The appetite to come and run in the Safaricom Marathon is huge – Mike Watson, CEO of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy


Next weekend all roads lead to the Lewa Conservancy for the Safaricom Marathon. Last month I was at the Lewa Conservancy to find out how the Safaricom Marathon funds have been used, and what the impact of the marathon has been. It  was amazing to see what the funds have done, most people think that the money raised is only used on wildlife conservation but that is not true. The funds are used for education, health, water projects, to provide security not just for the animals but the community as well and some of the funds are also used to fund other conservation efforts outside of Lewa.

During our 3 day tour of Lewa we were able to meet with different departments to find out how they use the funds they are allocated from the Safaricom Marathon. We also got to meet Mike Watson, who is the CEO of Lewa. Below is his interview.

Could you please introduce yourself and your role with the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy?

My name is Mike Watson and I am the CEO of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. I have been in that role for the last 5 years. We have 300 employees, 9 different departments and my role is to keep that functioning and to develop the strategic direction of the organisation.

Lewa CEO Mike Watson and Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore at the launch of this year’s Lewa Marathon. Image from

How did the idea of the marathon come about?

It was originally conceptualised by a very famous marathon runner whom I might say won a gold medal and was an Olympic champion. He was a very close friend of the Craig family. I think he was having lunch with Mzee David Craig many years ago and said to the Craig’s, well why don’t you hold a marathon here in Lewa and that could end up raising some money. I seem to remember, and I was here actually 18 years ago when we had the first marathon, we set it up, it was very different than from what it is today, in the context from the number of people who were running and the profile from both the national and international level.

We had 200 runners, I think we raised a couple of a hundred thousand dollars. We had an Englishman win it and that was the last time a white person won the marathon here in Lewa! We have developed the event substantially since then. It was really conceptualised to embrace Kenya’s love of running. Also to try and stimulate the relationship between Kenyans’ love of running and development centric conservation which is something that we here in Lewa, and the surrounding communities espouse hugely. We have developed that link really strongly over the last 18 years.

How has participation and the event grown over the years?

When we held the first run 18 years ago there were 200 runners. Last year there were 1400 and it’s my expectation again that there will be 1400 again this year. This year we closed the entries about 4 or 5 hours after we opened them while three years ago it took three weeks to fill them, so you can see the appetite across Kenya to engage in this event is huge. It has changed substantially in the context of an event, the size of it, organizing it, the number of people that actually want to enter and the real interest in it. Historically, it wasn’t really going out live on TV but for the last three years we have had it going out live on TV, on live feed across the country which I think has also stimulated interest among the Kenyan people. It has really become an event that people look forward to in their calendars. As I said 400 runners and well over 4,000 people come over to spectate, so it is actually a big part of Kenya’s event calendar.

How much money has been raised by the marathon in support of conservation and development?

If memory serves me correctly, we have raised roughly 4 million dollars over the last 17 years of the marathon being operated. We have a split of that, a proportion about 25% of that comes to the conservancy, enables us to continue to run as an organisation. The next 50%-60% goes to local social development work, our education program, our medical and health outreach programs and other social development programs that we drive outside of Lewa’s boundaries. Then the balance of between 10% and 15% goes to Kenya wide conservation and development projects.

Last year we raised in the region of 700, 000 dollars and it was split along those lines. It has a huge impact for us as an organization and in the communities in which we are able to invest that money. That money is invested according to how the communities want it invested and it is not something that we dictate it is something they determine. This happens on an annual basis and it impacts communities at a local level, at a broader than local level, across the county but then at a Kenyan level as well.

mike watson 2

What makes this marathon unique?

From Lewa’s perspective what I would say and also from the communities’ perspective, it’s not only about the money. It is also about communicating the value of wildlife, the value of work that we do, the value of the work that communities do in the context of conservation and the development that is linked to conservation. It is showing Kenyans across the country that wildlife really does have a place in Kenya and has a place hopefully in perpetuity in Kenya to add value to communities and assist in enhancing the livelihoods if you will, of otherwise fairly marginalised communities.

Could you tell us a bit more about Lewa’s success in wildlife conservation?

The wildlife really votes with its feet if you provide an enabling environment for wildlife to flourish, the wildlife will flourish, and that is really what we have done. We haven’t just done that here in the 62,000 acres’ worth of Lewa wildlife conservancy, it been done across the whole of Northern Kenya. And as you know our sister organization, Northern Rangelands Trust which was actually born out of Lewa. It has driven the exponential growth of community engagement in conservation and in the establishment of community conservancies across the whole of Northern Kenya and elsewhere in Kenya, has provided an enabling environment in which wildlife can flourish and has flourished. The numbers of wildlife are generally stable and or increasing across that huge landscape, that is a landscape of about 44,000 KM2 of real estate which is roughly the same amount of land that is under national parks and national reserves in Kenya.

How are communities helping in reducing the poaching of elephants and rhinos?

I’m sure everybody knows that over the last few years in Kenya we have had huge challenges with security of wildlife, in regards to poaching of Elephants and Rhinos. Here in Northern Kenya the communities have been hugely successful in partnership with the government and with ourselves in dealing with issues and bringing the numbers of elephants and rhinos being poached right down to sustainable levels, and that is a really huge success.

