You could say that Lydia Nandudu’s entry into the tourism and travel sector is a tale of fate. She boarded a taxi and sat with a stranger who broke ice with a conservation that progressed into the two speaking about travel.
Robert Brierley was an online travel marketer and photographer while Nandudu was fresh from university, with a degree in social works and social administration.
He needed someone to help him do research about a place to travel to along with the necessary functionalities.
She was heading home to Luzira a Kampala suburb while he headed to Red Chili Hideaway in Bugoolobi.
At the tail end of their conversation, he asked to hire her for a period of six months as a research assistant, an assignment she took up with both hands. Like it’s said, the rest is history.
Brierley did not fully live in Uganda and during the time she executed the research undertaking, he left and on return found good results. She had canvased most of the hospitality facilities, provided his online platform with good information and also banked Shs20m she received from the advertisers of the online the platform.
“He was shocked that a Ugandan could keep money yet had needs. When we went to Kisoro District, we found the place had one camp site in Nkuringo. It needed marketing but did not have activities to go with. There was one gorillas group which was attached to Cloud Lodge,” she says.
He asked Nandudu if she was interested in doing a business and partnering with him. She responded in the affirmative and their first business venture was Nkuringo Walking Safaris in November 2007.
Like luck would have it, in 2008 the two partners got a booking by six high-end bankers from Switzerland who wanted to make a walking safari and did not mind staying at a basic campsite with a drop toilet, over a campfire.
From the trip Nandudu, commonly known as maama Mpanga, earned $5,000 (Shs18m). They agreed to split it into half, each taking home $2,500. She used her share to set up rental in Mbale.
“We realised that some clients were not looking for only a walking safari but experience,” says Nandudu. In 2009, the partners started Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, taking on a 15-year lease on the Nkuringo land from the community. They continued to run it on the basic; an eco-sand toilet, with lazy camping experience.
More clients seemed interested in the product they were selling. “We realised even the rich clients were not looking for the super high-end Jacuzzi type of accomodation. They were looking for the off the beaten track experience; walking, meeting the people, interacting with communities in the forest- rangers,” says Nandudu.
The aspiration to put up a proper lodge started taking shape in 2013 the same year the anti-gay bill was signed. Business was so bad. Every client they had lined-up, cancelled.
With no business, they decided to re-strategize their model. They agreed to plough back a big percentage of the money they earned with the observation that travel had changed and clients were no longer basic.
Even a basic client didn’t want to use a basic toilet so they began upgrading the lodge. Sadly, in March 2014, her business partner passed away after suffering a heart attack, at the age of 51.
“I don’t know how I can describe that moment. It was the most trying for me. I was six months pregnant with my daughter. I just didn’t know whether in me there was the ability to continue this journey. We employed more than 40 people that were going to look at me as their source of income.”
She did not know how she was going to do it being pregnant, a Ugandan and knowing that most lodges are owned by foreigners. Most employees didn’t resign. They just took off.
They didn’t see the future of where Nkuringo was going. Most people thought the lodge was going to close door.
In May of 2014, eight months pregnant, she took a flight to Indaba in Durban where they had a planned travel show.
She decided not to cancel. In South Africa, she met with one of the agents, one of Robert’s former employers who run a tented company in Switzerland. She told her she didn’t know what she was going to do.
The agent assured her to soldier on. “She told me ‘Lydia, we still have faith in you. Robert did not live in Uganda and it was you who lived there. It means it was you who was running the company so we have 100 percent confidence in you and in case of anything or if you don’t have money, I am here to support you’,” says Nandutu.
On her return, she encouraged the team that stayed to do what they did and leave the marketing to her. Nkuringo started getting referral and return clients.
That year, it received 15 bookings by past clients. Some didn’t know Brierley had passed on and when she told them, they felt so bad because they knew how close she was with him.
Many told her how highly he spoke of her. “When I gave birth to my daughter, I would breastfeed her as I typed because I didn’t have a team to support me. It was mostly me and the lodge team. Around that time, in June 2014, we had planned to open up Papyrus Guest House in Entebbe.”
They were renting the property on a 10-year lease. The owner called her to ask if after his passing, she still wanted to continue with the lease contract and she replied in affirmative.
Along the way, she had interested some friends who she thought could benefit from being partners with her in Papyrus. When her business partner passed on, the friends decided they didn’t want to proceed with the partnership so they asked for a refund.
She got another person, a former client who gave her funds. She needed all the support she could get. Business was slow. Not even Ugandan tour operators were supportive. She persevered using the good reviews the businesses had on online travel platform, tripadvisor.
She further recalls, “If a client has paid $100, give them a service worth of $500 and that made a difference.
Clients would come and ask why we called ourselves a camp. They thought we are a lodge and advised us to improve here and there. With my team, we rebuilt and rebranded ourselves.”
The campsite began upgrading to lodge status by investing to improve the accommodation to what is now the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge.
Nandudu’s lodge has been awarded four times by the World Travel Awards in the category of ‘Uganda’s Leading Safari Lodge’. The lodge’s reviews are touching. “I have a good team of staff. I have done this because of the people that stand behind me,” she says.
Her advice is that for anyone interested in investing in the tourism sector, it is important to test the waters; visit all the properties in the country to help you know what is around.
She speaks from experience. In 2011, she started a hairdressing business as a side hustle. She closed it in 2016 because she did not have as much love, understanding and appreciation as she did in the hospitality sector.
The entrepreneur would like some things done differently in Uganda’s tourism, for example she would like to have a tourism minister who is active in the sector.
“It would be good to have a minister who has invested and understands tourism business not just policy. For the tourism to survive, investors should get a return on investment,” she argues.