How Nyombi Thembo employs culture, tourism to make money

Sunday February 16 2020

Great scenery. Executive Director of Kikorongo

Great scenery. Executive Director of Kikorongo Safari Lodge in Kasese District, Nyombi Thembo (2nd R) poses at the entrance with his guests. PHOTOS BY FELIX BASIIME 

By Felix Basiime

The Bakonjo culture is very unique in its way, especially when it comes to names of the people, places and rivers.

Kikorongo Safari Lodge at the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kasese District, about 20 kilometres or 15 minutes’ drive on Kasese-Ishaka road has capitalised on this uniqueness and location to connect culture of the area to tourism.

Some of its raised conical shaped cottages have been given local names of people such as Baluku, Thembo, and Masika while others have been named after the rivers that flow from Mount Rwenzori such as Nyamwamba, Nyamugasana among others.

Business journey
“Our Kikonjo culture is very unique; all Bakonjo names are named by precedence, so we at Kikorongo Safari Lodge, we want people to appreciate the Kikonjo culture,” says Nyombi Thembo, the executive director of Kikorongo Safari Lodge which is on the hill slopes overlooking Lakes Kikorongo and George and Kikorongo trading centre.

The way the Bakonjo name their children is exclusively unique to their culture and is almost automatic and only to them alone in Uganda. Though they have clans, the criterion used is not evidenced in their names like most other tribes according to Mr Thembo.

That is why there are few names among the Bakonjo and males share common names such as Baluku, Mumbere (Kambere), Bwambale, Masereka, Kule, Thembo, Muhindo or Mbusa while females are named as Masika/Musoki, Biira, Kabugho, Mbambu, Ithungu, Kyakimo, Nziabake or Muhindo depending on the position in that particular family.

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Thembo says “The male first-born is automatically called Baluku or Mumbere, the second born male Bwambale.”
“For example, Muhindo follows a girl and vice versa, Nziabake is only for ladies who are last borns. We want people to immense into our culture,” Thembo says.

The cottages
Kikorongo Safari Lodge has so far 15 cottages out of the 20 projected by 2021 that sit on about two of the 28 acres piece of land.

They have been well raised from the ground to avoid reptiles and named as Thembo, Kambere, Masereka, Ithungu, Muremberi, Nziabake while others have been named after 10 most prominent rivers in Kasese that include Nyamwamba, Thako, Lhubiriha, Lume (Rwimi) and Nyamugasana. There are many rivers in Kasese that flow from mountain Rwenzori and empty into Lake George and the major ones are Nyamwamba and Mubuku which also are a major potential source of electricity production and water for irrigation.

“We have 10 camping platforms of which four are executive and among the cottages, four are super luxury, one is diamond luxury, two international luxury, two diamond luxury and three intimate,” says Thembo.

Fees
The rates per cottage range from $270 (Shs972,000) to $350 (Shs1.2m) per night while the camp site ranges from $30 (Shs108,000) to $100 (Shs360,000).

“Our rates are in three phases, we have market entry rates which are highly concessional rates, market penetration rates and real rates, and so we are now in a transition for one year,” Thembo who is also settling as guide at the hotel says. “I love nature, I love tourism, that is why I put up this facility, I will finally retire here as a guide because I enjoy what am doing,” Thembo adds.

The Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu minister for culture, Elly Nyakango described the facility as the best venture in the kingdom and hailed the proprietor for promoting culture and tourism of the region.

“This is a very good arrangement for naming the cottages after local Kikonjo names of people and rivers, it promotes our culture very much, because the use of Kikonjo names gives us pride,” Nyakango says, and advised, “I advise my friend Thembo to make the cottages named after Mumbere and Ithungu very unique as suits because these are the names of our King (Charles Wesley Mumbere) and the Queen (Agnes Ithungu)”

The experience
“When you are at Kikorongo Safari Lodge you are at an advantage of the Mount Rwenzori experience as we are at the foots of the Rwenzori, the Great Rift Valley experience, the equator experience and the centrality of our location to the biggest conservation area in Uganda (The Queen Elizabeth National Park),” Thembo says.

