Flaming BBQ, Safari Cats and sync that drops hats for Safari Park

I love surprises. I go flat when a team conspires and succeeds to create surreal experiences for customers. This I call the “wow experience”. I have probably hopped around Kenyan hotels the most and may therefore have a thing for managers yearning to realize excellence in their service. While some experiences remain too disappointing for documentation, I cannot overstate my abilities to bring out the obvious cues upon which success will rest.

Mid October, this year, I attended an international conference at the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi and for two days I kept digging for wow experiences. Nairobi is a mythical capital that bathes in tragedy, culture, commerce, a national park, Africa’s largest slum, the UN and a sense of social experimentation. The presence of this 5-star hotel speaks tons of resilience. In these settings, a wow experience would be too sinister to nail. It often pops up. Undeniably, all clients streaming in such a hotel share an erratic degree of surprise. How on earth to formulate a universal wow. Simple tip.

My taxi was flying in the possible 13km in a North-easterly past the ultra-modernism of the Thika superhighway. While I was ushered behind elephant garnished gates to an expansive and electrifying landscape, in particular, I remained afloat to the exact place they had embalmed an elephant. 9 feet below, to the smile-filled reception, it truly struck me. There was the other spectacle of butterflies buzzing in the sea of flowers, a watercourse and purple jacaranda all beaming amazing, awesome and incredible.

On the eve of my arrival, I received a call from a lovely lady, Yvonne, with gracious words, soft as wool. She was eager to confirm whether I had any window preferences for my room (whether I had withdrawal symptoms for sunrise), dos and don’ts for meals, conference furniture, décor…patio. I could tell she had a pen and notebook. I had not given it thought but then it occurred to me that my stay at the hotel would not be an extension of my house or the office. What a genius! Flatteringly, to make sure I didn’t sound uneducated, I told her my obsession for sky blue, and that was it. Shock of my love and chest; my sheets were sky blue so azure were my towels, shower gel and sandals. The rug too, seat cover at the conference, notebook, pen and identification tag. Specification, rather than tragedy is truly a pick for wow.

The discussions were intense and they took a toll on me, at dusk I wanted nothing but a cold Tusker. My butler lounged my bag on a trolley to the room, but then hinted that the hotel had a surprise dinner for the guests. I thought… too tired. He insisted. I dragged myself into the shower and out. Put on a casual and made way to the dining.

The lighting was enchanting and above the neat smiles of the beautiful ladies serving steamed hand-towels, the dark sky was slowly saturating with a white smoke and sweat savor of roasting meat. The tables were set in black and for each were eight white seats. My colleagues had all but few arrived and a tension was building of I-couldn’t-tell-what. I sat.

Upon keener inspection, I noticed that the tables were not all black, but one circular dense mat over lain with eight square bamboo table mats. The geometry was a kill, the eight mats and seats were seeking a line towards a giant porcelain vase at the center of the table in octahedral proportions. I was served chilled beer.

There were no plates and this distressed me, but encouragingly, the cutlery lay in old English. Right in front a stage lit-up to a background of African artwork that ensemble the biogeography of Kenya; the alpine podo, acacia, cacti and the majestic coconut palm. Creatures such as the crocodile, birds, the lion and the iconic elephant were meticulously rendered together with the trees and birds giving the canvas the suspense of “frozen in time”. A troupe of performers in leopard-patterned gear, drums, shouts and endless gymnastics issued and tore the stillness of the graphics on the stage. There was panic in the audience as the effect of the lights and tumultuous dancers animated the still graphics in the background suspending a sort of luminous 3D resurrection. The Safari Cats, for so were the performers called, and the surreal background offered a fusion of southern Abantu, Asian, Aegepti, and modern day Kinshasa. The first row were already on their feet, crawling on the wooden floor and I could sense a willingness to join-in among the seven that sat by me but for lack of a daredevil, only flashings issued of cameras and smartphones.

A gentleman clad in a white jacket and a black bow-tie boldly rose to the stage and declared sight to the blind. It was dinner time. The performers crossfaded with waiters and waitresses and they seemed to stage even bolder theatrics in hauling hot hot-plates on the mats I had just described. They were in their hundreds and by sheer swarm intelligence transformed into chefs wielding hot skewers in hot poles. It was the fastest delivery of nyama choma I had witnessed and no one urged me to start my dinner. I engorged. Beef sausages were next, I ordered two, and then desired two more and two rounds. The mutton was amazing but so was the chicken. Out of respect, seeing that the fillet was cooked right in, yeah out of respect I had one huge unsevered chunk, you know like a bite from a great white shark. Damn the sausages. What I needed was more choma… crocodile is amazing. What was I to do with all this flesh and a sense of privacy?

