Tourism Initiatives ( COBATI), a non for profit tourism NGO in Uganda promoting Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Tourism
Despite living through two wars, surviving as a refugee, and twice losing all of her earthly assets, Maria Baryamujura has risen to be a pillar in her community.
For more than 20 years, Baryamujura has encouraged women to dedicate their efforts to the development of sustainable tourism in Uganda, a clear manifestation of the fifth Sustainable Development Goal(SDG) “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
She has empowered rural women through community based tourism, notable among them are Nubian women in Bombo, Kibingo Community Tourism Association (KICOTA) in Mbarara District, and Masheruka Women Group in Sheema District.
“I see a commitment to support rural women and make them realise they are strong. They have abilities, and hidden skills. My passion is to make a difference in people’s lives,” says the 2006 Ashoka Fellow.
Baryamujura is a social entrepreneur, founder and Executive Director of Community Based Tourism Initiatives ( COBATI), a non for profit tourism NGO in Uganda promoting Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Tourism.
She believes rural people can use their culture and livelihoods to benefit from tourism, and create sustainable rural lifestyles.
“Why should people migrate to Urban areas, yet they can reap economic rewards from their rural settings?” she asks.
It is against this entrepreneurial background that through her NGO, she continues to seek financial support through donations, volunteers, and homestead tourism in which the local communities interact and build social connections with International travellers, supplement household incomes, improve local schools, and provide health services to the local families.
Lifeline in crafts
Since 2009, her initiative has had a direct impact on the Nubian Women of Bombo under their umbrella association Uganda Nubian Consultative Forum, transforming them from craft vendors to craft producers.
“The Nubian used to hawk their mats, but now courtesy of the MTN funding, the market comes to them. Their crafts are now sold to Asia. The women are embarking on a wide range of products such as table mats, bags, baskets. One can see value and a difference in their lives,” she says with pride.
The artist receives most of the proceeds from the sale and 10 per cent goes to the women’s group fund. The Nubian women use the fund to buy school lunch for their children and delivery kits for births.
“Their school offers free education, but not meals. For Shs3,000 per term, each can have a cup of porridge everyday for the entire school term. When a tourist purchases a handcraft, the women are able to pay for a cup of porridge to sustain their children for the eight hours at school,” she explains.
COBATI has further supported Mediina Pre Nursery, a local community school in Bombo and Kahima handcraft project in Bushenyi where profits are channeled into social programmes for the village.
Homestays change lives
Baryamujura’s passion for homestead tourism has enabled her link tourism to conservation, cultural heritage and sustainable rural development to enhance the livelihood of the people and to enrich Uganda as a tourism product.
“I link community tourism with established tourism circuits to provide more enjoyment for travellers and increased gains to communities,” she says.
Through COBATI’s Homestay Model Homes Programme(HMHP), homes are selected and upgraded to standards of hosting tourists. Visitors to the homes indulge cultural activities for instance, cow milking, cleaning of ebyanzi (traditional milk pots), tasting Amakamo(yoghurt), ghee and yoghurt preparation, weaving and beading.
“We train families in areas of visitor handling, nutrition and hygiene. This programme empowers families while providing cross cultural exchange between hosts and visitors. A host family keeps 80 per cent of the income and the remainder goes to a community fund that supports a local primary school,” she explains.
This programme gives visitors an opportunity to share the unique experiences that they have with rural communities. Through this program, she now has footmarks in a number of homesteads in Central and Western Uganda.
The journey of a million miles
Baryamujura has over the years worked closely with the government, local and international agencies to enhance rural household incomes. It all began when she conceived the idea to kick-start COBATI in the late 90s upon completion of a course in rural tourism development at Golda Meir Mount Carmel Training Institute Haifa Israel.
• Recipient of the Award of Excellence from the government of Uganda in recognition of her contribution to tourism and women empowerment.
• In 2008, her works were acknowledged by the Commonwealth Business Council/ Africa Magazine in the category of “Leader in Social Innovation” for promoting business initiatives that can contribute to the success of the African economy.
•She was inducted into the inaugural African Diaspora World Tourism Hall of Fame in the United States.
• Serves as a trustee of different institutions and director on various boards;
• She is the first woman member of the Board of Directors Uganda Tourist Board, presently called Uganda Tourism Board(UTB).
• She served as a member of the governing council of Created Crane Hotel Tourism and Training Institute-Jinja, secretary Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), founder member SKAL Club of Kampala and Country Representative for both Cameron Airlines and Royal Swazi Airways.
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