Home » Africa: Maria Baryamujura, a heroine of community tourism initiative speaks

Africa: Maria Baryamujura, a heroine of community tourism initiative speaks

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Maria Baryamujura is the founder and CEO of COBATI – Community Based Tourism Initiative, an award-winning Ashoka Fellow with over 35 years experience in sustainable tourism development, motivational speaking and women empowerment across East Africa.

Her business is a community tourism service provider, bringing innovation to rural tourism. It is focused on empowering local communities near areas of high tourism potential to develop homestays and grassroots tourism attractions to tap into the tourism marketplace to improve livelihoods.

She’s trained over 12,000 people, 64% of whom are women, developed a network of several self-sustaining groups and homesteads practicing tourism as a business.

Recently, Maria had a chat with the Lioness of Africa (LoA), revealing how her community based tourism business is making a difference.

What does your company do?
COBATI is a community-based tourism service provider bringing innovation to rural tourism. It started as an idea in 1996 and by 1998 it was birthed. In 2002 it was registered with the Government of Uganda as a not-for-profit NGO. At COBATI, our creativity plays a vital role in attracting travelers seeking tailored experiences and opportunities to interact with nature and culture.

COBATI is empowering local people living near national parks and other areas of high tourism potential to develop a network of homesteads and grassroots tourism related attractions to be able to tap into the tourism marketplace.

70% of COBATI’s work is training.

Through the COBATI Life Skills Training Center, we train communities and individuals to establish small-scale tourism related enterprises that provide quality services and products to local and international travellers. Communities are trained in the sustainable use of natural resources and generation of income through community-based tourism, handcraft production and improvement of village environment and homesteads to a level where they can host travelers as a supplementary income generating activity.

At COBATI, we conduct research and offer consultancy and advocacy. In respect of research, COBATI conducts research related to community-based tourism and topics so far researched include Agri-tourism, conservation of rural based unique features and historical sites as community tourism attractions, promotion of ethnic designed artifacts, among others.

COBATI offers consultancy services to the local government, civil society, community-based organisations (CBOs) and Development Agencies on matters related to community tourism development.

COBATI advocates for increased support for local people to participate and benefit from existing attractions, through networking with the Ugandan Government to influence favorable policies for the increased infrastructure and funding of small-scale community-based tourism enterprises. Information dissemination/publication is part of COBATI’s advocacy tools to provide stakeholders with information on community tourism that can help them participate effectively.

COBATI in partnership with Chimpanzee Trust and the Darwin initiative launched a community tourism guidebook as a training hand tool.

Through marketing and promotion, COBATI supports communities in developing and adjusting their tourism products to make them more market oriented and links them to local and international tour operators.

COBATI markets partner community products and services via electronic and print media platforms. COBATI assists communities to participate in tourism fairs and exhibitions. So far over 500 students have participated in our holiday camps and over 200 teachers and 80 hotel staff have participated in our customer care and personal development module.

We hold seminars for farmers to link agriculture to tourism as well as home management for women interested in homestay tourism and handcraft production.

The Center has hosted a variety of community events. For instance, it hosted a seminar of over 100 school children in recognition of the 2015 Global Hand Washing Day where they were sensitized in good hygiene and sanitation practices; Hosted 40 women for a workshop on women in business in celebration of 2016 International Women’s Day; Miss Tourism Ankole contestants boot camp in 2017 and a group of 30 beekeepers on World Agritourism Day 2018.

What inspired you to start your company?
My 38 year love story with tourism started when I was 12 years old! It was the first time I saw tourists in an open roof tour bus that had a zebra print, Rhino Safaris Tours, written its side which passed by my primary school which was near the highway towards the main tourist circuit in south western Uganda.

When I was in high school, I visited a national park and had my first safari lodge hospitality experience which left a big impression on me. Years later, I joined the travel industry, opened up a tour and travel agency through which I operated tour safaris and represented airlines including Zambia Airways, Royal Swazi and Cameroon Airlines. After an eye-opening visit to a community in Swaziland, I returned to Uganda with a changed mindset, a new idea had entered my mind.

I was concerned about the complete lack of participation of local people in their natural and cultural resources and that tourism was much more than wildlife safaris. I realized that the rural people, particularly women, could be self-sustaining by tapping into their culture and indigenous knowledge, doing what is ordinary to them, without leaving their communities.

In May 2000, my idea received recognition from the World Bank as a focus area for poverty alleviation and rural transformation – the rest was history!

From 2000 to 2005, COBATI worked with United Nations Development Program and the Uganda Private Sector Foundation to promote community-based tourism as a tool for poverty alleviation in 25 districts of Uganda.

In 2005 and 2006, SNV Uganda engaged COBATI as a country wide consultant to train participants on how to package their tourism products at fairs and exhibitions.

What makes your business, service or product special?

The COBATI model of tourism is all inclusive – it revolves around individuals, households, communities, their cultures and the environment. When one uses our services and products, they make a positive impact on the communities whom we support.