I always believed that there was magic to so much meat, but this night, in full glare of the flaming BBQ, I opened up and all this gibberish was pouring out of me. Very silent table it was.

My pace was waning. The gentleman seated next to me was Ethiopian. He wasn’t about to concede supremacy at the hot plates. Despite years of experience, the meat was taking a toll on him. We were losing him. Such a  nice guy, he was under a spell to explain how the Nile had the power to reverse false prophecies of dwindling resources, a narrative that had trained radicals. Terrorism, he offered, is worse when elephants are accorded more humanity than the citizens. Esther sat on the next table but the chit-chatting and some meat had pulled her to ours. She is a senior official in an African think tank and strongly believed that had Africans been brave to accommodate new diets, the continent could pull out twice as many farmers out of poverty. There was a fellow Kenyan on the table, Simone, he swore to have talked his Governor into creating a fish-eating week in Meru’s calendar. How true his allegation were lay only in the secret powers of the meat. He was a show-off and swore he had cut by half the statistics of stunting among under-5yr.

As I lay there dazed by the mood lighting, within the king-size deluxe, I gathered these stories into some perspective, including one from a Nigerian girl who was opposed to a pan-African youth forum and had instead proposed a 50-20-10. I really wept over dormant potential.

There were hard questions. Kwame, the guy clinging to the very last brown slice of fillet, was curious to ask why in a forum on agriculture, there wasn’t a single farmer. We shared business cards and ordered for more beer. I suppose, this was the most effective networking strategy and probably outdid the plenary to consolidate a continental hope. For me, the fiesta is a secret passage into the heart of Africa and allowed me to stare at opportunity and although the complexity of our people clouded the solutions, in that full belly I recognized problem-solvers. My Safari Park wow.


Breakfast in bed

eating-in-bedWaking up on a Queen-size bed next to remotes for the TV, AirCon and a switch to all the lights in the room, is rare. But you do, and a giant bamboo grows at the entrance to the bathroom. On the floor, beautiful tiles form a mosaic of a large roach that you kinda squish at every step to an all-marble tub. Continue reading “Breakfast in bed”

Standards, enterprise and rights: a trilogy of extremes for Kenyan women

At the green edges of the Mount Kenya National Reserve, about 300km from Nairobi, in a small little known town called Kimahuri, is a rusty chimney that savors with sweet potato. This is the home of Mary Mukami. She is a potato farmer. I met her at the Agricultural Society of Kenya show in Nyeri in 2015. Her story introduces four concepts that exemplify how the social invisibility of women’s role in production as well as the perceived informality of their innovations could be major obstacles to standardization for women-owned enterprises.

Mukami spent a better part of her life a thousand kilometers away in Rift-valley, precisely in Molo, where her parents and community indoctrinated her into potato farming. After the skirmishes of the 2008 post-election violence, she emigrated with her husband to what she calls, her own beginning.

To start, she worked as a casual at a neighbor’s farm under a contract locally called mafuti, meaning that the more square feet she tilled the more she earned. Her long experience in farming ensured that she dug better and more square feet than a typical Kimahuri woman. She outdid the men as well, and unlike them continued her work after lunch-time from 2-4:30pm. She instantly became a favorite with employers.

One evening, her neighbor passed word that she would be among four other women to weed his crop of cabbage. She had no work scheduled so she prepared for mafuti. It was a hectare of about 40,000 cabbages, weeding would ensure she had a job for a whole week. At 8 sharp she stood at the farm with a thermos flask of tea, a bowl of mataha and a customized hoe. Quarter past and the women began. About an hour later, a rug, struggling with a hang-over joined in, noisy and nasty. He stood most of the time to entertain with some vulgar tunes.

It struck 1pm and the women approached the farmer’s homestead for pay. To her surprise, her employer brought a different yard-stick that not only measured bigger square feet but also revised the rates for women. It infuriated her the same way it did an undocumented lot of other women and she raised complaint. As usual, only she did. It reminded her of the desire to earn extra when as the only woman, she had to cook for the other laborers or run for water in jerrycans when petrol ran out. But since these were normal customary roles, only the diggings were compensated.

