BY VICTOR ADAR
While studying BA, Political Science and Tourism degree from 2011 to 2015 at the University of Nairobi, Pancras Karema, now a shrewd businessman, sometimes organised getaway trips on behalf of his peers. Although during campus he had classmates and friends whom he would take out for safaris with no one to guide him, little did he know that one day holiday tours and travel would become his pre-occupation and take him to higher heights.
It was in 2014 when the entrepreneurship bug bit the 29- year -old. Back then, he did not have any capital and simply relied on what his college mates would contribute in order to cover the cost of the trip.
“I had nothing to write home about,” he says. “If you are getting something, like a token or some money, it will be easy for you to manage and source for places where people can visit.”
Now Mr Karema is a prominent Kenyan entrepreneur who is leaving his mark in Kenya’s tourism sector by offering holiday travel for individuals and corporates alike in major holiday destinations across the world. He says that it is because of burning passion, and the desire to make a contribution in tours and travel that Expeditions Maasai Safaris was born. Together with his childhood friend and now the managing director, Lawrence Ndegea, the duo has steered the tours and travel firm into one of Kenya’s well known travel agencies with offices both in Nairobi and Mombasa.
The tours and travel operator mainly serves two major types of travellers – individual or family travellers as well as the Kenyan corporate by offering what Karema calls “exciting and unique beach and bush holiday experiences” within Kenya and countries like Zanzibar, Dubai, Seychelles, USA, Greece and Bangkok. He says that the business took hold after around two years and has enjoyed a growth track record sustaining a growth of at least 20% every year. Their team building services, for example, have been hailed by corporates as affordable, meaningful and professionally executed having worked with some of the big brands like Heritage Insurance, Liberty life assurance Kenya limited, Co-operative Bank, Equity Bank, Aga Khan University Hospital, Urithi Housing, AAR Insurance, Kenyan Alliance Company Limited to mention just a few.
Mr Karema attributes the success of this venture to consistent customer service, a dedicated team of over 30 employees who work round the clock to keep guests happy, and speed of adapting to the changing needs of the modern traveller.
It’s been a tough journey, though, considering the constant challenges posed by insecurity, rogue operators and even the learning curve being steep as new entrants lacking home-grown mentors in the industry. But amidst the challenges, good things still abound.
“It is a good business if you are passionate about it,” he says. “The key thing is being passionate about what you do. You are not just starting a business so that you can make money. I like travelling and making people happy. So, if you are passionate about it, just do it and never get tired. It is a good opportunity.”
At a time when more and more tour operators are concentrating more on outbound travels whereby they bank on Kenyans who are traveling to outside countries, Karema is getting creative. Others are also doing well by mainly focusing on in bound tourism, which involves foreign tourists coming from, say, US, Europe or China into the country.
“We are doing both outbound and inbound,” he says. “We are encouraging our citizens to get out there and discover, and also inviting the rest of the world to ‘Tembea Kenya, hakuna matata’.”
Karema offers a few insights and tips on how entrepreneurs can use their passion in order to take their firms to higher heights. He believes that when money, rather than passion is your master, then you miss it. He has learned on several occasions that an entrepreneur must be very patient, consistent, and be able to constantly learn and improve on feedback from client and the market, as well as be willing to take calculated risks.
In addition, when you are new in the market, people might not trust you probably because they have never heard of your name. He says; “Imagine approaching a big organization to offer your team building services when they have never even heard about you. They’ll of course doubt you. They may even doubt whether you will deliver.”
“It is never easy to start but if you set your eyes on your vision, every day struggles and challenges become opportunities,” he points out. “I would advise someone to start small and start today because it’s always better to start and learn the ropes with time. You need to start small because it is only by starting small that you can be able to understand your business, and can be able to build a clientele base and after that you can now scale your operations.”
He notes that their new flexible payment plan dubbed “Commit Kidogo Kidogo” became a hit among customers since it allows someone to pay for a dream holiday in easy instalments.
“We are trying to make it affordable so that many people can be able to pay. Just make a small commitment, and pay in instalments. When you wait until December and you are told to pay Sh100,000 up front, it will be too difficult. Once you commit, we are able to pay the hotel, book, and reserve so that as the cost is going higher you will not be affected,” he says.
In times when jobs are scarce, and young people lack experience, mentorship and capital, it is ventures like this that can pay off. At the end of the day, it’s about the numbers of individuals who have paid for a trip. It is a service that you are selling, and you need zero capital to get going.
Nearly 65% of Karema’s clients are women. “That can tell you that women are the ones who head homes, they are mothers. They are the ones booking for the families when they see offers online, and they are able to convince themselves, and share. So they are the best customers.”
Pancras says his best moments so far has been his crowning as Kenya’ Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Bizna Kenya’s Young Entrepreneurship Awards 2018/2019 having battled it out with Ben Gacari of Property Reality Company, Eugene Mbugua (Young Rich Television Ltd) and Meshak Alloys (Sendy) as well as having Expeditions Maasai Safaris being nominated for the prestigious World Travel Awards 2019 as Kenya’s Leading Travel agency.
The annual awards have been designed to identify upcoming and industrious entrepreneurs below 35 years old with great business acumen, and seek to create a network of outstanding young entrepreneurs and encourage more to start their own businesses.
“I am extremely proud of the victory which has come as a result of the strides we are making every day to ensure affordable holiday travel reality for every household in Kenya by 2021 and being nominated for the coveted Awards is an honour in itself. It means so much to me. That was truly a vote of confidence,” he says.