The businessman who built a castle in rural Kenya
Growing up in a sleepy village in the rural Nyeri region of Kenya (a two hour drive north of Nairobi), George Tafaria Waititu always dreamt of transforming the area. Waititu quit his job at a multinational research company to establish the Tafaria Castle & Country Lodge.
Waititu told How we made it in Africa that growing up in the area was “tough” and “harsh”.
“School was far [and the] shopping centre was very far; in fact [buying] a matchbox alone was a day [long] affair. [There were] no power, no roads, no health centre anywhere near. It was quite punishing.”
Wild animals, he recalled, would often roam the place.
“So, life was very tough. But that does not mean we did not find joy. I always had this dream of transforming it into something that is more connected with the world.”
Eight months ago, Waititu opened the doors of the 29 room lodge, which looks like a medieval castle, and has to date received visitors from 12 nationalities.
“I had accomplished what I had set out to do 14 years ago, which was to build a highly reputable research company that would become an African multinational and a market leader,” said Waititu, explaining why he quit his job as group managing director of research company Steadman (now Ipsos Synovate).
Waititu had a specific goal in mind: “to bring significant, measurable and sustainable social change” to the community he grew up in. His first attempt, was however, not successful. He set up a community information centre, hoping to facilitate exchange of knowledge and information among professionals and locals in the area. It was not long before he realised that the venture was not commercially sustainable.
Waititu then decided to build a castle. “When I was growing up I was building all these castles in the air and now that I had economic means, I figured, why not put a real one on the ground.”
His childhood fascination with castles inspired the design and architecture of Tafaria.
“The agenda of Tafaria is to transform. I am trying to pull this neighbourhood from a dark past to a brighter direction,” he said.
Going grand on design and architecture has also proved advantageous for Tafaria Castle & Country Lodge from a business perspective.
“Tafaria is not in a park. We are not anywhere near a beach, we are not in the Maasai Mara and for that reason, being devoid of any natural attraction or typical tourist destination, we had to invest more in the look and feel of the place,” said Waititu.
The establishment of the castle has brought basic infrastructure such as water, roads and electricity to Waititu’s community.
“There was a massive skill transfer because 80% of the people who built Tafaria were from the local neighbourhood. There were specialised artisans coming from a little further and whatever skills they brought were left behind. That for me is the most powerful transformation,” said Waititu.
Establishing the Tafaria Castle & Country Lodge was no walk in the park. However, Waititu who has established startups in other parts of Africa, downplayed the challenges.
“I have set up quite a few businesses in Africa. To be very honest, when I look at the whole pot of what I call challenges, they are actually the very reasons as to why a management team exists,” he said.
Waititu advised entrepreneurs to have a compelling vision that is powerful enough to inspire them to achieve certain goals within a particular time frame. Clarity of vision is also important.
“Clarity of vision helps you work out your roadmap… It makes you become a risk taker. It helps you come up with smart strategies to overcome all the barriers that you will encounter along the way,” he said.
Waititu described doing business in Africa as “exciting” because markets are not yet established, but cautioned investors to be open-minded as they invest in different countries.
“You should not go to any market with any kind of stereotype. If you go into a market and you are not flexible enough to accommodate the nuances, whether cultural or regulatory, you are bound to fail,” he warned.