One British couple offers travellers to Kenya the chance to combine their luxury safari with a meaningful contribution to local communities, discovers Joe Mortimer.
When John Elias and his wife Gill set out to develop a community based conservation tourism project in Kenya’s Laikipia County, he had no idea of the impact their work would have on the local area, a vast landscape of rolling hills and pristine wilderness that’s home to Maasai and Samburu tribes.
Today, The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille is an elegantly-appointed mountain retreat 200 kilometres north of Nairobi, complete with swimming pool, fine dining restaurant, luxury spa and some of the best views in Africa. But above and beyond the hospitality offerings, it’s also the hub of a philanthropic network that works on improving four core areas of life for the local community: security and conservation; community education; healthcare; and water development.
Elias had always planned to use the profits from the business to support social development programmes, but he hadn’t anticipated the level of support they would receive soon after opening in 2007.
“Our guests turned out to be extremely generous-spirited people,” he explains. “They turned out to be pretty smart people. Smart people like to solve problems, so we showed them some of the problems in the fields of education and healthcare in particular. Not only did they open their wallets and write cheques; they also became involved with the process of problem solving.”
In light of the unexpected donations, the Ol Lentille Trust was registered as a UK charity whose role was to allow the collection of gifts, and a Kenya-based NGO called the Ol Lentille Trust Kenya was created to implement community projects.
Ever since, the trust has been central to key developments in the area, perhaps most notably the improvement of security for local people and their property. The resort employs 26 uniformed conservation rangers, whose presence has led to a dramatic reduction in the theft of livestock from neighbouring tribes.
The trust has also provided safe drinking water by digging a 6,000 litre per hour bore hole, and provides crucial support in the development, licensing and staffing of primary and secondary schools in the area.
Visiting the schools has become a central part of the visitor experience at The Sanctuary, creating a dialogue between guests and local teachers and school children. Many tribal members have also become guides for the resort, enabling them to share their hopes and concerns with guests during excursions across the spectacular landscape.
Ol Lentille’s mobile clinic started out providing medical support in remote areas, but a new 40-bed hospital eight kilometres from the resort now provides life-saving treatment to thousands of locals in a catchment area of almost 1,000 square kilometres.
Another core goal is the conservation of wildlife and the implementation of sustainable practices for the grazing of livestock. In exchange for the support the trust provides,
it asked in return that parcels of overgrazed land be put aside as conservation areas. What started out as a nominal 5,000 acres has increased to 45,000, as communities see the positive results of conservation.
“At 5,000 acres you’re doing nothing of importance to the eco-system, but now at almost 50,000, we’re having landscape level impact: the water table has risen; springs that have been dead for hundreds of years have come back to life; and the densities of wildlife are increasing very rapidly,” says Elias.
While continuing to provide support in these core areas, Elias hopes that next year will see further progress in educating communities about controversial issues such as FGM (female genital mutilation) and early marriage, which causes young women to drop out of school at a young age. Last year, almost five years of work with tribal leaders culminated in the establishment of an alternative right of passage ceremony for 81 young girls, who pledged in front of their families and peers that they would not undergo the barbaric procedure, but remain in school and complete their education without compromising their eligibility for marriage.
A stay at The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille isn’t your regular African safari experience, but an opportunity to see first hand the philanthropic work carried out by one extremely driven British couple and the growing network of generous donors, whose support is having an increasingly positive impact on communities living in this remarkable corner of Africa.
UK-based travel writer who specialises in luxury and lifestyle. Joe has visted 60 countries, stayed in more than 100 high-end hotels, and eaten at some of the best restaurantes in the world.