DESTINATION MASTER
Nziza Hospitality
XO Private Interview

Connect with the heart of Africa.


Nziza Hospitality creates bespoke safari itineraries built by locals
for travellers who wish to explore
the Africa of their soul.

‘Africa is not a place; it is a feeling. Africa is the heart of the world and there are only few of us who have been touched by her’
- Anonymous

In setting up a meeting for this article with native Ugandan founder Bernard Manansala, I am immediately delighted by this cheerful and unique conversation partner.
He greets me with ‘Jambo!’ - which I learned is Swahili for ‘hello’ - and writes that he is currently on safari in Tanzania but that he looks forward to our chat upon his return. If that wasn’t enough to evoke images of wild and exotic safari adventure, the pleasant but brief exchange was followed by National Geographic-style videos, captioned with ‘Greetings from the Serengeti’, of a lean and stunning cheetah dragging an antelope kill away into the savannah.

When I sit down with him for the interview a week later, Bernard speaks in cinematic stories. Without so much as a question or nudge from my part, he seamlessly merges our initial small talk into his earliest memories of hospitality.

'We grew up on the boundary of Queen Elisabeth’s National Park. We used to have cattle, close to the SSA Airstrip, which still exists. I still go back home, land, and think, ‘This is where I used to run from home, shirtless, to come and see the tourists landing.
I saw famous people, the Pope, the German president, and many others. The school I attended was within the boundaries of the park, so we could see the animals. One of my uncles worked at Queen Elizabeth's National Park and he would take me on tours. From that early point onwards, my passion only grew.

After the 1994 war in Rwanda, business was impacted. My father couldn't make it financially due to bank loans, so I dropped out of school at 16. That’s when I walked my first journey, 14 kilometres from home, all the way to a new property that had just opened. It was called Jacana Safari Lodge.
When I arrived at the gate, I met one of the managers, Gibbie Lewis. Surprisingly, she had come to hire someone else, but she asked me, ‘Young man, why are you here?’. I explained that I had walked all the way from home because I couldn't afford to complete school. My siblings were struggling, and the only way I would able to support them was by getting a job.
She said: ‘Follow me’, and showed me the property. Then she told me, ‘You’re hired! When do you want to start?’ Immediately I replied, ‘I’ll start tomorrow.’
And I’ve never looked back… It was the start of a career that became a passion which spans almost 24 years now.'

Bernard Manansala                                                                                  
It is easy to see that resilience is a central theme in Bernard’s story. Bernard carries the aura of a softspoken but hardened survivor. His life carries him over many years of experience at prestigious lodges, rejecting a corporate job with Emirates, as he’s ‘never been in formal attire, never wore shiny shoes or a necktie, how would I work in that kind of environment?’ to realizing the power of having local wisdom that empowered him to identify 420 species of bats when his Western counterparts only knew of 8. Bernard is a self-made man with the heart of Africa, and with feet firmly planted in the red African clay.

In 2019, I incorporated Nziza Hospitality, and then there was 2020. I’d just returned from Europe on a marketing trip. I was going to Germany, but eventually, the way was closed. Boom, Covid.’

For an entrepreneurial optimist like Bernard, challenges are built not only to be overcome, but to be a spark for improvement. When the world stopped in 2020, he turned his company’s focus inward, and looked at how he could keep things moving in a positive direction.

'There was never a better opportunity to apply your strengths, to apply them like a wild animal. I had more drive to turn things around because I looked for the weaker link. I examined how the industry overall had taken things for granted and figured out a more positive aspect of recovery. I invested my time in areas where we needed it and dedicated myself so that every small detail would be taken care of.
One of these areas was to grow and enrich our portfolio. We cover more than eighteen countries in southern Africa, which are part of the safari circuit. The region in the east and the South African region were closed, but Tanzania was open. We also had the privilege that industry tax rates were frozen, and that there were discounted rates.

So, at the initial stage of the pandemic, we needed to focus on the growth of the brand again.
We took business rules and realised that some of them should not apply here. As industry players, we can appreciate that we are all clients to someone’s business, and we can help each other out.

