Interview With Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi, Acting CEO Kenya Tourism Board

Jacinta Nzioka - Mbithi at the shores of Lake Turkana where she is learning about EL Molo food.

It’s a hot Friday afternoon and I am in Marsabit for the Marsabit Lake Turkana Festival. This particular afternoon we are by the shores of the beautiful Lake Turkana. We are visiting the fascinating El Molo People whom I must write a post about, as there are only around 100 of them remaining. We have just had a talk by one of the El Molo telling us about what the El Molo people eat when I get a chance to interview Jacinta Nzioka – Mbithi. Jacinta Nzioka is the current Ag. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB). Prior to her appointment, Mrs Nzioka-Mbithi was the Ag. Director of Marketing since 2012. She has over 10 years’ experience in tourism marketing and has led several initiatives and projects to turn around the sector working closely with other government agencies and strategic partners both locally and abroad. She is one of the founding Executive Directors of the Kenya Association of Women in Tourism (KAWT) and member to the board of Ecotourism Kenya.

Jacinta Nzioka - Mbithi at the shores of Lake Turkana where she is learning about EL Molo food.
Jacinta Nzioka – Mbithi at the shores of Lake Turkana where she is learning about EL Molo food.

Kenya Tourism Board has been supporting the Marsabit Lake Turkana Festival for 9 years. I know KTB helped start it. What made you start it as KTB?

What made us start supporting this festival was because that we felt we needed to give it a kick start. We needed to give it the visibility globally that is required so that the people of this region can also benefit from tourism.  They have potential here but they don’t get a lot of tourists. As a tourism board we have the responsibility of profiling destinations so that we can bring in traffic into such regions.  Now the festival is on its feet the country government has taken it up so we continue to have visibility and have visitation here.  If it wasn’t known it would have been such a challenge for the county government to pick it up and run.

It has been 9 years. What are the gains so far?

One of the things is community involvement. We have community camps, some owned by women, like the Maserato women.  They have seen the importance of tourism in their region. Anything that benefits you as a local person you will support and they realize tourism is important.

The other thing is visibility of the region. It is quite far from Nairobi the capital and key cities. Just the fact that during the festival there is a buzz around this region, that visibility is good because they are able to benefit from tourism and positive image. Also other businesses benefit, locals supply things to the tourism sector.

Other opportunities come up. We have worked to ensure that Maina Kageni road trip happens here this weekend. Maina is here. You can imagine the visibility that it will give through Maina’s program. He has come with a team. Having people go back and talk about their experiences will make it easier for others to come.

How are you able to track or measure the impact of Maina Kageni’s road trips around the country?

In the places Maina is visiting, there are offers that the hotels and lodges give to people who want to travel. They are able to give us percentage rates of increment in bookings or bed occupancy that they have received that weekend.

Also we give the value to the mentions that Maina gives during the program. That is the equivalent to a huge investment that we wouldn’t have been able to afford, just being able to use him as a personality.

Here is Maina’s interview on his road trips “Life is about enriching your soul and yourself” – Maina Kageni on Travel & #TembeaKenya.

How long is the sponsorship?

We have another 6 weeks to go.

How many regions was he to visit?

There were 15 regions to be visited.

In those 15 regions those would be 15 visits or how does it work?

In some regions we could go to 2 towns or more on different weekends depending on what is the region.  There are plans to go back to some regions like Kakamega. We will go back to the southern part – to Amboseli and also to Tsavo. Maina has been to Lamu but he will be going back to Mombasa sometime soon. A region is based on the tourism circuit.

You had mentioned the women’s group tell me more about that.

Masereto is a group made up of women from various communities who came together and they decided put up a camp. They put up a camp themselves after getting some support. I got to know about them from a lady friend of mine, an Italian in the tourism industry. She came to Turkana and liked the idea. She had actually come to support some research.  She managed to do some fundraising in Italy and get money to put together structures. I was also able to introduce them to a lady from Helen Kurea from Maji Moto camp just to help them to put together a community or cultural resort. They needed to put together hospitality facilities and they needed to get be taught some basic customer care. So that when guests come they are able to handle them. They are the ones who do the bookings, welcome, cooking, housekeeping etc.  So that they are able to handle the hospitality. They were given training through the Italian Association. They are women from are typical village like this and now they have a side income.

