Come the way you are – Where hospitality meets inclusivity halfway

PWDs are stigmatized, and seniors are abandoned or left to fend for themselves but through deliberate actions from national, regional and international sectors, we can safeguard their dignity, restore smiles and touch lives, one person at a time — Judy Muriithi 

BY GAD WESONGA

In February 2017, Judy Muriithi started a tour and safaris company called Lorna Safaris. Her noble objective was to provide services to people with disabilities.  She then coined the slogan come the way you are and set to touch the lives of this vulnerable group. 

It is not the destination where you end up, she says, but the mishap and adventures you create along the way. Once in a while, it is essential for each one of us to break away from our normal routine, and travel to new destinations, interact with new faces, but most importantly, recharge. Whilst it is easy for one to just pack and go, travelling can be a strenuous and nerve wrecking experience for person’s living with disabilities and the seniors, as most of them have limited mobility.

Her journey started with both a diploma in marketing and a burning passion and commitment to serve the people with disabilities. She had no educational background in tours & travel but was really interested in learning more about it from her high school friend Mercy Mwenda who was running a travel company then. Back in late 2015, she says, she would frequent Mercy’s office and ask endless questions on tours and travel. “Seeing my interest, she offered me a desk and a desktop and committed herself to teach me all about the industry and how things are done”.

It was while researching about special tours that she came across seniors travel, but couldn’t find a specific company that deals with seniors’ exclusively in Kenya. This birthed Lorna Safaris, her accessible travel for persons with disabilities and seniors.

According to Judy, accessible travel means ensuring destinations, services and products are accessible to all people regardless of physical limitations, disabilities or age. Movement of persons with disabilities like limited mobility, visual impairment, deaf persons, to name just but a few, is quite a challenge and most of the times require assistance. These people, she says, face the most difficult challenge even for a simple task as visiting the bathroom adding that most of the essential places in Kenya are inaccessible including learning institutions, work places, rental houses, churches, mosques, public vehicles, parks, hotels and resorts.

This is where Lorna Safaris, named after her first-born daughter comes in to offer the all needed support, which involves collaboration between different stakeholders, such as airlines, local transport and accommodation providers. 

“We use vehicles fitted with ramps for easy access, and handpicked adapted accommodation so that no family member, child or elder should be confined to their normalcy, or left behind due to their limited mobility or disability”.

Judy views and defines disability as a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities. According to a 2018 report by World Health Organization, there are 1 billion persons; around 15% of the world population, who live with some type of disability globally. China has the largest number of persons with disabilities. 

In Africa, there were between 60 – 80 million persons living with disabilities (PWD) in 2018. According to a report by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics from the 2019 statistics, 0.9 million people in Kenya are living with some form of disability. Judy says that this figure signifies a large number for travelers, but it is very underserved. When planning for holidays, families with PWDs opt to leave them behind, or travel to shorter destinations due to lack of accessibility to attractions and facilities, which is a huge obstacle to travel.  

According to Adelaide Sara Munyolo of National Council for Persons with disability, a motivational speaker, a sign language interpreter, a braille transcriber and founding director of ‘Inua Mlemavu’ – an NGO whose mission is to support people with disability to enhance their self-esteem, the enabling facilities and infrastructure for PWD is not adequate when seeking services in many places. 

As a person living with disabilities and now a crusader for their well-being, she says that huge challenges exist not only in the hospitality industry but also in the learning institutions and public transport. 

“I have had to cancel team building activities, training and workshops when the chosen facilities cannot cater for our needs,” she says. Adelaide adds that she used to suffer so much when using public transport such as matatus due to the numerous challenges associated with lack of accommodating infrastructure for PWD. 

According to her, the coming of mobile taxis such as uber services offered some hope since some of them have infrastructure for PWD but some of the drivers have very small cars which do not have space for carrying the wheel chair which then requires having two cars or a big one thus more costly for PWDs.

Judy says that the constituency for PWD is large enough and cannot be ignored as they are the largest minority group and they are increasing each day due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions. In her view, as we grow older, each one of us will experience some type of disability such that whether we have people depending on us for their day-to-day living or not, we are affected directly or indirectly. Most of these persons live in the rural areas and this limits their potential further. 

