News Article

In Conversation with Katie Fewkes from Asilia Africa

10 May 2024

This year marks two decades since a collection of small, owner-run safari camps came together in East Africa to offer up something different for safari-goers in the region. This motley crew of guides, wildlife-lovers, adventurers and entrepreneurs – among them the indomitable Paul Oliver – wanted to join forces to offer a safari experience with conservation at its heart and to bring meaningful change to the region. The result was Asilia, whose Head of Commercial, Katie Fewkes, we’re speaking to today, and whose operations have grown from those original trailblazers to today’s operation of 16 camps, countless partner properties and an over 1,000-strong team.

‘Positive impact’, is how Katie describes Asilia’s North Star, and she’s the first to admit that it could sound a little trite. The travel industry is awash with organisations making highfalutin claims about their work, without anything substantial to back it up. That’s where the B-Corp certified Asilia differs from most, though, as they boast an entire arsenal of work that speaks to their desire to be much more than a camp operator.

It’s clear that Katie feels the same, and has done ever since being bitten by the East African bug on a post-uni overland trip. I have a strong suspicion that she’s far from alone at Asilia, that a love of the area is what drives most people who work there. And it’s clear from what they’re doing – and have done ever since those original few came together in 2004. Back then, positive impact looked like supplying desks to schools and employing locals. It was nothing ground-breaking, but it informed every decision made at Asilia and influenced everything the company did.

It still does, Katie tells me, and from those school desks and local employees, Asilia’s positive impact has grown enormously, from chimpanzee habituation in Rubondo Island to supporting women’s empowerment initiatives in the Masai Mara. The company employs over 1,000 people across 16 camps, some of which would simply not have been possible to open and run without Asilia’s vision.

That’s because some of these remote camps need tourism to create the infrastructure for access and help fund crucial conservation, making them a long-term proposition. ‘We’re not going to make money in the short term on those more remote camps’, Katie says, an admission that I find oddly satisfying coming from a Head of Commercial, but they are going to have a positive impact on the people who work and stay there, as well as the communities around them and the wildlife they strive to protect. It strikes me that the company genuinely does put its money where its mouth is, operating small camps on the back of its larger infrastructure as a means of continuing their founding purpose.

Usangu Expedition Camp is perhaps the perfect example of that. A 6000km2 region in the far south of Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, it started life as a research camp that didn’t even take paying guests for its first 3 years. Instead, Asilia partnered with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute on a multi-year biodiversity audit, to get an idea of what was there – that’s how remote and unknown it is. Conserving wildlife is fundamental to who Asilia is, but, Katie says, just as critical is supporting and empowering local communities. Usangu personifies that, offering the first employment opportunities for its staff from the neighbouring villages. For those lucky enough to stay there today, they can expect a safari in its truest sense: a sense of discovery and the anticipation of not knowing what you’ll see and when.

“One of our strengths is our East African-ness, it’s where our roots are, it’s where our people are and it’s what we know”

For those who do want camps and game areas with easier to predict wildlife, Asilia do of course offer a number of gorgeous places throughout East Africa. After all, that’s their bread and butter and, although Katie says it’s important that people manage their expectations, their guides are the best in the business.

The same can be said for the camps, all of which are constantly being updated and refined to offer the very best in safari accommodation. Katie cites a pool that’s been installed at Oliver’s Camp, a sauna at The Highlands, restaurant-inspired menus, even specially chosen coffee (‘everyone’s a coffee snob these days, aren’t they?’). And, for those who don’t want to be tied in just to Asilia’s camps, they have a rigorous selection system for partner properties covering not just the physical elements, but the less tangible stuff that is so obviously the fundamental part of the company: do they treat their staff well, is the guiding of a good enough quality, are they good partners with similar ethics, is the community benefiting?

As we wind up our chat, I ask about any future plans, about whether they’ll always be in Tanzania and Kenya. ‘Always is a strong term!’, Katie says, but they don’t have any immediate plans to venture south in the continent. ‘One of our strengths is our East African-ness, it’s where our roots are, it’s where our people are and it’s what we know’. I think what she means is that Asilia is going to keep doing what it does best, where it does it best. And, by the sound of things, they’re already doing it pretty well.

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