How successful has it been?

In the last 2 festivals they have had 100% occupancy rate during the festival. When we started 4 years ago they were not ready and the place was more of a camp. Now they have become more upmarket. They are charging reasonable rates and they are able to attract good clientele.

They are also able to sell artifacts and products that they make themselves.  That way they are able to support their children through school and things like that. That is a case where from the community something has really happened during the period that we have been working with the festival and we managed to get them support from a foreign country.  They are on their feet and they can manage it all by themselves.

Do you plan to continue supporting these festivals? Do you plan to do the same elsewhere or are you doing the same elsewhere.

The beauty of the county government is a lot of them realize the value of the festivals. What we are doing is partnering with them. We have already confirmed to Mombasa County that we will continue to support them with their festival because it had gone down. That festival was really very famous and it was big. It used to be the carnival. That is one area we are committed to work with them to be able to bring back this vibrancy. One weekend or a few days within the month of August where Kenyans are able to spend the night and spend the days enjoying the cultures of different communities.

The other area that we are looking at is the Northern Rift counties that have come together. We have told them to identify an event where we can partner with them.  We have already secured a place in Eldoret where KTB will have an info counter within the county office just to give information about tourism and where one can go to enjoy themselves. Distributing information in non-conventional places like golf clubs and gyms. We will be able to target those high spending Kenyans who frequent such places. In that way we feel we will encourage rural tourism in the country. When you go to Eldoret club from Nairobi, one afternoon you will be able to drive for 2 hours and be able to support rural tourism.

Now that the Marsabit Lake Turkana festival has been taken over by Marsabit County which counties are you going to be supporting?

We continue to support the Marsabit festival that is why we are here! In the current financial year we have already worked with Eldoret- North Rift, Kisumu, Taita, Lamu and Rusinga. We are also supporting Miss Tourism in Vihiga.

KTB have been supporting this festival for 9 years. It started as a means of bringing people together. Now it has the component of an International marathon? How is that working?

If you can observe the communities they are very proud of their uniqueness. That way it assures the world that the culture and communities will not die because they will not ignore the things they used to do in the past, they are now working hard towards maintaining and showcasing it. They have also been able to put together their artifacts into the cultural museum that was launched by the Deputy President 2 years ago. Just because it was one of the festivals activities to have that museum. That has helped restored culture. Generations to come will be able to make reference; this is what they used and be able to know what happened many years ago. The preservation of culture is really great.

The awareness locally of what else they have.  You realize of course that infrastructure is a challenge. When a community from North Horr comes to exhibit, the people from this region also get to realize we are all different. One of the benefits of cultural festivals is cultural integration, which tourism globally should maintain. The cultural festival shows that we are different but we should be able to live together peacefully.

The challenge of the road. It’s hard to get there unless you have a 4 by car. What are you doing about that especially in hard to reach areas?

Access is a very important thing. Any tourism destination without access cannot be called a tourism product. Access is one of the factors that must be there. You must facilitate traffic to the destination. We support county governments to map out tourism products, whatever attractions there are. Maybe a community doesn’t even know it is a tourism attraction. We have supported and worked with some of the counties to map and find out where they are. We see what can be turned into a tourism attraction and help them plan what they need to do.

We are helping them to put together tourism and marketing strategies, so that whatever they are packaging will have appeal in the market, because we understand the trends in the market. We bring them information and tell them what markets would like to come to such a place so this is how you need to package.  This is up to production of materials, at a certain quality and standard that is acceptable in the markets.

So are you doing that for all the counties?

No. We have to be very strategic because you cannot spread yourself too thin. Different regions are in different stages in tourism development. There are regions that are already ahead like Mombasa, they already have the tourism product mapped and packaged; all we need to do is increase awareness of some of unique areas.

But in other counties it is different, like Kitui. We have to work with them from scratch from mapping to strategy.  We have also been working with Taita very well, especially to highlight war memorials sites for unique tourism products, like battlefield tourism. Every year we decide what to focus on and which counties to focus on.

So where are you focusing on this year.

The Northern Rift and the Coast. The Coast is not just a blanket thing. We are specifically had programs in Taita, Lamu and Mombasa for this financial year. Next year it will be somewhere else. We have to look at the whole country, be able to support them and work jointly with the counties.

