We Know What We Are (Finally)

What’s the point?

• “Gorilla Highlands” is a tour company specialising in tailor-made offers in Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern Congo
• “Gorilla Highlands Experts” is the non-profit wing engaged in tourism and non-tourism projects that boost peace, security and economic/social development of our region
• these adjustments are a result of 4 years of considerations, introduced for the sake of clarity and legal matters — but little changes otherwise

What else will I get from the read?

• better understanding of the motivations of our core people

Kigali’s gentle hills are basking in the evening sun and I am about to visit Chef Rama at Griffith Foods, a spacious residential house with expansive views that is being converted into a regional culinary lab. This meeting will be the second to last step in the Gorilla Highlands transition that has taken well over a year. The very last one will be informing you — our international community — about what we have been cooking …

Recruiting Rama represented one of the pinnacles of a busy decade. When I first met him in 2017 at Lake Bunyonyi, he was a youthful master of kitchen arts from Akagera National Park competing at Gorilla Highlands Silverchef. He made an impression because of a humorous recap he wrote for our blog but he was one of the top competitors as well.

The following year in Kigali he would become the champ and the first ever Rwandan Silverchef winner. And there was more to Ramadhan Sindayigaya: a desire to uplift his fellow countrymen, business acumen and a determination to always be on the cutting edge. In March 2021 we were running an Online Picnic together on Lake Burera’s Cyuza Island when it dawned on me: Rama should be one of the directors of Gorilla Highlands Limited, our brand new travel company!

My co-director Jane Mulugi — who was about to move to America and pursue her childhood dreams — agreed on the spot. Rama didn’t need any convincing. We gave his career a push through Silverchef and now it was his time to give back and learn more about tourism on the go.

Chef Rama was also one of the Gorilla Highlands Experts, the impressive group of volunteers I assembled during the pandemic. This team had contributed a year of articles, podcasts and live experiences and I found it essential to get their blessing for what had to happen in 2022 …

Not that I knew what that would be!

I just felt that after ten years of the amorphous, informal and underfunded Gorilla Highlands Initiative we dearly needed a reset.

Throughout the first four months of this year I regularly swamped WhatsApp accounts of our global team with thoughts and sketches. Messages of support would encourage me to press on. And suddenly, in the middle of April 2022, it all came together!

I Tried to Avoid This …

I chuckle whenever I think of it. A year ago I wrote a passionate email to the writer of the Washington Post article, explaining why Gorilla Highlands shouldn’t be called a tour company. Let me quote a little:

“I am not a tour operator in a traditional sense, I’m not what people would probably expect reading those two words … Gorilla Highlands has always been a partnership among guides, accommodation providers, local cultural tourism partners, …, from the three countries to promote the region.”

Well, if you visit gorillahighlands.com now, you will conclude that we very much are a tour company! This used to be a website promoting the transboundary region at the intersection of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo and talking about everything we do trying to uplift it … But now you are instead invited to consider a tailor-made trip through the region.

Why would we do that?

Because we need to make money.

Because simple messages work better.

Because we operate in countries where you can’t legally be a social enterprise.

So we will be a tourism business (Gorilla Highlands Ltd) but we will also be a non-profit working in the broadest field of social and economic development (Gorilla Highland Experts).

… However, It Does Make Sense

Once I moved all our non-business stuff into the menu on experts.gorillahighlands.com, it felt neat and right. Everything fell into place at last, following years of deep thinking that began around the 2018 Bootcamp. After a decade of casually saying “let’s do things together informally because we share a common goal and who really cares if you are profit-making or not?” we seem to have matured. It won’t be as revolutionary and beautifully messy but it may prove more successful. Some people like it structured, I hear.

Personally, I have always been obsessed with the new and the different. The invigorating process of creation. The stubborn pushing of the boundaries.

In my January blog I expressed a preference for not running the tourism side of Gorilla Highlands but then I discovered a powerful motivation for this kind of work — building unique pieces needed for custom tours, automating boring processes and other innovations that could lead to competitive advantage. After two full months of such work I embrace the role wholeheartedly.

I began this article with Rama, soon it will be up to Misigaro to update you on the Hubs and the upcoming GHE General Assembly, and there are other capable people expected to fill up the positions in both Gorilla Highlands entities. As I have made myself Mr Tour Consultant I am certainly not abandoning the non-travel side of Gorilla Highlands, I just wish to work through others.

The colourful dome of the Kigali Convention Centre is is shining in the night, projecting the green, yellow and blue of the Rwandan flag above hundreds of thousands of souls …