‘So, let’s put aside the cancellation terms. We convinced our clients that instead of cancelling – which could cause our company, only a baby company at that point, to eventually close – they could postpone or go ahead with it. If we needed to refund, of course we did it, but many of our customers stood with us. They realised that if they cancelled, and we would have to close, they would also lose the connections and ideas I had researched and was confident in offering, and they had put their trust in me.
We were not looking at how to make a profit, but how to have the right clients travel with you with all the safety measures in place.
We sent out the message that as small as we are, we are unique in our own way. Clients appreciated that. They were flexible because we also had flexible cancellation terms. This client you are holding today will be a future referral and can be a basis for future business. And now, with time, we see that if we had a booking for two people, it has now grown from two to six to ten to fourteen people, because of the flexibility we applied
.'
The pandemic also created new awareness about our co-existence with nature. Nature is not just an element to be consumed, sometimes quite literally. Rather, it is an important partner in any hospitality negotiation that deserves its place at the table.

Nature needed a holiday. The industry had never thought of how we can minimize the carbon footprint in the environment we work in. How do we put in conservation efforts that holistically allow nature and man to co-exist? When everyone was at home, we saw an increase in the numbers of baby elephants in Amboseli National Park, and an increase in baby gorillas in Bwindi National Park.'

Another important focal point of Nziza Hospitality is the social impact on the surrounding communities. Keeping those communities happy reduces the chance of problems that could be detrimental to the wildlife and nature.

'We don’t build itineraries simply because the client must travel. Wildlife, philanthropy, and environmental protection of Africa is our principal ethos. What makes us unique is that when you travel with us, you are coming to Africa. You’re not just coming to see wild animals.
Africa is more than the Big 5. Our story begins at ‘Who are the big 6?’
It's the people who showcase their crafts, it’s the people who share a smile throughout your stay. It's knowing that the proceeds of your trip are distributed among the locals and benefit the local communities.


We also looked at how to work with the communities that live within the boundaries of the park. What social impact am I going to be involved in? There are so many ways to help improve the lives of the local communities. We reach out to properties that are not just multinational brands, but that reflect the style of the region. Properties that will have a positive impact on its employees and the surrounding communities.
If we can contribute towards the social lives of the people who have a business, make the crafts, sell the vegetables, it goes all the way up to the banks, the airports, and the country in general.'

Despite his own dreams of studying in the US and holding a PhD by the age of 28, Bernard has grown to understand that his true passion lies in Africa. The noblest way to showcase Africa is to bring those who are open to learning about it, straight into the heart of it. This will not only have a positive impact on the travellers, but also change the national mindset about Africa. Bernard shares a quote with me, as worded by Zimbabwean student Zoe Charier:
My African dream is for Africans not to aspire to leave Africa in order to achieve their dreams. For Africa to afford Africans the opportunity to pursue the upper echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy within Africa.
For Africa to be the land of prosperity for Africans.’

‘¬¬¬¬¬¬Africans should not feel they must cross the oceans to be successful. There is so much great potential where you can inspire other people to be part of our culture. I want to inspire people and show that you can do it. I’ll remain on the touchline to support them and clap for them. The intention is to grow together.
And nothing makes me prouder than for people to understand where we come from.’


There is still much Western culture can learn from Africa. A way of life that is about harmonious co-existence, not only between people, but also between man and nature. The rational mind, as Einstein himself pointed out, only reaches so far. We have come to appreciate that much of our collective and individual healing is to be found in intuition, being of service to others in a sustainable way, and exploring different sides of ourselves that are more connected to the natural world. Africa holds a magic that can soothe the most stressed of Western rationalists.

‘One of the negative impacts of Western tourism is the impact of revenue, and the change of culture. How Western culture impacts the rest of our society. I think as Africans, we shouldn't blame the tourist who comes to Africa to see our beautiful surroundings. Rather, we should challenge them, so that they embrace it and become part of it. It’s important to have the kind of traveller who likes to indulge themselves into the lifestyle of the local people. Then we can open doorways for them and show them an Africa that is way beyond what you can read about on the internet. That’s when we can challenge the traveller and show them; this is why you are here.’

Nziza Hospitality offers an unforgettable insider’s experience with Africa. An Africa that cannot be explained through words or understood through the mind alone but must be experienced through the senses.
This is nothing less than a valuable life-changing event, leaving visitors with a novel colour in their pallet, a new sound in their ears, and a deeper understanding of their place in the world.

Bernard sums it up beautifully,
Africa has its own mysteries that no one can understand, but Africa will make you understand. Once you visit Africa it becomes part of your feelings, part of your senses.
You will eventually feel that you want to return.’ 

Kaya Jay
                          
Kaya is a creative storyteller at heart, with almost two decades of experience in media
directing, story editing and interviewing. Raised between her native country of Belgium and oriental Malaysia, she is a global citizen with a profound love for travel, different cultures and unifying human stories. She has divided her time between Europe, Asia and South America, and currently resides on the beautiful island of Mallorca in Spain.