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I invested in Kenya against all advice

His first impression of Kenya was that it was not a place to do business because of bureaucracy and corruption. And as wisemen do, Wayne Douglas changed his mind and came back. He runs two hotels in Diani that cater for a diverse clientele

Cynthia Mukanzi @cynthia_mukanzi

On his first visit to Kenya as a kite surfer almost seven years ago, Wayne Douglas, the owner of Stilts Treehouses and Flamboyant Hotel in Diani, vowed never to do business here.

He’d heard stories that painted Kenya in bad light, but he was proven wrong on his second trip. “People talked of bureaucracy in Kenya and how slow everything is unless you bribe your way around. But I later realised that the systems were legitimately in place and depend on whether individuals are patient to go through the right procedures. Only those who don’t intend to follow due process are the ones who hand out kickbacks,” he says.

The Canadian businessman, who grew up in Toronto, came back a year after his first visit and the warm reception he got from locals in Diani astounded him. As someone who travelled for a living at the time, this meant a lot to him.

“It was my first sense of community in all my years of travelling. Everyone who knew me made me feel at home and this was special,” says Douglas. It is this warmth that convinced him Kenya was the perfect place to start a new life as a businessman.

Stilts Treehouses, a backpacking hostel, existed then and the owner wanted to sell it. When he initially mentioned this to Douglas, he did not think he was serious. “We agreed on a deal that worked for both of us and then I assumed ownership of the property the eighth year. I kept the name because it had a reputable branding leverage that had made it popular since it opened on December 25, 2005,” he says.

Douglas was faced with the task of giving the business an overhaul that cost him approximately Sh3.5 million. “Stilts needed reworking in investments, restructuring, fresh ideas and new energy.

I added a cottage to the existing five, put up three Mara-style tents and replaced self-camping with our own improved type,” he says. Before that, the camping area was near the road and since the hostel wasn’t fenced, this posed security risks that he couldn’t overlook. “The best thing was to integrate the camping area to the safer interior side.

Economically, it didn’t make sense to hire someone to only patrol the campsite because the revenue from camping wasn’t enough to pay for this service,” he says. Keep them cool Stilts can host up to 60 people depending on where each one stays.

Camping prices range from Sh600 to Sh1,500 per person and Sh1,200 for two because the facility provides readily erected tents with a shade that keep them cool. Self-camping is only allowed when all the tents are occupied. Treehouses cost Sh2,200, 1,700 and 1,300 respectively for single, double and triple occupancy per night. Cottages and Mara tents are slightly pricey.

The former can accommodate groups of five with charges ranging from Sh3,600 for singles to Sh2,200, Sh1,700, Sh1,500 and Sh1,300 each. Mara tents have rooms for as many as three people from Sh4,500, Sh2,700 and Sh2,200 per head a night. Accommodation fee is paid when checking in.

This became a rule when one of the customers boarding at Stilts took off in the middle of the night without paying. However, food and beverage bills are paid on checkout. Food prices are as low as Sh150 with the highest price being Sh800 for some main dishes.

For alcoholic drinks one parts with between Sh200 and 250 for shots. Beer goes for Sh260 while wine is between Sh250 and 300 a glass. Zebra wine stands at Sh1,300 a bottle. Soft drinks do not exceed Sh150. But since it is a hostel, backpackers can bring their own foodstuff or drinks.

The former Programmable Logic Computer (PLC) robotics specialist had no prior experience in hospitality, but was not afraid to take on the business opportunity. “My experience is from me being on the other side of the counter.

Many years of travelling allowed me to see what businesses had to offer and the direction of their product. The most impressive thing about business models or pieces of people’s business ideas is to bring them all into creating one type of product that lends to a lot of things that the average traveller appreciates,” he says. In his view, it all comes down to common sense in how you treat people and providing the best product for the value you are asking people to spend on without overselling yourself.

Kindness for weakness Now 12 years old, Stilts Backpackers is a thriving hostel with a beautiful green wildlife sanctuary that shelters sykes monkeys and the nocturnal bush babies that usually come out to be fed at 7pm.

The nature vibe shelters the facility from the scorching heat of the Coast region. Douglas says he strives to be a good boss who can be trusted. He admits this can be a thorny issue because some people look at his kindness as weakness.

He, however, is grateful for having a supportive team of 17 employees at Stilts. They have proven themselves trustworthy to a point where he leaves them in charge most of the time as he familiarises himself with the day-to-day running of a beachfront boutique property, Flamboyant Hotel, which he recently acquired. He has 40 staff members in both facilities.

Running two businesses simultaneously means spending a lot on fluctuating variables determined by the number of guest check-ins. “On food and beverages, we roughly spend Sh300,000 to Sh400,000 a month at Stilts and Sh700,000 to Sh800,000 at Flamboyant because we have a more refined menu and a lot of wines and spirits,” says Douglas. Busy seasons tend to dictate how deep he has to dig into his wallet.

This begins from mid-December all the way to Easter. “We then start getting a lot of people at the end of June. Both local and foreign tourists stream in this sides between August and September leading to a quiet October and November,” he says.

With generally 85 per cent bookings, Douglas ensures his guests feel at home and safe. That is why there is round-the-clock surveillance and safety boxes for every guest to store their valuables. A deposit of Sh1,000 is charged for a safety box key that is refundable on check out.

Not unless the key is lost. Captaining two ships is no mean feat but that isn’t reason enough to stop him from relaxing in ways he loves. Douglas, the first born in a family of of three siblings, is an avid kite surfer and occasionally goes out.

He is a single man who is very cautious of the people around him and until he finds a genuine person whom he can trust to be his lifelong companion, he will continue to dedicate his time to his business.

“Being around the world for 17 years doesn’t allow you to lay roots and start a significant relationship. I have been very focused on growing my businesses and getting situated here. I’m not looking at complicating things but open to the idea. If it happens then cool, but I’m not actively looking.”

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