Travelling far from Africa's 'Gucci' crowd
By ELLEN CREAGER
SHOMPOLE, Kenya, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Sheltered from the blistering midday sun, a group of colourfully adorned Maasai women chat under an acacia tree as they string beads together. Last year the work made them around $36,000.
Though the beadwork is beautiful its success is due mainly to their location: it is sold at Shompole Lodge, a conservation zone and designer magnet for wealthy tourists who carry their consciences when they travel.
Shompole is one of a handful of Kenyan sites spearheading a partnership model to bring investors and community members together in a business and conservation venture, funding education and health provision as well as restoring wildlife
It is also empowering women, who are usually relegated to the shadows of male-dominated Maasai society.
"Since we started the beadwork, we women have been empowered because we ... control any money we get from selling our beadwork," said Nanole Sunui as she decorated with white beads a traditional sisal basket known as a Kiondo on her lap.
"We use the money to buy goats, food, clothes and to pay nursery school fees."
From more than 300 projects worldwide, Shompole was chosen in May for the United Nations-sponsored 2006 Equator Prize for grassroots efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
Kenya expects tourism revenues to top $1 billion for the first time in 2007 -- but in many places rising tourist numbers pose serious threats to the environment.
Shompole -- part of a parcel of land of some 62,000 hectares belonging to the 2,200 Maasai of the local community -- combines cooperation with local tribespeople and sophisticated marketing to address that.
"The idea is that this area is completely out of the circuit, the circuit is mainly what I call the 'Gucci areas', mainly Amboseli, Tsavo, Maasai Mara, Kilimanjaro," said Anthony Russell, a Kenyan designer who created and manages the resort.
Russell used cool colours and pools of blue water to create an illusion of moderate temperatures that draws tourists in a region where temperatures can exceed 30 degrees Centigrade.
This area of Shompole was never considered 'Gucci' because it is so hot, no one knew what to do with it," he said.
Started in 1999, Shompole is built on a flank of the Nguruman escarpment, 120 km (75 miles) from Nairobi on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. An attraction is the view of Shompole Mountain in the Rift Valley, and the lodge's proximity to Lake Natron, a breeding ground for flamingoes.
The lodge currently has six rooms and two suites, and two new rooms are being built. Tourists fly in by propeller plane from Nairobi and pay as much as $490 a night for a minimum stay of two nights. They mainly come from Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Spain and India.
By charging a daily entrance fee of 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($15), the local community has earned over $207,000 in the past six years. The Equator prize brought in an additional $30,000
"The message we wanted to create was of community conservation and how best to do that was one of the problems we encountered," said Russell.
Clare and Bob Cartmel, from Britain, were starting their honeymoon at the lodge: "It's been really relaxing," said Clare. "We've also got the most stunning views from our room and it's fascinating ... no windows and we can just look out."