We also in such programs work with these counties in exhibitions and roadshows around the world. They participate in KTB organized platform, like in an exhibition week, we give them a place. Like tell them we are going  to Germany, we give them the profile of people coming to the exhibition, and show them how to get ready and even help them with business people on the other side so that they are able to showcase. Turkana did very well in ITB in March 2016. They had a specific program on cradle of humankind where they even hired a place and we helped them to put together crowds to come and go through a presentation on cradle of mankind.  That way the awareness levels continue to increase.

 I wanted to buy stuff from the El Molo people to support them. Their stuff is so expensive; they say that it is hard to get the materials. How would such communities be able to sell in Germany when prices are so high? How will they be able to access materials?

For them it is expensive to get these materials. You can imagine how hard it is to get these materials, somebody having to travel from the village to get materials in Nairobi.

The group of women I told you about.  I put them in touch with ladies from Narok. They even came and showed them how to make things themselves so that they are not buying to come and sell. If they make it themselves then it will be cheaper. I realize it is a challenge. Even when you go to lodges in Maasai Mara some of those things are very expensive. Sandals are Ksh. 3500 yet in Maasai market the same sandals are Ksh. 500.

Pricing has really been an issue. The other day the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism was asking private sector “why do you have to charge so much for Kenyans to come to your properties? You are half full and instead of giving us good rates you just sell too high!” That is the challenge about pricing in this sector. We have to break it down and realize that with a good offer you get more people, you will get more business. Not to undersell or cheapen everything but to create more demand. You have to be realist.

It is cheaper to go to Dubai or South Africa for a week then it is to spend time at the coast in December.  What is that about?

That is a mistake that they make. The CS Tourism challenged them and asked them why should it be more expensive to fly from Nairobi to Mara and it is only 45 minutes away. What is making it so expensive?

What are the challenges that KTB faces as you try and promote tourism in Kenya?

So many factors that affect tourism are beyond your control and some of them not from within tourism sector

Like security?

Yes because of interlinkages.  The image of a destination is affected by the coverage. What media is covering is picked a lot by the international media and also through social media. Every Kenya’s voice contributes to something about image of the destination. These are the things that affect image of Kenya and potential of tourists to come.

Some of the products are not ready. Like look at this Northern part of the country. It has beautiful scenery and beautiful culture. How accessible is it? Infrastructure is a challenge. You would like to sell such a product but where will the guests come and stay? How will they get here? These are issues because it is product owners that develop them then KTB will market. You find that if it is not ready then it is difficult to sell.

Every county now has a tourism minister? Is that helping with tourism? Has it make an impact?

It has. Every tourism minister has a budget and a plan of what they are going to do to develop tourism. In their efforts, some are starting from mapping products; some are packaging products all the way to marketing. Others are just creating awareness because product is already there. Tourism has a place because every county has a tourism department.   At the Ministry of Tourism, the tourism department in this region is working hard to ensure tourism facilities and attractions are well packaged. I have told you we have worked with some of them.  They are also investing in promotions including abroad. They are present and talking about their counties which is a plus because the world is now seeing new things from Kenya. Fresh products from regions where you would never imagine there would be tourism products. They are coming out. Look at Machakos they go out of the country and they are talking about McMillian House. Counties are working together in regional blocks are looking for investors. That will also be beneficial and it will help open up tourism across the regions.

Earlier you talked about media and how people affect the reputation of the country. You guys, Brand Kenya are doing a good job. But reputation management may be hampered by what people say on social media. How are you trying to deal with that? Is there a plan on how to deal with online reputation? Are you talking to stakeholders to help you counter bad publicity?

Content creation. By being able to get positive content in Kenya. We have lots of engagement with media, social media properties and bloggers. Here we have 6 bloggers at the festival. We take the media out on FAM (familiarization) trips so that they can feed their platforms with positivity. So should somebody write negative things then positive stories help to reduce ranking of negative stories.

We are also planning to work with endorsement travel platforms like travel advisor. We want to continue to have positive visibility on online platforms.

It is a challenge to control what goes on social media. What you are responsible for as a tourism board is to continue feeding the positives and engaging social media players who have something to say. If not they may end up being negative and everything will be washed down.

Check out Seven Reasons Why You Need To Attend Cultural Festivals.


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