“From here you can reach seven tourist attraction sites such which surrounds us, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Semuliki National Park, Tooro Semliki (game reserve), Kibale National Park, Lake Mburo National Park, Rwenzori Mountain, Virunga in DR Congo, this is a continuous conglomeration of conservation area,” Thembo says.

When you are at Kikorongo Safari Lodge, you get a clear view of Kazinga Channel and Lakes George and Kikorongo, the Western rift valley and special attributes include the “bush shower,” fire camp area and the game drive.

Ecotourism
Kikorongo Safari Lodge is situated in a very quiet natural environment set up and is surrounded by trees and bushes.

An elephant monument greets visitors at the entrance with a sign post. After booking, you are given a long stick to use as you ascend and hike to one of the cottages that are connected by paths littered by beautiful brown stones in the middle and grey stones from River Nyamwamba on the sides.
The management has particularly preserved the environment in its natural set up and planted more trees including yellow bamboo.

“We have emphasised sustainability and conservation in all our designs, we have preserved the site in its natural set up, the built up area is about two acres and the rest 26 acres has been left untouched, forest and bushes,” Thembo says. He adds, “So far we have used 5,300 eucalyptus trees grown at my land in Mubende for these cottages and other structures. The trees were cut from 14 acres and we have planted more trees on 40 acres.”

Because of the natural set up that has been preserved at this hotel, the nights are enjoyable with cool breezes from the trees and lakes around, the nights too are quiet but with some interludes of tweets from humming mocking birds, cats and hippo sounds from a distance are heard. There is security 24/7 and the young staff clad in army green T shirts and cups are very hospitable and take you around the cottages and at the bar at the fire place.

Tourism resource
According to Kasese District official website, tourism is a significant economic activity within the district given its natural resource endowment including mountains and national parks.

It has given employment to a number of people who act as tourist guides as well as working in hotels such as Mweya Safari Lodge and Margherita Hotel among others.
Tourism plays a big role in national development and in this regard, UWA has been contributing to the district development in form of revenue sharing (20 per cent).

Advice
Taking into account the series of tough challenges he faced at the beginning of his fascinating business journey, Nyombi Thembo now believes nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself and remain firmly focused on the ultimate prize.
Nyombi Thembo a former minister for information technology says his passion fuelled his resilience and stubborn belief that what he was doing was right and held great promise.

“I never at any single moment doubted myself or questioned the viability of what I was on to. This unshakable belief was one of the driving forces that saw me weather many a storm and surmount numerous hurdles strewn my way. The more challenges I overcame the more my confidence level rose,” says Nyombi Thembo who is also the former Member of Parliament for Kassanda South. He is currently the director of the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF). RCDF is a service fund managed by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).

Management
Another factor that has underpinned Nyombi Thembo’s success is the quality of services tourists receive. This has seen him get many clients through referrals. “We never compromise on quality and this has been at the heart of our growth,” he says adding that there is no shortcut to success but the long, winding and slippery path. His advice to potential entrepreneurs who have viable ideas is just to act on them.

“If you wait for an ideal moment, when all elements will neatly and perfectly fall in place before you start it will never come and your idea will be stillborn. Start with the little resources that you have and gradually scale the greasy pole of business,” he says. Another ingredient to his success is his employees. He says he does not treat them as his workers but colleagues.
Conversely, he also tells them to treat him as one of them and not their boss.

“Whenever we go to the field for an assignment there is neither a boss nor an employee. We work as colleagues,” says the unassuming and affable businessman whose slight frame belies the fact that he is battle-hardened having surmounted huge challenges to build a multimillion company.

Many a times, his clients have asked where the boss is yet he is right there standing among his colleagues (read employees). Another powerful arrow in his quiver is incredible hard work. Nyombi Thembo says when there is urgent work, he goes to work on Saturday and Sunday.

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