Well, with perseverance she mobilized some capital and leased her own farm. As the crop established she instantly encountered weaknesses with kiudutho; an unaccredited strategy for sourcing and management. Her potatoes delayed 10 more days to germinate and she had to order 50% more seed to replace half a bag that was simply rotten, 20% of her rows that failed to germinate and another 20 that had sprout weak. Unlike Molo, Kimahuri has no seed multiplication station for certifying seed. Regular farmers replant part of their harvest. The clever ones, such as the women group at the Archdiocese, buy it in the guise of food from outstanding farmers. On average, their crop would yield four fold at a tenth of disease pressure.

There was more. Mary spent 30% more on nutrition and pests due to counterfeit fertilizer and pesticides. At a critical stage she couldn’t irrigate because her 1.5inch PVC pipes had burst and she was tired of repairing her Honder (not Honda) water pump. So riddled with counterfeits they even spilt over her farm into the electrical fencing around the Mount Kenya national park. This presented her worst nightmare, the risk of wildlife depredation. She joked how her husband would shop for literally everything including her own sanitary towels, afraid that she would buy fakes.

Anyway, Mukami harvested what she equated to about twelve bags of 100kg worth about Kshs 24,000. Similar input, excluding sleepless nights fighting elephants and porcupines and irrigation, would yield an easy 50 bags of equal measure in Molo. Her crop was late three weeks past the peak prices. She was in with the glut and potentially bad weather a recipe for loss.

Middlemen in Kimahuri, weigh the harvest by muthukio, a subjective way of feeling the tension a potato bag creates on your arms. Mukami once attempted to weigh the bag and it logged slightly above 120kg, suggesting that for every 5 bags she was ripped off a bag. They could controversially expand to steal more. At length, Mukami had seven bags worth Kshs. 7,000. The alternative was to sell directly to the market and when this included boarding the truck as the only woman on a night-long journey to Mombasa, the husband declined. She was devastated!

Her kids were now old enough to tend themselves after school and Mukami saw opportunity to focus on her makeshift hotel, in Kimahuri town. She serves the usual tea and maandazi, bean stew with chapatti or ugali and special, which is basically all of the above in a potato stew. One afternoon, her clients demanded for saucer, a small portion of the food served as a discount. If contained, she says it could save her Kshs 500 everyday, enough to double her pace of acquiring a dairy cow.

The story of Mary Mukami is not substantially different from that of other women who run 48% of SMEs in Kenya. Although they contribute 60% of employment and 55% of national wealth they are disproportionately plagued. Findings can be stereotypical, for instance, challenges of inadequate management skills actually imply the lack of a formal code say ISO 9001. Gender-blind market intelligence and infrastructure could easily portray women as incapable of delivering customer satisfaction; reason why two thirds of all women-owned enterprises die in the first year. Another hurdle is presenting women as purely victims of weak metrology and QA.

To the contrary, and to the stupendous notion “anything informal is dysfunctional”, women could be their own cure. Example? The Archdiocese’s women group secured a grant under the constituency development fund to set-up a seed multiplication station. Relying on self-reporting they profiled market demand, ecological suitability and the husbandry capability of members. With endorsements from the Padre and the area chief, they sanctioned all potato measures to a standard 100kg sisal bag. They also held a workshop with the local agrovet suppliers to invigilate contraband fertilizer and pesticides. As of last month, with Safaricom and ecologists from Kiriri Women’s University they created a text-line for reporting stray elephants to the Kenya Wildlife Service. WHO also initiated them into the fortification mark of quality to identify food options for eliminating micro-nutrient deficiencies among under 5yr.

The results? Human-wildlife conflicts are down to 10%, mothers’ remunerable time quadrupled by an extra ten hours every week whereas household income has in cases grown tenfold. This concert between in/formal standardization has lowered residual toxicants to allowable limits set by supermarkets and exporters for snow peas, French beans and Irish potato. Other fetes such as equal pay for work of equal value, overtime and access to export contracts, testify to the potential of metrology for equitable social change.

Branding with the toilet: 5 easy ways to turn that little private room to sales?

toiletThere are amazing features we could introduce into the small room and spend thousands on installations and technology, but would it be worth it. If you asked me, no. Let’s consider 5 easy ways you could orchestrate a quick win in business with no more than your toilets. Continue reading “Branding with the toilet: 5 easy ways to turn that little private room to sales?”

The pink principle: what to do with attributes to build a “customer-first” hotel


I coach tourism management and often, I brainstorm with hotel executives and get stuck to crack new ways to grow sales. The first thing I do is remind them that, “Attributes matter more than products”. Weird? But strangely, we win. Continue reading “The pink principle: what to do with attributes to build a “customer-first” hotel”