Although we are a very new volunteer organisation, our origins stretch back many years, as our family-run company has been running hotels and travel businesses for many decades, even before our founder Ranjit was born (in 1962). Ranjit grew up surrounded by the world of hotels and travel. “As long as I can remember,” he says, “I was in and out of kitchens, generator rooms, laundries, swimming pools pump rooms, garages, workshops and maintenance sheds to keep all the equipment and systems running for hotels and lodges.” However his story, which becomes RAW’s story, takes him to the ocean, inland and then back into his local communities, and it is this connected journey through all of Kenya’s riches that is the inspiration for RAW.
In 1980 an old client and family friend took Ranjit from Mombasa where the family ran a resort beach hotel to Shimoni, a sleepy fishing village on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. The client was an avid big game fisherman, but also a keen snorkeler who collected ocean aquarium fish. He claimed that he was seeing the rarest and most prized of all fish off an archipelago adjacent to Shimoni. The guest house that he stayed in there was up for sale, so we bought the land and guest house and started day trips out to the archipelago for our clients staying in Mombasa, about a 2 hours drive away.
Today this archipelago is known as Kisite Mpunguti marine reserve and considered the jewel in Kenya’s marine parks.
In 1982 Ranjit was fresh out of university and was given the task of developing this into a small lodge with 6 cottages and a fleet of boats to shuttle guests to the marine reserve. Over the next years this experience cemented his love for the ocean and whet his appetite for adventure and exploration of roads less travelled. He discovered that there were three species of dolphins in these waters, while whale sharks would migrate annually, and humpback whales appear each year from July through September so close to shore he could swim alongside them. Meanwhile the local fisherman taught him fishing techniques, how to survive the worst tropical storms in an open boat and how to navigate with the sun, wind and stars.
The pristine environment of Shimoni has a backdrop of coastal forest that once stretched from Mozambique to Somalia, but that now is only left in patches along east Africa. Still today in the forests around Shimoni can be found the rare colubus monkey, along with sykes and vervet monkeys. The river that empties into the ocean north of Shimoni still has 12 foot crocodiles lurking along its banks.
Many trips to these forests and hills filled Ranjit with a desire to venture further inland. A unique opportunity when he invited by the Late Dr. Zahour Kashmeri – then one of the emerging new generation of wildlife veterinarians – to join his crocodile trapping team on the Tana river. The Tana is Kenya’s largest, fed by the glaciers of Mt.Kenya it finally enters the sea on the coast north of Malindi, near Lamu. The population along its banks was at this time grow rapidly and there were cases of women and children being eaten by crocs.
Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) engaged a team led by Dr Kashmeri to trap as many crocodiles as possible near the worst affected villages. This project was co-funded by an investor who took the opportunity to relocate the crocodiles to a new made for breeding farm where they would be commercially exploited. Surviving in this brutal riverine ecosystem was a massive eye opener for Ranjit on what rural life was to many Kenyans.
Following this experience we started our own safari company to lead expeditions to the lesser known parks and to dive the Pemba channel. As the company’s experience grew we ventured into Tanzanian waters with converted Dhows that we could live on for up to a week at a time. It was on one of these trips, off the northern most island in Tanzania, Pemba, (which is part of Zanzibar) that we discovered the most pristine reefs and sea life I had ever seen anywhere. Today Pemba island’s reefs are considered amongst the 10 most pristine reefs in the world and amongst the finest examples in the Indian ocean. We literally stumbled into them.
Years running safaris into the lesser known parks in Kenya and Tanzania, while having a monopoly of access and knowledge of Pemba gave us an insight into many communities and parks all over east Africa that we would have otherwise never been able to see. All the while, however, our core family business remained hotels and by the 90’s we had the first tourism hotel in Zanzibar, a landmark hotel in Mombasa, a popular resort hotel at Diani beach, and the Shimoni Reef lodge, which is where our marine volunteers now stay. The final property to be built was the remote and magical Manta Reef Lodge on Pemba island.
While we were building and running these hotels, we also began running even more specialized expeditions, such as botanical discovery tours to sample the biodiversity and pharmaceutical potential of traditional rural medicine in east Africa. And throughout this period, we continually became more embedded in our local communities, understanding their issues and beginning to explore how we could meaningfully help.
When the market for gap year travel really arrived in Kenya we set up a program on the borders of Tsavo in the Sagalla sanctuary, where wildlife, and elephants in particular, were in competition with the fast growing rural population for water and land resources. This conflict was exacerbating poaching and stimulating a growth in the trade in bushmeat. Yet all the while the focus of the parks authority was on protect wildlife, with limited vision for how to manage the people who live alongside the parks. Having seen all of this, we have ensured that our partners are those who have invested in and created private sanctuaries alongside the parks that combine wildlife conservation with uplift for the rural communities.
In recent years our number of partners has spread. Some work on education for children from poor families who would otherwise be left with few alternatives other than poaching. Others are dedicated wildlife specialists monitoring species so we can understand them better and ensure their future survival in and around the parks. And in the ever-growing urban slums around Mombasa – where many of our staff live and raise families – we support specific responsible orphanages for children, including one that focusses on children born with HIV.
Our story started with the ocean, moved inland to the parks, and now includes the towns. The circle is complete and we have in our hands a mission to serve the community, protect wildlife and to preserve our unique environment. We drawn on all these experiences, with the people who have been part of this journey always at its heart. We hope you will join us as we embark on the next stage.