From Masai Runaway to Eco-Entrepreneur

Peniel Laizer, founder of Lights on Africa in Arusha, Tanzania.

By Jo Piazza

The road to successful entrepreneurship is a rough one, particularly if you’re launching a business with a purpose beyond profit. But the path to success in the U.S. could be considered a cakewalk compared to so many countries where the hurdles involve things we can’t even imagine. 

I met Peniel Laizer by accident. During a recent reporting trip to East Africa, my husband and I had a day to spare in Arusha, the largest city in Northern Tanzania, and I suggested a grand journey to the famed Ngorogoro crater, a conservation area three hours drive from the city center known for beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife. 

I was a travel editor then, so I asked some experts for the best possible option if we had just a single day to spend in the crater. My friends at the tour-booking firm Viator led me to Lights on Africa, a small but exceptionally competent safari company owned by Laizer. 

We met Laizer the night before we were to head to the crater. He wanted to put names to our faces and make sure we were getting the most out of our experience. I’d assumed it was because I was a journalist, but I soon learned that Laizer had no idea. This was just what he did with all of his customers. And so, over a Tusker beer, we learned his story.

Just a few months before his 18th birthday, Laizer’s uncles decided it was time for him to get married.

Maasai have no autonomy when it comes to marriage. It’s a negotiation decided by families, and age 18 is when Maasai warriors meet their wives, start families, and begin herding and raising their own cattle. Laizer’s uncles pulled him out of school to prepare him for marriage and gave him five cows so he could pay a suitable bride price.

Desperate to continue in school so he could gain the skills to allow him to leave his village, break free of traditions and start his own business, Laizer defied his uncles, sold the cows and ran away to the city of Arusha to find a way to continue classes.

He was a country kid with few skills, but he’s a good conversationalist with a kind and likable face. Without compunction or shame, he asked everyone he met in the city — in shops and on the street —  about finding the local college. When he finally located it, he went straight to the principal’s office and begged to be allowed to stay and study.

“I said I would study anything. He advised me to start with an English course,” Laizer said. The principal also agreed to let Laizer stay in his home in return for doing some domestic jobs. He’d been studying hotel management for four months when his uncles came to Arusha to find him. They confronted the principal when Laizer wasn’t home, demanding that he be returned to their village.

The head of the school said he had no idea where their nephew could be, and the uncles left his home. But as soon as Laizer returned, the man gave him bus fare and told him to leave his home and the school immediately since he knew the uncles would return.

“I went to bus station and boarded a bus to anywhere except my village,” Laizer said. “I didn’t care where. I just ran.” 

He landed just outside the Tarangire National Park and, with his new English skills, began working as a waiter at a lodge. After spending about a year getting to know the foreign guests, he realized there was room in the safari market for something new.

“I wanted to provide high-quality safaris, wildlife, cultural and historical experiences to clients using the locals as guides,” Laizer explained.

By hiring locals, instead of guides imported from cities, he could help to generate new employment for local youth, stabilize the local economies, and educate rural people on the importance of protecting the country’s natural resources and the value those resources have in terms of tourism. When locals feel invested in the wildlife, poaching and game-hunting plummet.

He began saving to go back to school and in 2009 returned to Arusha to get his certificate in travel and tourism.  In 2010, he launched Lights on Africa with little more than a concept.

He had a vision, but no idea how to run a business, how to get customers, how to obtain an office and then pay the rent on an office. Slowly but surely, those pieces came together. He realized he didn’t have to buy a fleet of vehicles, which would have required a large chunk of capital. He could rent them on an as-needed basis.

“I had no money. I started opening my company while still working for someone else. I built a small website and began completing all the licensing and registration. It took me three years,” Laizer said. “The big challenge was how to get clients.”

He began working with booking sites like Viator and TripAdvisor, and the clients began trickling in.

 “It is working, slowly. I see the improvement in every year since I started. In 2014, the total sales without deducting expenses were about $11,160 USD and in 2015 the total sales were $16,000.”

He’s expecting to see sales increase to $35,000 this year.

“I see the future of eco and cultural tourism getting more popular and brighter, but there continue to be challenges to educate the local people about maintaining their culture and getting people educated to work in the field,” Laizer said. “It’s the job of this generation to launch businesses in Tanzania that will protect the culture and provide the kinds of jobs the people need.”

Image courtesy of the author