Romain Mari is a social entrepreneur and a good friend that I have known since middle school in France.
Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and Ecology and a Master’s in Environmental Management, he set out to build a business with a purpose in Kenya and put Kilifi on the map.
I have witnessed first-hand the unique environment that he created just an hour away from Mombasa and his thriving business that has a positive impact on the community.
I think that what drives me is deeply rooted in my youth.
From a young age, I have been deeply passionate about protecting our planet. This has driven me to explore ways to try to best achieve this goal in various steps of my life.
It can sometimes be difficult and overwhelming to remain hopeful as we all have proven to be terrible managers of our natural resources. But once in a while, exciting ideas surface and my aim is to dedicate as much time as possible contributing and supporting such initiatives.
Similarly, I feel very lucky and thankful to have grown in Paris where many friends had roots from all over the world. And to have gone to high school at the Lycee International – where kids were all different nationalities, skin colors, religions. We were very lucky to have grown in such a diverse environment.
This is obviously not the chance many people have had in this world growing up, whether rich or poor and I think we have a role to play here too – to help bring communities together and to help them stop fearing one another. These people just need to get to know each other…
How it all started
I finished my studies in Brisbane, Australia, and met Tom and Shannon, an incredible couple from Zimbabwe. We all had our own personal reasons for wanting to travel to East and Southern Africa. I wanted to come to see in person how truly effective was community-based conservation in terms of genuinely benefiting local communities.
We traveled from Ethiopia to Cape Town slowly over a year and passed through Kilifi. Once I arrived and resettled in Cape Town, I was wondering which direction to head. I’ve always been deeply passionate about protecting our Planet but was not quite sure which direction to take. It did not take me long to realize that my quest for freedom would not get very far working with big organizations.
So along with Tom, we thought we’d be better off doing the change we want to see in the world at our little scale. We just needed to choose the location and Kilifi felt like the obvious place. It was an immensely underestimated destination, as we’ve proven over the past eight years – it was like a little secret piece of paradise that somehow had gone unnoticed.
I headed back to check if the feeling was still the same. It was terrifying at first, but everything clicked, it just made sense. So we borrowed a scary amount of money from a variety of family members, bought the land, and got started!
We were very lucky as the loans were interest-free and flexible in terms of repayment dates. Better even, the investors had had long careers running businesses themselves and therefore were extremely helpful at many steps to fill our many knowledge and experience gaps, especially with regards to financial management, analytics, and human resource management.
The only downside from having taken a loan from a family or a friend is that it feels like even more pressure perhaps than had it been a fund made of hundreds of unknown, rich, and distant people. In a way, I guess it has contributed to adding more pressure on us to make sure the project was a success and that we could pay them back even sooner than planned.
More than an ecolodge
Since we settled here, Kilifi has really grown. Many artists, musicians, fashion designers, activists, permaculture teachers, eco-builders, and other forward-thinking humans have decided to move to Kilifi from Nairobi or elsewhere and call it their home. Kilifi is really transforming into the new hip alternative place to be in Kenya.
Distant Relatives has definitely been one of the determining catalysts and since then it’s a beautiful snowball effect of rather young people dreaming of creating and living in a better world. Our friends at Green Heart of Kenya are in the process of developing 750 acres of beautiful land into a big Eco-Project – bringing together sustainable farming, building, green technologies, and more. Kilifi is an exciting place to be right now.
There are two important messages behind Distant Relatives, the ecolodge we created in Kilifi, and I care about them more every day.
The first message of Distant Relatives is to remind people that we are all one big family. Like distant relatives that may have lost sight of each other for years. We all have so much more in common than we may think.
And there’s also so much to be thankful for to be living among such beautiful human diversity on this planet. Having the chance to mix every day with humans of all nationalities, ages, genders, sexual orientations, skin colors, religious beliefs, is a real blessing. In fact, I have always called this chance we have a luxury because it is really not accessible to a lot of people for many reasons. Some cannot afford to travel, some are scared of mixing with other communities, some are scared of judgment and oppression, and other reasons. When we are all together, we have so much to learn from one another.
This is a feeling we often get on Friday nights at Distant Relatives when everyone comes together to eat, drink, dance, smile, and exchange, meet, and learn. We need to get all humans to experience this love and pleasure of embracing our rich diversity. It is obviously key to many problems and conflicts in the world. I am not religious, but I believe that love and appreciation of others can resolve major problems on this planet.
There is a never-ending and growing problem of groups of humans not tolerating others. And what we have found to be a simple cure for this problem is creating platforms where you bring everyone together, all on the same level, no-nonsense, no double standards. Just humans hanging out, sharing food, drinks, dancing, and playing – that will change anyone if they had any prejudice against anyone
Once you observe the magic of bringing people together from that lens, it becomes clear and obvious.
