to improve the living standards of the locals.
Among some of the tourists who have funnelled resources to Oldarpoi projects are Australian Dan Galati, Prof Rick Young from Canada and Norwegian Nina Wang Milkkessen.
The Maridlen Rotary and the Kringssa School through a volunteer May-Brith Dossland have donated Sh1 million to set up classrooms in Oldarpoi primary school and a community library.
“These were tourists who came over to Kenya for safari, but in the process found what we are doing and offered to help,” said Mr Reyia.
His former customers have helped in establishing Oldarpoi Sweden, and Oldarpoi Norway, which raise funds to educate poor children.
He plans to grow his business, but is taking gradual steps. “I have seen people come with big force trying to build hotels in Mara and they end up collapsing,” he said.
“When I was growing up, there were few lodges around Maasai Mara. Now there are hundreds of them. The reserve is not that big; in fact the Serengeti in Tanzania is 10 times bigger than the Maasai Mara, yet it has fewer lodges and camps,” he added.
He argues that the construction and fencing of hotels and lodges is blocking migration routes used by wild animals.
“With all these activities going on, unless something is done, it might not be sustainable. At the current rate, it is like killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” he warned.