Judy says that in Africa especially, there is still a lot of stigma associated with disability and more often people will opt to hide away a member of their family who is challenged like it happened to Adelaide Sara Munyolo in 1985, then aged 10, when she became disabled courtesy of a polio attack. Her parents responded by abandoning her at Alupe Hospital in then Busia District.

The search for her kin led to her grandparents in Buyingi Village, Funyula Constituency. Rather than despair, they embraced optimism and took Adelaide to Nangina Family Helper Project in 1988, a catholic run Mission facility which among other things championed for the rights of children living with disabilities. 

This leap of faith opened her journey to join St Catherine’s Nangina Girl’s Primary School in 1993; an integrated school for the physically challenged. Eventually she sat for KCPE in 2000 and qualified to join St Cecilia Nangina Girls’ High School in 2001 for her KCSE and later pursued her university education that has now opened gates of gainful opportunities for her.

Judy says that we indeed have a long way to go in Kenya, Africa and around the world since PWDs are still stigmatized, and seniors are abandoned or left to fend for themselves but adds that through deliberate actions from national, regional and international sectors, we can safeguard their dignity, restore smiles and touch lives, one person at a time.

This is the vision and mission that drives her and her team at Lorna Safaris. “We seek to create awareness on accessibility issues in public places such as airports, malls, restaurants, churches and mosques, tourist attractions, restaurants etc. People lack information on where or how they can access suitable destinations as there are a few organizations providing the same. There are numerous places and activities the PWDs and seniors can travel to and have authentic experiences, but accessibility is a key area for action,” she decries, adding that “It is a central element, as well as a human right. It is also an important aspect of ageing. In the recent years, as people grow older, there are higher chances of temporary or permanent disabilities, but, this should not hinder them from exploring the world.”

Marketing

The Lorna Safaris journey has been learning and fulfilling experience for Judy. She says that together with her friend and mentor Mercy, they have been able to travel to different parts of the world marketing and gaining new experience for the business.

In February 2019, they visited Belgium for their first exhibition which didn’t turn out as expected since most potential clients were speaking more of French and less of English, which none of them spoke. Additionally, they also learned that long haul destination clients usually make yearly plans and thus 2019 and much of 2020 was already planned. 

Her next destination was South Africa in April 2019. “I went under an organization called She Trades which supports women owned businesses, especially startups in different industries and facilitates half of the expenses for specific exhibitions”.

In September 2019, they went for an exhibition in Mumbai, which was a success. This prompted them visit Delhi too. 

In line of duty, Judy has received recognition from National Diversity and inclusion Awards (DIAR) for her role in inclusivity by serving people with disability.

The DIAR Awards celebrate companies, government agencies, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations and individuals who champion diversity and promote inclusion at the workplace and the society at large.

The awards is the initiative of Daima Trust, and has grown in breadth and depth since 2018, attracting leading brands and inspiring action towards making inclusion an everyday reality. It has seen participation from the nation’s most inclusive organizations, distinguished private and public sector, C-suite executives, social entrepreneurs, and leaders from diverse organizations. 

The awards process includes nominations and receipt of submissions, internal and external research, shortlisting, voting and finally the judge’s decision. This process is rigorous and incorporates both the voice of the general public and insights from a well-resourced, high-ranking panel of venerable jury. The winners are arrived at on both qualitative (what you do and your impact – judge’s decision) and quantitative (votes) basis each carrying 75% and 25% weight respectively.

Lorna Safaris was also one of the award recipients in 2019 in the award category: Diversity and Inclusion PWD Inclusion Corporate Champion Award in which it was a finalist. The organization is also a year 2020 nominee in the award category: Diversity and Inclusion Award for a Social Enterprise which celebrates organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach such as employing people who have significant barriers to mainstream employment, or companies leading social inclusion and responsibility.

According to James of Daima Trust, Lorna Safaris strives and has proven itself among the organizations championing PWD inclusion in Kenya. This has endeared them to the DIAR Awards process since 2019. 

