This month on Bonita on Safari the spotlight is on Romain Angelo Mari.
Romain is a French Travelpreneur and a globe trotter. He co-owns Distant Relatives Eco lodge and Back Packers Kilifi with Thomas Atkinson. You have probably read the post I wrote about this little paradise. If not, kindly check it out here.
Apart from being a businessman and traveler, Romain is a scientist and has Masters Degree in Marine Biology/Ecology and Natural Resource Management. His speciality is in ecotourism,responsible tourism,permaculture,Eco friendly building ,marine environmental consulting and community/conservation project management.(When you go to Distant Relatives, you will definitely see all of these in practice!)
I spoke to Romain about his business, travels,goals and so much more…Enjoy the interview.
1.Out of the 196 countries in the world why Kenya?
Hmm you know what, the more people ask, the less I know what to reply! When travelling down from Ethiopia to Cape Town with friends, we loved the people in Kilifi. We loved the emerald waters, the traditional boats, the beach life, the great fishing and fishermen’s love for reggae! I also felt very free there and everyday was a new and awesome adventure. It just felt like a healthy place to be and Kilifi really needed a place for travelers to stopover. To be honest, also, I wanted some kind of headquarters in the world. And I am not very proud of France, the growing racist conservative right wing, I don’t really feel at home there. I am increasingly ashamed in fact of how many shallow-minded people come from these “developed” countries. So Kenya ticked a lot of boxes basically!
- How did you settle on the name Distant Relatives, any meaning behind the name?
Haha! Well Distant Relatives is of course a nod to Nas & Damien Marley. The words “Distant Relatives” struck us with Tom (the other half of Distant Relatives) one night in Cape Town as the most appropriate definition of how a traveler wants to feel when he heads off into the world. You don’t want to feel like a foreign tourist, you want to feel welcome, you want to be part of the family – whatever your age, colour, religion, nationality – we’re all distant relatives! I love the name more than ever!
- Kenya has been hit hard with major security concerns. How has that affected your business?
True… 2012 was an unfortunate time to launch a new tourism business. It’s been sad for Kenya and for Kenyans. So many have lost their jobs on the coast, so many hotels have shut down and this all had further giant ripple effects on the rest of the economy. We were not spared. But to be honest, we can’t complain, we struggled a lot for sure, but not as much as others. We managed to keep all our employees and we are still in operation so could have been much worse.
Most security problems in Kenya seem to be a straight symptom of corruption, a much bigger problem. I am quite sure that reducing corruption would be most central to tackling security problems. I cannot even start to imagine a solution though seeing the scale of the monster in Kenya though… it’s very scary… but I find it a most interesting topic.
- You have practically traveled the whole world, Tell us a bit about that.
I have actually nearly not visited Asia, South America, Middle East, West Africa … there is still so much to see! I was born in the Alps in France and grew up in Paris mainly. Then I lived in the US with my family near Philadelphia for 3 years and moved back to France. Then I moved to Townsville in Australia as an aquarium diver and finished my Bachelor in Brisbane for 2 years after which I did a Masters in Tasmania. I then moved to Galway in Ireland and with Tom, my partner at Distant Relatives in Kilifi, and few other friends, we traveled from Ethiopia to Cape Town for a year overland. Then I lived and worked in Cape Town for while before coming to Kilifi.
Otherwise, I have travelled in Spain, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Belize, UK, Canada, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Mauritius, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Germany, Mozambique, Namibia, New Zealand, Réunion, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, most islands of Caribbean, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and just came back from Norway and Portugal.
The highlights? Uganda, Kenya, Corsica (French Island in the Mediterranean), New Zealand and Norway I would say!
- Tell us about the most bizarre travel incident you’ve ever experienced.
Hmmm… There’s a few… Perhaps this time when we were sleeping on the floor with friends on a street by the sea in Croatia waiting for a morning bus, when I woke up with my girlfriend to the sound of a waterfall right by my head. Turned out to be one of my best friends sleep walking who’d decided to urinate on our pile of backpacks! He went back to sleep as if nothing had happened. Haha, just couldn’t believe it really! We woke him up and he wouldn’t believe us either! Haha it was indeed … bizarre!
- Does your frequent travels help improve your business? If yes…tell us how.
Oh for sure… I need the perspective. It’s like oxygen to me, I die slowly otherwise. I need this fresh inspiration and this magical feeling of culture clash. I feel alive and thinking finally again, comparing two different worlds, meeting these radically different people, they fascinate me! Sometimes it’s a bit scary when you realize how many options and lifestyles there are out there in the world. But it allows me to better understand people. I come back full of fresh energy, lucidity and new ideas. Lucidity is very important to me, it makes life so much easier and pleasant for everyone.
- Does running Distant Relatives as an Eco lodge minimize your operational costs?
Hmm… I have wondered this. To some extent I am sure that yes it does, as we spend less water and hopefully less power than an equivalent hotel our size. We also up cycle and recycle everything we can. But we mainly have the same costs (salaries, taxes, purchases, maintenance, etc). To some extent also, as much as we can, everything is either home-made, eco-friendly and/or on a budget – and such things often require a lot of maintenance and that becomes expensive over time. But I am happy that we never gave up to less Eco-friendly solutions!
- Do you have plans to go for adventures in other counties within the country?