A beautiful example was someone who seemed to assimilate Islam to many common stereotypes. After meeting an open-minded Muslim woman at Distant Relatives and exchanging for hours, he realized that these generalizations are very harmful. His views on Islam are now better balanced.
The second message of Distant Relatives is about sustainable living. It is hard to assess the environmental impacts of our lives. It is complex, not transparent, invisible, and global. But there are some simple and obvious things we can all do.
I like the idea of seeing us all as Guests of the Planet. Even if you own the Title Deed of your land, you are really only a guest who borrowed access to this land for a tiny amount of time on the scale of things. You must try to return this land to the next guest in a healthier and happier state. This is the concept behind permaculture.
There is a lot you can do to not only minimize your impact. Better still, you can improve the state of this land by gradually increasing the quality of your soil, for example. We see Distant Relatives as an experimental model of conscious living, like a community that tries out positive ideas, and the good ones that make sense take roots and spread to the community.
Our greatest success here has been the compost toilets. A normal flush toilet design causes a few potential problems: it uses a lot of water and potentially pollutes the water table (depending on your house’s wastewater system). Another problem we had was poor sandy soil on our property.
The compost toilet design we used has resolved all these problems. They are water-free; the waste does not pollute the water table because it is stored for 9 months in sealed 200-liter containers until all the content is fully broken down into rich soil. We then reuse the content in the gardens: free rich compost!
Over the years, I would say we have enriched the soil with about 100 to 200 tons of compost. And the gardens are thriving. Since then, many schools and projects in remote areas facing similar water shortages, poor soil, and the risk of polluting the water table have approached us to ask for help to build the same toilets where they operate. There was a lot of trial and error the first year, but that is maybe a topic for another day…
Similarly, a friend from Kilifi, Sarah den Haring, from Green Water Solutions, helped us develop a natural wastewater treatment system with a series of gravity-fed pools filled with reeds and other plants where the greywater flows, better filtered at every step. In the end, this allows us to give all of our grey water a second life and water the garden plants. How beautifully simple it is when you live in a place where it does not rain for nearly six months every year, and water supply shortages from town can last as long as weeks.
It has not always been smooth
Setting up was not so challenging in comparison to the more recent years. In the beginning, we were so full of fresh energy and inspiration. We wanted to learn and do everything we had dreamt of: eco-building, community projects, permaculture courses, and gardens, etc. The sky was the limit, we had endless energy, and it felt like nothing could get in the way of this dream come true.
With time, we shifted from barefoot dreamers to business managers responsible for 30 employees, seven shareholders, and all other responsibilities that come with running a business. It becomes a job of systems optimization, minimizing expenses, optimizing marketing and growing occupancy, etc.
I am not sure for you, but this kills my soul! All these beautiful values and core reasons, messages, motivations become drowned in a world of admin, marketing, and accounting – this can cause some serious anxiety. Finding the right balance is something I am still working on. The key seems to be to work with amazing humans and also to work on better knowing and managing yourself – and building more efficient systems. And especially – to never stop dreaming and realizing how short life is and to be grateful for what we have.
Thankfully, Distant Relatives has been a success thanks to an incredible variety of very passionate humans who all contributed so much. When there are so many people gathered with such great energy, people can’t stay away, it’s addictive, it’s too good. So the credit really goes to all these Humans, and new ones are coming through and helping Distant Relatives every day.
We are glad to receive several awards over time, with a couple more in the pipeline as we speak. We were recently named as part of the Best 7 Best Independent Hostels in the World. Happy days!
We participated in a tv show called Lion’s Den. We had been considering expanding to other locations. The potential very much remains, and with the right partner, we could still do it. It would, no doubt, be a massive success. At the time, I was only exploring the idea so, this show actually forced me to dive deep into the Business Plan.
I was amazed to be selected for the show and even more so to win the season’s biggest investment offer – what a ride! I am really not sure what impact the show had on the business, but I was impressed to see that all these big wigs on the show actually already knew of Distant Relatives and our festival.
Why we decided to not expand to Nairobi
As explained above, I have been disillusioned and disheartened from stepping back from the original vision and dream behind Distant Relatives to get drowned in a world of business management and admin.
We met with the potential investor from Lion’s Den several times and never proceeded in the end. I was not ready, and this was not the right investor either. We would need a partner, not just a silent investor.
That is something I have realized observing other friends start projects and businesses these past years: the founder of these projects is often the soul of the project. It is their vision, their dream, their passion, and love that gets the project so much attention and that allows them to bulldoze through any challenges.
If you put too much weight on their shoulders, they can become victims of their own success. If they are not surrounded by the right people, then they will burn out, and the project will never be the same, in fact, the project may never “flower”. The founders should be seen as a protected species, a unique “keystone” species without whom the ecosystem collapses.
The recipe to avoid burning out is still one I am trying to find. One thing that has worked for me is to learn how to better prioritize my work and learn how to let go of what you cannot get done immediately.