For instance, a purchase of a basket made by our women artisans from our craft shop keeps their children at school because the mothers are able to pay for their school lunch or they can afford to buy materials to make reusable sanitary pads to keep their daughters at school.

When you visit one of our villages and stay at a homestay, your money creates a ripple effect in the community. The homestay is operated collectively as a village enterprise where the community provides the food, women do the catering and a village youth group provides entertainment and tour guiding.

Your visit impacts many families as everyone benefits when they share the income. When you visit our partner communities, your quality of life improves as you breath cleaner air, travel through beautiful scenic landscapes, eat “live food” whose journey from the garden to the table is very short compared to food in urban places which travels long distances to reach dining tables.

Also, the traditional entertainment, the African hospitality etiquette and folklore stories helps inspire community pride and preservation of culture in the community. Cultural tours to Ugandan villages and homesteads initiated by COBATI are a unique experience that can increase understanding and build strong relationships; these endeavors enhance the human condition.

Tell us a little about your team

As the founder and face of COBATI I am responsible for training, marketing, mentorship and fund sourcing.

Peruth Kamwanga: As our Administrative Assistant, she coordinates the field groups and outreach training programs, and provided admin support.
Harriet Kasiisi: Chief Trainer for Handcrafts – Conducts Life skills handcraft trainings and designs practical modules for the holiday camps.

Shalon Mpiriirwe- Volunteer coordinator
Kenneth Atwiine – Reseach Officer
Joseph Nuwagira – Community Mobiliser – KICOTA
Ismail Karim -Community Mobiliser – Bombo
Mrs. Kahima-Community Mobiliser Masheruka Group
Ana Turigye -Community Mobiliser Kampala Group
Lori Barber – Volunteer Website Manager
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey.

And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?

At an early age, I noticed that my mother was a very hard-working woman, very talented with her hands. Through her farming skills she produced food for home consumption and income generation and made crafts for sale and home use. She always had her own money which she used to increase her household assets and to supplement my father’s clergyman’s salary.

I grew up aware of the of the positive effect on a family and community when a woman is economically independent. My mother inspired me to never fear to try. I was widowed at 23 years with 3 children and I have navigated through life as a jack of all trades! I share my life journey to inspire women never to fear trying, aspire to become better no matter what life throws at you; resilience and work hard will open doors and change your life.

My journey was not easy. The COBATI concept was not easily understood or appreciated by the Government of Uganda, the tourism sector players and the donor community. Tourism planners then did not envisage combining tourism with the traditions and cultures of indigenous peoples or consider rural communities as viable tourism destinations.

To the donors, our story lacked an emotional appeal as tourism is often related to leisure and profit! We badly needed a strategy to change the narrative. My first break was in 2000, when I participated in the first World Bank Development Marketplace competition.

The COBATI idea was among the finalist who were invited to present their ideas in Washington D.C. In May 2000, my idea received recognition from the World Bank as a focus area for poverty alleviation and rural transformation.

What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?

  1. To grow the COBATI network of homesteads (B&Bs) and grassroots tourist attractions to 30 across Uganda by 2023 to cater to the post-COVID-19 travel changes. As it is, it appears that the new travel trend will be geared towards domestic travel.
  2. To scale up our social enterprise at the COBATI Life Skills Training Center.
  3. To expand the network of strategic international and local allies whose activities can be synchronized with ours through collaborations and partnerships for improved service delivery.
  4. Establish a tour section – COBATI Tours, to change the African narrative by offering a unique travel experience that can dispel stereotypes, increase understanding and build strong relationships.
  5. To pilot agri-tourism in south western Uganda in collaboration with World Agritourism India.
  6. To establish a community museum.

What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?

My satisfaction is in the opportunity to impact lives, particularly those of rural women and children at a homestead which is the smallest unit in a society.

In 2009, when I first came to the Nubian community in Bombo, women were hawking their crafts around trading centers, their children went without lunch at school and the majority were using traditional birth attendants during child delivery and some were experiencing domestic abuse as a result of poverty.

By 2013, with support from the MTN Foundation, we had empowered the community – the women had a craft shop and they had moved from subsistence craft production to export level without leaving their village. The market was coming to them and they were no longer hawking and being at the mercy of middlemen.

They had a savings group and were able to provide lunch for their children and keep them in school, the women no longer gave birth by village birth attendants, they were able to afford Mama bag kits for safe delivery at Health Centers.

Bombo community was now a community tourism destination, hosting local and international tourists as Uganda’s first community tourism Village. During a community meeting, four women stood up and shared how their husbands were now treating them differently, with respect, as they were now contributing towards the family welfare.

Another community member shared how they never thought their food and dances were good enough for people outside their community! For me, the testimonies were my ‘profit’ from the entire project! This shift in mindset is why I keep doing what do I do despite the challenges!
What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
Every person was created with a talent within them, strive to discover and harness your talent to soar.

Source: lionessesofafrica.com

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