Sure! I am very keen to head back to the Mt Kenya region – hiking along the mountain rivers, lakes, and forests. Otherwise also very keen to go back further explore Kiwayu Archipelago and further up North towards Somalia. I have never been to Lake Turkana otherwise and hope to go there soon with Iolaus (http://www.iolaus.biz/), some awesome Kenyan fishing guides I can only most highly recommend!
- What is your favourite local meal?
Beef fry, chapati & mchicha? Or mandazi with mnazi maharagwe? Oh no! Grilled “Giriama Kwesa” (octopus) rolled around a stick above the fire! Kabisa!
- Does your business give you a feeling that you are constantly on holiday?
Hah! That’s what people think! Those who know me well know it’s really quite the opposite. I find it hard to feel on holiday at work… It’s a bit annoying but I imagine it’s every caring business owner’s problem!
- What projects are you currently working on?
All kinds really, an endless list! Right now we are planning all the details of our big event Kilifi New Year (https://www.facebook.com/events/504864269719570/). I am also working closely with Barefoot Solutions (http://www.barefootsoulutions.com/) on our soon upcoming Permaculture Design Course from 17th to 29th October (https://www.facebook.com/events/293687144314591/). Otherwise nothing very exciting – searching for a new silent generator, hiring new staff, learning how to use InDesign, trying to get through mountains of emails, plenty of marketing and new partnerships, accounting… It really feels like there is no end!
- Are you a bathroom singer?
Haha! I am bathroom beatboxer! Honestly, the world’s much better off without me singing!
- What do you do when you are not running your business?
Often it’s sailing, but ideally? I try to go into the wild. To find the deep pure wild… with whom harmony feels like the ultimate fulfillment. I have only found it once, in northern Finland, 300km above the arctic circle, on a hike for a week with a friend… pure magic!
- How many pages does your passport have? How many times have you renewed it?
Not as many as you think! I had one page left on my last one before it expired. Recently I have actually become really good at losing passports which keeps them nice and stamp-free!
- Toughest business decision you’ve ever made.
I can’t remember any decision tougher than another… Maybe they’re all a bit tough? Signing the sales agreement for the property in 2012 was like signing-up for a monumental debt as well as being officially anchored and tied to Kilifi – that was scary. Thanks to George Gasston for the daily bear hugs I needed to be reassured!
- What are you reading now?
Haha – I am reading an awesome book “Mes Bateaux et Moi”… Actually quite sad to be finishing it tonight. It’s the autobiography of Eric Tabarly, a French sailor whom I have always admired, I have known his boats since I was a kid – he revolutionized the world of sailing between 1960 and 1998 when he sadly fell overboard in the Irish Sea and drowned. That guy never gave up, always pushed his limits beyond the imaginable, he had so much hope in the boats he designed, built and sailed, in his team and the new sailing techniques he was developing. He never had any money because his decisions and inventions were too radical, too revolutionary. But he beat every sailor of every nation at all the competitions he joined – solo around the world, transatlantics, you name it. He beat the best and the richest passing the finish line once 10 days before the second boat in the race. What he invented/ developed singlehandedly were some of the most central elements of modern sailing. He even built a trimaran that would lift itself above the water on foils, the “Hydroptere”, the world’s fastest sailing boat – it can sail faster than 100km/h… imagine! I love these stories of people that remind you to always believe in your dreams, never give up, and give it 200% of your energy! Don’t let anything discourage you. Forward!
- What is the worst client experience you’ve ever had?
Racist people? And violent people? But violent people are usually drunk and dumb. Racist people are just disgusting… I have a deep hatred for racism. Luckily we have only had two incidents in 5 years but that’s the worst for me.
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
Good question… I’m not too sure exactly yet. I’d love to show people a bit of light on how backwards everything is in our world. From environmental issues to social acceptance. It feels like people are going blinder everyday. They’re all such basic simple things and they do have very simple solutions. I’d love to do something that goes far beyond running a business. Distant Relatives does go beyond that but I would love to be part of something a bit more meaningful, let’s see! I definitely want to live somewhere wild, with awesome people, and believe in our craziest dreams, however naïve or impossible!
- Favourite part of your current job?
Sitting in the garden after work, after the first rains, watch the plants take off, breathe and grow! Otherwise, in the lounge or garden, I love seeing the magic happen, when everyone mixes, gets along, people who didn’t know each other one hour ago – like distant relatives meeting for the first time! That’s always a real pleasure!
- Who is the best in the world at what you do?
Woohoo! This is a great question! It’s a very easy one too. Her name is Kim Whitaker. She initially founded 33 South Backpackers (http://33southbackpackers.com/) and recently very successfully founded a mighty new project: a series of “All-Star Hotels” across Southern and Eastern Africa with 4 other clever and creative young entrepreneurs. Once in Cape Town (http://onceincapetown.co.za/) opened in 2013 and Once in Johannesburg (http://onceinjoburg.co.za) is opening November 15th this year. She won the Entrepreneur of the Year in South Africa in 2015! But beyond the awards and successes, she has this rare and rather unique blend of lucidity, creativity, boundless energy and simple logic that never quite ceases to amaze me! She’s a queen!
Well…There you have it! Don’t you feel like stopping over at Distant Relatives to say hi to this great guy!
Here are some beautiful pictures of Distant relatives and Romain…
NB: All photos used belong to Romain Mari.