The Eisenhower Matrix to help you prioritize between things that are urgent and important? This has helped a lot. Sometimes some things are on your to-do list that look urgent, but they are perhaps not important enough. You have to learn how to let go.
You are no superhuman – you cannot do it all. Do not beat yourself up. Count your blessings and be thankful for what you have achieved!
Another essential element for me is to work in absolute peace: being surrounded by people taking up your time resolving less important, less urgent topics has been frustrating. I find it difficult to work from our office, for example, if I want to have a productive day.
Finally, I value lucidity and perspective to avoid burning out. Exercising, looking after yourself, finding time for yourself all contribute to a clear and lucid mind and avoids you getting overwhelmed.
Perspective is equally important: go travel, get out of our comfort zone, go see what’s out there, how others do it, learn and get inspired and come back to realize what you have, to be thankful, and to renew the energy to keep being excited about future progress, new targets and achievements. If you get stuck executing for too long, you forget where you are going and especially why you are doing it.
Having a robust people strategy is the key
Working with and managing humans has proved to be much more challenging than I thought. You have to find the balance between optimizing your people’s time and efficiency while ensuring a happy, healthy, and constructive work atmosphere is definitely a work in progress and will always be.
The two most important values would be the two messages of Distant Relatives mentioned previously. One is embracing human diversity: zero tolerance to racism or prejudice of any kind. The other is respect for the environment and ensuring that all staff contributes to reducing our environmental impact in their various roles.
Ensuring that our team breathes the same values seems to have been natural. We have the most incredible shareholders that have joined us overtime for a start – each of whom dedicated their lives to pushing similar values. We have incredible staff, many of whom have been with us since Day 1.
We have grown together and learned together with all the staff over the years. Those who have been with us for many years know that we have never cut tree roots or branches unless we absolutely have to. That we pick up any rubbish within or around the property whenever we see it. That we treat all our guests the same way, and we allow no double standards. We are still learning, and we have all certainly come a long way and changed, evolved, and learned along the way.
When new employees, volunteers, or interns join us, they are usually applying because they are specifically interested in working in an organization with such values.
Starting Beneath the Baobabs
Kilifi New Year festival (soon to be renamed Beneath the Baobabs) was really my business partner Tom’s project. What started as a small event with a few hundred people on the volleyball court at Distant Relatives slowly transformed into a festival year after year, and the grounds of Distant Relatives were really becoming too small.
I am eternally grateful and thankful for what came next. We were lucky to meet the most incredible investor you could dream of. We also partnered with the owners of neighboring farms: we developed a fully operational 50-acre festival site capable of hosting events of up to 10,000 people all year round. We relocated the Kilifi New Year festival to its new home for the past 3 editions, and we will be launching Khanga Festival at Easter next year if allowed. For the rest of the year, the site can be used by other event organizers, weddings and other private events, retreats, and corporate events.
How Covid-19 impact our business
It has been terrible. I am honestly amazed we got this far.
Distant Relatives was closed for four months. We had no income and way too many unavoidable expenses. We also wanted to do all we could to support the staff during this time which was made possible by the incredible shareholders we have.
Then we had one of the new Bandas burn down and an expensive power bill pending. Our Makuti roofs (weaved coconut) needed replacing as well as several walls of Banda courtyards. Everyone surrounding us from our accountants to our friends, staff, and shareholders has just been amazing once again. We put out a call for help with Crowdfunding and so many responded. For all of these reasons, it is really incredible to be surrounded by such a solid community around Distant Relatives. Everyone believes in these values and will dig deep to make sure it stays alive.
Advice for young entrepreneurs in Kenya
Trust the Click! My first advice would firstly be to trust your instinct. I often have this visual image of a mechanism: wait for it to CLICK! That is when everything makes sense, and is aligned. If any devil’s advocate exercise does not manage to take down your idea, then you should go for it. This works for me for the small and big decisions.
Passion is the most important ingredient. You have to genuinely care, love for the values you are promoting. This will get you through anything.
Surround yourself with the best humans: they will make all the difference. You are not superhuman. You cannot do it all yourself. You need to surround yourself with self-motivated, super-efficient, passionate, skilled, and independent humans.
Become a specialist. Keep learning about yourself, digging deep about what makes you happy, what you are good at. Keep specializing little by little. Specialized humans are invaluable.
I can only speak for Kenya, but it is probably the case in neighboring countries. Kenya is a paradise for entrepreneurs. Less capital is required than in the West. There is so much to be done, so many market gaps. Sometimes gaps are so huge, you wonder if many have tried and failed. You wonder if you are perhaps the idiot newcomer thinking he is a genius.
The truth is that there are market gaps. If you have a good idea and are passionate, lucid, and energetic, some investors will most likely be interested in partnering with you. Even if you do not have an extensive business background. Kenya is a highly underrated destination for entrepreneurs.