While at Ontulili High School in 2008, Pancras Karema used to sneak out of school to go on an adventure inside Mount Kenya forest, where the school is located.
Before long, his friend Lawrence Gitonga joined him, and slowly the group grew, putting the two in trouble for leading other students astray.
They were suspended from school several times, but it didn’t change anything as they kept sneaking out albeit careful not to be caught. It reached a point they were nicknamed majamaa wa adventure (adventurous guys).
Karema was happy every time they successfully sneaked out and came back. After four years, the two parted ways and in 2011, Karema joined University of Nairobi to study Bachelors of Art, Political Science and Tourism degree and Gitonga joined Egerton University.
Business without money
“At first, I thought our separation would lead to the death of our dream of setting up a tour and travel company, but I was wrong,” he says.
That year, he organised a hiking trip to Ngong Hills and invited some friends. They accepted and the hike was a success. This prompted more trips, with Gitonga joining them frequently. The team kept growing and Karema started organising day trips outside Nairobi on behalf of his peers. He was doing this as a passion project, and used to pay for the trips just like the rest.
The second-born child says after numerous successful trips and two years of dominating the day trip scene, the two decided to formalise their operations by getting registered. That is how Expeditions Maasai Safaris was born.
By then, the 29-year-old did not have any capital and simply relied on what his college mates would contribute to cover the cost of the trips. “When I started hosting non-students and considering that our transactions were always done via mobile money, some started questioning our legitimacy. That is when I saw a need to formalise our operations,” says Karema.
In late 2015, the duo decided to open their first office and expand their services to include hotel bookings, ticketing, safaris, corporate travel and outbound holiday itineraries.
With no money, the two were allowed to use a small office at the city market on credit. Gitonga borrowed a laptop from his sister and they were set. However, another challenge arose since the two couldn’t market their services without the Internet, yet they were doing online marketing.
This forced Karema to visit university computer lab, despite having completed his studies. “Our friends used to think that we are mad. They couldn’t understand why we are committing ourselves to business without money. We used to skip lunch so we could save some little money for our upkeep,” he adds.
Luckily, they managed to get their first customer to Maasai Mara. They charged them Sh40,000 and although the price was a bit high, the customer paid, but challenged them to lower their prices.
After doing a vigorous campaign, the company received a good number of customers, who believed in them and even contracted them for international trips.
Because of their good work, they were nominated for and won Company of the Year Award in the Social Media Awards (Soma) Biz Yangu category in 2016. That was their turning point. They got many interview opportunities with different media houses, getting the required exposure.
Three years down the line, the company has become a household name when it comes to affordable safaris.
“Trust is good for the survival of every business. Always ensure that you deliver whatever you promised. This has been our secret and can make your business thrive as well,” Karema says.
The company mainly serves two major types of travellers: individual or family travellers and the Kenyan corporate.
For individual/families, it offers exciting and unique beach and bush holiday experiences within Kenya and places such as Zanzibar, Dubai, Seychelles, USA, Greece, and Bangkok. It also organises successful mountain climbing expeditions across Africa and Asia.
“For our corporate guests, we tailor-make both day and overnight team building programmes and activities geared towards aligning their teams with the organisation’s core mission, while inspiring teamwork and life-work balance,” Karema adds.
Their future plan is to expand the company to the whole of East Africa and to the whole world. Currently, the company has managed to open a permanent office in Ngara, buy six tour buses, and open a new branch in Nyali.
They have won other awards including the Young Entrepreneurs Award 2018, the SME (Small and medium-sized enterprises) of the Year award and Best Tourism and Hospitality Company in 2019.
“We have been nominated for this year’s World Travel Awards as the Kenya leading travel Agency and I would urge all to vote for us.”