How does Lewa deal with human-wildlife conflict?

As and when there is human-wildlife conflict, (and there will always be some elements of human-wildlife conflict, and we have it even here still on Lewa) but if you are available to have a conversation with people about the challenges that they have and you can demonstrate that you have an interest in those communities and an interest in solving some of the problems that they have, addressing the challenges that they have and at the same time demonstrate that there’s value associated with conservation and development linked to that conservation then that generally tends to sweeten the bitter pill that people have to swallow when it comes to human-wildlife conflict which will always be with us as humans and wildlife continue to live cheek by jaw across Kenya. As you know the Kenyan population is due to double in the next 20-30 years so that is not a problem that is going to go away soon.

How does Lewa’s community development programme work?

Within the communities, primarily the agricultural communities off our eastern and southern boundaries, our community development department has established development committees, or should I say the communities within target areas have established those development committees, which are democratically elected by the communities and they are the representatives of that community. They listen to the needs of the community, they canvas the needs of the community and they communicate that need to our development department and work with our development department to work out what are the priorities for those communities and what the marathon funds are likely to be suitable to be apportioned to their priorities.

Off our northern boundary where we have community conservancies, they have governance structures, the communities have elected boards, management committees, they are self-governed and self-managed by the communities, and it’s through that governance and management structure that the allocation of the funds is decided upon and apportioned by those governance structures which the communities have set up themselves.

What is the marathon’s impact on Lewa and beyond?

At a national level, I can tell you how I think it has really impacted just from a communication perspective. Whenever I or any of our employees are in Nairobi – our management teams etc are at meetings with Government officials, or partners or whoever it might be, often people haven’t heard of Lewa but they have heard of the Lewa Marathon. If I am passing through the immigration department or on my way back in from my business travels in America or wherever, we come to the desk, the immigration department officers have always heard of Lewa by virtue of the marathon and that’s always the same with most of the people we meet in Nairobi or across Kenya. So the marathon has been a great stimulator of the conversations about conservation.

In the context of the impact on communities, you have only got to look at the engagement of the communities in the marathon itself. I can’t remember the figures but there are a good few hundred community teams that come and attend the marathon on an annual basis. It is hugely competitive. There is massive competition to try and get into these teams to come and run the marathon so that gives you a sense of the level of engagement of local people in this event and I believe in conservation and wildlife in general.

Richard Leakey is a cleverer man than I am and he was recently appointed chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service. He has achieved a huge amount obviously in his career, I think he certainly recognizes the critical role communities have to play in this country and therefore there is no doubt that communities have a critical role to play. In Southern Africa they have a saying which is “If it pays it stays”. It’s how you quantify value, it is not only necessarily financial value, and certainly our success here in northern Kenya has been driven and was initiated fundamentally in providing a secure environment in which people and wildlife could flourish.

How do you keep people safe during the marathon?

The security of people in Lewa is obviously critically important, but it is critically important to us throughout the year.  We have 4 or 5 thousand tourists visiting us every year and we provide a level of comprehensive security for those tourists in the context of wildlife. The marathon is the same, we deploy our armed and unarmed personnel to provide security across the marathon route, we have a number of aerial assets (aircraft assets) on standby and flying during the marathon. So yes, we have a fairly comprehensive security plan that we have put in place both to provide security for people while they are here for the marathon in the context of general security but also in the context of human-wildlife security as well.

To date (touch wood) we have had a few close calls and a few entertaining moments. But we have managed to be able to manage the conflict between the runners and the wildlife but let’s be frank people are here to have a wildlife experience and people would love to have a wildlife experience while they are running, if they can see wildlife while they are running that adds to the event.

How much do you aim to raise from this year’s marathon?

One of the senior executives in Safaricom said in the April launch that Safaricom’s target was a million dollars and we are hoping that that might be met. I mean the reality of the situation is this is an event that is unparalleled and incomparable to any other that is held in this country in the context of, there is nothing similar done that I am aware of in this country that has the capacity to raise the sort of money that this does.

We are working very hard with our overseas partners to try and encourage international corporate sponsorship, that is something we are putting an incredible amount of effort in. If we exceed last year’s fundraising success, that would be wonderful. But our expectation is that this event by virtue of what it is to Kenya, what it is to people here and actually the aesthetics of such an extraordinary event, we should be topping a million dollars on an annual basis. So that even though we might not make that this year, that is my expectation that at this event we get to a stage where we shall be raising a million dollars a year.

Will you consider increasing the number of slots available for runners in the future?

You know we would love to and I’m sure that we would double the number of people that we would have here running. The appetite to come and run this event is huge, sadly the capacity to host that event is what limits us. Both from an administrative and logistical perspective, having that number of people here, to be able to cater for them accommodate them etcetera, to a security perspective. If we are oversubscribed with runners, it then puts significant pressure on our ability to be able to provide the level of security for all the runners, and that why we keep the numbers at the level we do.

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