“For over 15 years now, Lorna Safaris has been arranging fully accessible holidays for people with disabilities, slow pacers & seniors. Their safaris are tailor-made specifically for people who are abled differently, using wheelchair accessible luxury camps and lodges. The vehicles are wheelchair adapted fitted with Ramps for easy access”, he says.

Lorna Safaris, James adds, have purposed to offer wheelchair friendly and accessible accommodation, accessible safari vehicles and accessible air travel. They indulge the seniors in classic safaris, which have fewer destinations to allow time for relaxation and rest. For each destination, they accommodate their clients in unique lodges/tents. They also try to cut down the long drives, thus incorporating the fly and drive component.

In addition, the organization has participated in other activities including attending the first ever Inclusive Diversity Africa Conference in 2019 and contributing an article for the Mosaic Magazine publication, all aimed at advancing Diversity and Inclusion. “We believe that Lorna Safaris is on a growth trajectory in so far as ‘doing business as a force for good’ is concerned,’ says James. 

Challenges 

According to Judy, marketing accessible travel is a really expensive affair as getting staff who understand the concept and are able to support is very hard. Furthermore, people who are challenged but willing to travel do not know where to look for information.  Most seniors are not online as much as millennial and therefore use conventional methods for booking holidays or depend on their loved ones for the same. “This then forces us to offer other packages such as luxury travel to families and honeymoon tours to honeymooners so as to cushion the business”, she bemoans.

 Since Lorna Safaris does not own any safari vehicles, they hire the normal land cruisers on need basis and customize them with a ramp for easy access. “Accommodation too is a challenge as most of the hotels/lodges/camps are not accessible and the ones that do have a few rooms are expensive and I personally have to inspect the premises before recommending to a client,” she says.  

Ironically, the cost involved in handling accessible travel is way high compared to individuals outside this group yet most PWDs may not be as resourced as the ones without disabilities. PWD, for example, do not qualify for certain careers due to their limitations. This then shrinks their scope of choices for career and occupation. Additionally, some of them may not have been exposed to adequate education due to traditional prejudices and discrimination which contribute to some of them ending up dependents begging in the streets. Yet where travel is concerned, they are expected to pay top dollar.

At Lorna Safaris, for instance, a normal 3-day safari to Masai Mara will cost from as low as 16,000 per person in a budget camp in a group joining tour, for residents and as low as sh38 900 for non-residents.  This price is inclusive of full board accommodation, park fees, and transport. This, however, cannot apply to a person who uses a wheelchair, as they cannot join a group of other travelers, and there are no budget lodges, which can accommodate them. A 3-day safari to Masai Mara for such a person would cost from Sh87, 000 using a safari van and Sh120, 000 per person using a Land cruiser for residents in a comfortable hotel while  for non-residents Sh146, 000 using a safari van and Sh190, 000 using a Land cruiser. 

In 2003, under the Persons with Disabilities Act, National Council of Persons with Disabilities; an umbrella under the Government of Kenya was established to advocate and push for the rights of PWD’s, an initiative that Judy lauds. “Even though we have a long way ahead of us, it has made significant changes in inclusion and diversity,” she says. 

Disability, Judy admits, is a diverse topic, and each person’s needs differ. “When we began, we focused on persons with limited mobility, and the wheelchair users. Currently, we are looking into suitable transport, facilities and activities for persons with visual impairment, and the deaf. All these individuals need to get away and be in touch with nature, at their own pace”, she says. 

Judy says that her biggest dream is to have a lodge in one of the famous parks in Kenya which is exclusively designed for PWD’s, and where all employees are physically challenged and to also have fully customized vehicles, which are modified to cater for PWD’s. 

“Our main aim is to advocate for inclusivity and diversion for each and every person who is challenged. To be a voice for the voiceless, and to empower them socially and economically, so they can be self-reliant and inspire others to do so. 

From Judy and Lorna Safaris to the people with disabilities, the welcoming call is, “Just come the way you are!”    

Sign Up