I've had the pleasure of working with Seema Shah for a number of years and am excited to introduce her to our Outlier Journeys travelers. Seema owns the inbound safari outfitter Tanzania Journeys and manages a community-centered safari camp located in Northern Tanzania on the shores of Lake Natron. (A location that I love and have wrote about previously.)
A safari outfitter that is fully owned and operated by a local Tanzanian woman is a bit of a rarity in the industry. An outlier, if you will. Seema stepped into the executive role at Tanzania Journeys just before the pandemic hit, an unenviable position to say the least. But she conscientiously and gracefully navigated this difficult time, emerging as a respected leader with her team intact and deeply committed to creating experiential and responsible travel experiences with the local community at the core. Please read on for my interview with the indomitable Seema and let us know where we can take you in Tanzania! ~ Jeff Stivers
Q. Seema, how long have you worked in the safari industry and what sparked your interest in this line of business?
A long time! I’ve been involved with Tanzania Journeys in one way or another since 2005, sometimes very active and sometimes behind the scenes. More recently, since 2019, I have been actively running and directing the company solely.
I was drawn to the industry because of my own passion and love for Tanzania, her nature, remoteness, wilderness and people. I wanted visitors to experience and love Tanzania as much as I do. The origins, the people and geography of the country excite and endlessly fascinate me. My actual background back in 2005 was in community development and when Tanzania Journeys was set up, I was keen to bring this into tourism and enable travelers to really connect and understand the varied communities and people of Tanzania, not just the nature and wilderness on its own. I felt the need to provide travelers with a deeper and more complex perspective of Tanzania than how the country is typically represented on the internet, written in guidebooks and portrayed in publicity pieces aimed at attracting tourists to the country.
Q. What are the biggest challenges you face as a small business owner in Tanzania?
I'm not sure that these challenges are specific to being in Tanzania, but are likely shared by all small business owners. Our small size and finite resources limits our capacity in so many ways:
To develop our presence and voice on social media and truly harness the benefits of the platforms.
To balance growth with quality. Our goal is to work as a close knit company to offer our guests really personalized service and yet, in order to develop and align with all the requirements of business in TZ (especially in tourism), continual growth is essential. There is always the risk of growing past the threshold of the original goals and vision. I find that regular reflection helps me check in on this to insure that our original mission isn't diluted or lost.
To train and advance the capacity of our employees, offering them opportunities for continued professional and personal development. Enabling everyone to succeed and contribute is part of our vision for being a responsible and ethical tour provider in Tanzania.
There's a lot of bureaucratic red tape here and it is time consuming to stay on top of it. It’s often necessary to have corporate administrative support in order to break through as a major tour provider in Tanzania.
Q. What are the biggest challenges you face as a female business owner in Tanzania?
I feel isolated sometimes, it’s not easy to network with other female business owners in Tanzania, especially to share ideas and support one another through challenges/experiences. There are not many formalized groups for women in business as most established groups are predominantly male-orientated. Balancing work and life is another challenge!
Editors Note: Seema recently joined Women Travel Leaders, a professional organization that exists for exactly this reason and addresses the lack of women in leadership and ownership positions, industry-wide. Outlier Journeys cofounder Kirsten Gardner is also a member.
Q. What is the one thing you hope that all travelers take away from their time in Tanzania with your team of guides?
A love for my country and people, a piece of Tanzania in their heart, and a desire to come back and explore more.
Q. What’s your favorite place to visit on vacation in Tanzania?
I do not have just one. You know that I absolutely love Lake Natron. It's very special to me. But also Pangani, Stone Town, Lake Tanganyika …but I have so much more to explore!
Q. Do you support any other organizations in Tanzania that align with your mission?
We've partnered with the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), Make A Difference (MAD) and Amani Children’s Home. Over the years, our primary focus is supporting small community initiatives in areas we work in regularly, such as Lake Natron. We are small ourselves but we know that these efforts have a large impact. Recently we funded the construction of a water pipeline to the community health clinic and the construction of a proper school building in a village near Lake Natron. Currently, we are building a Kilimanjaro village classroom near Mwerka, and recently constructed a Doctor’s house at Naiti village near Makayuni.
Post COVID we are reviewing which organizations to support and how to do this in a sustainable and empowering way. Our main areas of focus include the restoration of indigenous trees in the Kilimanjaro area, supporting the practice of indigenous Tanzanian culture without invalidating globalized influences, and encouraging the growth and capacity development of Tanzanian women guides in tourism.
Q. How do you see the plight of wildlife conservation in the context of a growing population and aspirations for industrial and economic growth? Is Tanzania on the right track and/or what do you think are the most important things to be done to ensure harmony in these areas that often seem at odds with each other?
This is such a complex subject and very hard to give opinions on what is the right or wrong way.
Preservation and conservation is important not just for wildlife, but for human cultures, as well as nature and ecosystems shared by people and animals. When these areas are correctly prioritized, we've witnessed success - like where wildlife populations have been revived in certain places and where traditional cultures have been protected from disappearing.
Areas like the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the more recent Wildlife Management Area have in theory been integral to manage growing populations and economic growth while reviving wildlife populations. The key is in how the authorities and communities in these areas maintain a continual respectful dialogue while keeping a check on one another and themselves. For example, if you examine the population growth and economic development in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, communities have developed in ways that it have affected the conservation of wildlife. However, when this all took place, I am not sure who kept a check on whether development in the conservation area was diverting from the original agreements and protocols set out by the community and the governing authorities.
On the other hand, there have been great strides in Wildlife Management Areas, such as Enduimet and Natron. These are populated areas with active permanent human settlements, but we have seen the return of wildlife to these areas. Over the years there has been a progressive growth in the variety of animals who now venture and inhabit these areas and co-exist near to human settlements. It is a really positive and pleasing outcome. Securing more areas that traditionally were inhabited by wildlife (but have seen the decline of wildlife due to human development) to be managed as Wildlife Management Areas has also led to a decline in poachers in these areas.
There is clearly a need for more instances where wildlife authorities and local communities jointly work together to prosper and manage the needs of both.
The cultural tourism programs set up 20+ years ago are a really good concept. Local communities in high tourism areas were supported to set up their own local and immersive tourism initiatives and products. The idea behind this was for local communities to benefit from the tourist dollar and use this as a way of leverage economic and social development. Many of the original programs still exist and some are going strong. Some have fallen by the wayside and it would be good to find ways to re-engage these communities with tourism. This is something I'm very passionate about, why we operate where we do in Northern Tanzania and the main reason that communities and the human culture of Tanzania features so prominently in the experiences we create for our guests.
Seema's guides at Tanzania Journeys have led me to the top of Kilimanjaro, on treks through the Ngorongoro highlands, along the shores of Lake Natron and everywhere in between. Their insight and connections with the local communities have a profound impact on the way their guests experience and discover the complexity of Tanzania. At Outlier Journeys we're extremely proud to be working with Seema's team and supporting their mission of leveraging tourism to drive positive social & economic development and create meaningful career opportunities for women and girls. Tanzania Journeys has worked hard to cultivate and train female safari & mountain guides and employs some of the very few women who guide on Mt. Kilimanjaro. When you're ready to discover Tanzania on a deeper level, please get in touch!