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How Richard Branson carved himself a piece of Kenya

By Gugulethu Hughes

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV. 

“We met on several occasions and agreed the key aim of our investment is to restore flora and fauna under a controlled development infrastructure that ensures tourists’ numbers are kept at the bare minimum…” 

These were the words of Leena Gehlot describing how she got into a 50/50 partnership with Richard Branson to develop a luxury bush retreat resort in Kenya. The Briton relocated to Kenya to focus on real estate development after securing a master’s degree in Construction Management from the University of Reading. 

The outcome of this partnership with Richard Branson was the Mahali Mzuri, Swahili for beautiful place, a luxury resort that redefined exclusive opulence and opened its doors in 2014. The Mahali Mzuri was a perfect addition to Richard Branson’s exclusive Virgin Limited property portfolio. The other resorts are Necker and Moskito islands in the British Virgin Islands, Mont Rochelle and Ulusaba in South Africa, Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco, and The Lodge in Switzerland. In 2021, the Mahali Mzuri was voted as the number one hotel in the world as well as top Safari Lodge in Travel + Leisure’s 2021 World’s Best Awards

Consisting of twelve luxury tent suites, the Mahali Mzuri will cost you up to US$2,900 per night during peak periods. The price range is definitely tailored for rich tourists and not average Africans in Kenya or anywhere in Africa. With the Mahali Mzuri, Richard Branson built himself a little heaven for relaxation and rejuvenation of the colonial mind. 

Writing for Inhabitat, journalist Nicole Jewell opined that, 

By offering a small number of tents to a limited number of people, and emphasizing eco-friendly practices on a daily basis to the guests, the Mahali Mzuri eco-camp project was a perfect example of how tourism can benefit local communities without negatively impacting the local environment. From the beginning, the key priority for the project was to provide safari goers with luxurious accommodation for safari adventures, but at minimal environmental costs to the Maasai communities. By encouraging a working collaboration between Mr. Branson and the Maasai, the incredible project serves as a stellar example of how low-density tourism can coexist with nature without disturbing it…” 

Yes, you read that correctly. Low Density Tourism is what Richard Branson had in mind when he created the Mahali Mzuri. Basically, keep away as many people as possible and make the cost of access impossible for half of the global population. If you ever imagined that a heaven existed in a life after death then you are terribly mistaken because heaven truly exists here in Africa, you are just excluded from having access to it. 

Journalist Nick Boulos gave an apt description of the Mahali Mzuri luxury tents designs, writing, 

“Mahali Mzuri is very much a family project. Branson chose the name and his son, Sam, picked the location, a high ridge overlooking a vast valley dissected by the Ntiakitiak River and frequented by herds of elephants and zebra. Mahali Mzuri is the safari camp of the future. Dotted along the escarpment are 12 permanent tents, designed by native designer Jan Allan, that are almost space-age in appearance thanks to their soaring bow-shaped roofs of structural PVC. From a distance, they look like a fever of manta rays swooping across the great African plains… The plush interiors, masterminded by Yvonne Gold, are filled with bamboo light fixtures, handwoven rugs and shukas (traditional Maasai checked garments). The canvas walls have zipped flaps, allowing you to watch game from the clawfoot bath and drift off to the nocturnal howls of hyenas.” 

Mahali Mzuri is one of the five camps in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy which borders the famous Maasai Mara National Reserve, home to the Big Five and often touted as an alternative to Serengeti which stretches all the way from Tanzania. The Maasai Mara National Reserve was established in 1948 as a wildlife sanctuary and extended eastwards in 1961. 

This reserve is a dream come true for imperialists. It covers about 370,000 acres in southwestern Kenya, and its reach is bigger than greater-Los Angeles which is just over 321,000 acres in size. The Maasai Mara was established by the British colonial administration to preserve the African wildlife and its landscape. As is the case with all National Parks, indigenous people were displaced and faced dispossession – in this case it was the Maasai peoples. 

Significant areas of their land used for livestock sustenance was taken away to allow for the creation of the park. Between 1974, 1976 and 1984, part of the land was returned to the local community. But in 2006, the Kenyan Wildlife Services, a government unit tasked with managing parks and reserves on behalf of colonialists, convinced 277 Maasai people to give up some of their land to make way for the creation of the Olare Motorogi Conservancy. This gave the Maasai a false sense of ownership for a piecemeal stipend. This is often described as community-based conservation in the green capitalism circles, but in essence is nothing short of crude dispossession and displacement.  

It has always been the modus operandi of imperialists to hoodwink local people into giving up their land, and three stages always accrue. In the first stage, indigenes are requested to move away and consider alternative settlement, often dry reserves. When stage one fails, locals are offered silver and coins with the promise of collaboration and partnership in preserving the environment, a dubious incentive model. Stage three is when imperialists and green capitalists collude with government authorities to force local people from their land. 

In creating the Mahali, Mzuri which was preceded by the creation of the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, Richard Branson had to go through the first stage of colonial grief and eventually struck gold in stage two. Nicole Jewell wrote that according to operations manager Liam Breedveld, 

“The road to creating the Motorogi Conservancy took several years of negotiating between 277 local Maasai families… people started fencing off the land, using it for ranching and charcoal production, potentially disrupting the entire ecosystem. The wildlife couldn’t roam, the cattle couldn’t graze and the entire Maasai culture came under threat. The agreement to combine the plots into an economical resource under the Conservancy terms was made with the stipulation that the Maasai will forever have an undeniable right to continue their traditional cattle grazing patterns in the area, something absolutely fundamental to the community’s survival…” 

A trust was created to manage the corporate social responsibility financial contributions of the five camps including the Mahali Mzuri. A very small amount goes to the Maasai community which is further silenced by building of schools that offer colonial education in the area. For Richard Branson, this is a perfect scenario. 

In an article titled “Kenya 2022: Beyond safari postcards lies colonial-era land grabs,” 

Christine Mungai argues that “Kenya’s blissful safari holidays have a somber side: local communities shunted into low paid jobs, stigmatization of cattle herding instead of investment in agricultural productivity, and a healthy dose of ‘white savior industrial complex… beyond the coveted awards as the one won by Mahali Mzuri in 2021 is a much darker story of enduring colonialism, land grabs, violent conflict and disenfranchisement in Kenya’s arid rangelands, that is ever more urgent to address in the lead up to next year’s general elections…” 

Mungai further laments that Kenya has an enduring image as a haven for safari adventures, with its pristine wilderness and vast array of wildlife. But the postcard picture obscures how tense and fraught the seemingly timeless beauty really is. Over the past 20 years, privately-owned and community conservancies have overtaken state-run national parks and game reserves as the largest kind of ‘protected areas’ in the country. There are over three dozen conservancies in Kenya today, totaling about 11% of the country’s land area – over 6.3 million hectares – that host numerous luxury hotels and lodges. 

She also draws distinctions between the Maasai Mara and Laikipia conservancies. While the former is “community based” with promises of monetary incentives, the latter is characterized by private ranch ownership by “families who struggle with issues of extreme privilege, legitimacy and belonging…” 

The Big Conservation Lie,” a book by ecologists Mordecai Ogada and John Mbaria, details the treacherous nature of Kenya’s conservation industry, which applies to the rest of Africa. The players in the green capitalism sector are the same ones bribing African governments to churn out land so they can build more exclusive areas for their colonial adventures. 

When world elites like Richard Branson talk about turning 30% of the Earth into protected areas by 2030, they are referring to African pristine. Community involvement in all these adventures is just a code name for slavery and dumbing of local people and their recreation as wonders of the world fit for tourist visitation. Richard Branson owns Virgin United, an organization focused on conservation of the natural environment for the benefit of the elite few. He also sits on many boards of different imperialist conservation organizations, and Kenya presented him with a lifetime opportunity to own a unique piece of imagined Africa. On his blog, he is steadfast in his support for the heinous 30/30 vision, and is well on path to securing more land in Africa for the preservation of his imperialist ambitions. 

After all, he was in 2007 made a tribal elder by the Maasai. 

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Gugulethu Hughes


Gugulethu Hughes is the ScoonTV Africa correspondent

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