Simon and Sarah Kabu On running a business as a couple
Simon and Sarah Kabu run Bonfire Adventures, a tour, travel and event company that handles inbound and outbound holidays not only for domestic tourists, but also for international ones. The couple is changing the face of the travel industry especially for Kenyans, most of who thought of travel as an expensive venture only meant for a privileged few. They talked to ESTHER KIRAGU about their humble beginning, successfully running a family business and juggling it with their parental roles.
The Kabu’s passion for the tours and travel industry depict Confucius’s saying: ‘Find what you love to do and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ Over the years, the couple has bagged several awards and accolades for their excellent service for both local and international travels. Currently, they are the holders of the 2016 World Travel Award. Coincidentally, it is the love of excursions that brought Sarah and Simon together and even led to the establishment of their company.
United by a common passion…
The year was 2007. The blogging revolution had caught on in Kenya and Simon and Sarah, like many other youths, were not to be left behind by the fascinating Internet craze. They both loved to blog on matters relating to work and life and connect with other like-minded young professionals online at Kazi –Afrika blog. Admittedly, both of them enjoyed reading each other’s articles on the blog, as they were regular contributors.
As their blogging community grew, people began to express an interest for a face-to-face meet-up. As if the universe was aligning the odds in their favour, Simon and Sarah were chosen to be among the organisers for the get-together. They, together with the other organisers, planned the entire meet-up through communicating on phone and online. The get-together, which took place at Lukenya Getaway in Athi River, was a success.
“This was the very first time Simon and I met and although we immediately clicked, we didn’t read much to it,” Sarah, 38, explains.
The group had the time of their lives and photos that were circulated on social media proved as much. Soon, they were getting requests from strangers who wanted to be part of the adventure, leading Sarah and Simon to plan yet another escapade. This time the destination was Naivasha and the turnout was great.
Realising that Sarah and Simon were really good at organising these events, the other members who were part of the organising committee left the planning of the excursions to them. By this time, a great friendship had been formed between Simon and Sarah and they spent a lot of time together in addition to constantly communicating. Typical of their adventurous spirit, they discovered new places to visit together over the weekends.
By 2008, they had visited many places and wanted to inject some fun to it by inviting their friends along. They would organise events, post on social media, hire tour vans for transport and get people to travel. The market was hungry for excursions and their fascinating wild tours slated during holidays like Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas attracted many people.
“Every time we organised an event, it would turn out so well. With time, we realised that the planning was taking up a lot of our time and energy and we began charging a fee. Even then, the turn up was still high and one time over a bonfire at Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Sarah and I mulled over the idea of turning it into a business,” says 41-year-old Simon.
Birth of Bonfire Adventures…
At the time, many of the companies dealing with tours and travel were targeting corporate clients and foreigners. In addition, tourism was at a low as the country was dealing with the aftermath of the 2007/2008 post-election violence. “We realised there was a gap in domestic tourism. In addition, most of the hospitality industries had lowered their rates, making it possible to enjoy local travel at an affordable rate,” Simon recalls the journey to establishing Bonfire Adventures.
Through the help of Simon’s elder brother who gave them some office space in Nairobi’s Central Business District, Simon and Sarah set up their business. Both of them were in employment and they hired someone to deal with inquiries from clients and post travel packages online. By this time, Sarah and Simon’s friendship had blossomed to courtship and there were conversations about marriage. They eventually got married in 2009 at a time their business too was picking up fast, a factor Simon contributes to God’s favour as well as it being a unique idea at the time, having ventured into an untapped market.
“For many people, it was a pleasant surprise to realise that they could actually enjoy travelling at an affordable rate,” he explains.
As the business picked, Sarah eventually left her job to help run the business with plans to have Simon follow suit later. The couple says the transition from employment to running their business was made easy by the fact that they had set up systems for a smooth transition in addition to both being passionate about travelling. They also recognise that the experience they had both gained from employment before venturing into business came in handy.
“Many young people are too quick to get into business but I have come to realise that employment teaches you useful skills to run a business such as public relations, crisis control and proper time management, among others,” says Sarah.
Today, Bonfire Adventures offers excursions to both low budget and high-end clients. Social media and referrals remain their biggest marketing tools and hence their commitment to offer great customer service. One of the unique things about their business is that before the company sells any tourist destination to its clients, Simon and Sarah have to experience it first. As such they are widely travelled.
“Sometimes clients are torn between different travel destinations and would like recommendations. It would be difficult to advise and manage client’s expectations especially if it is a place we haven’t been to and hence the sampling,” Sarah explains.
The company has grown in leaps and bounds. They have five offices in Nairobi and one office in Nakuru, a staff of over 200 people and a fleet of tour vans. The couple hopes to open many other offices countrywide. They, however, admit that business hasn’t been all rosy as incidences of insecurity in the country as well as negative reporting in media affect their business with many people afraid to travel. In addition, weather patterns also affect their business.
Shaped by humble beginnings…
Despite their rise to fame and fortune, the couple remains very humble, a factor they attribute to their faith, as they believe they are stewards of God’s resources. Their humble upbringing has also kept them grounded.
“I grew up in Nyeri and went to school without shoes but I was not any different from my classmates,” Simon says. The last of seven siblings, Simon was raised by a father who worked as a civil servant while his mother was a farmer. Being a last-born, he enjoyed the company of his siblings and often spent his holidays visiting some of them who lived in Nairobi.
“Having come from the village, the city fascinated me with its great architecture and I began envisioning my future here away from the village life,” he shares of his childhood memories.
An alumnus of Kagumo High School, Simon excelled in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education thereby earning a spot at Egerton University where he pursued a Bachelors degree in economics. He admits that it was while in campus that the business urge arose in him. “Those were the days when multilevel marketing was abuzz in Kenya and I joined a few,” he says.
His parents struggled to meet his upkeep in campus and Simon sought some business ventures he could engage in to make ends meet. He began streaming an assortment of entertainment videos that he showcased to students at a fee. This got him some pocket money. Also, during the long holidays, he stayed with a relative at Kahawa West off Thika Super Highway while working as a hotelier to earn pocket money.
While there, he interacted with the matatu drivers and touts that plied that route and soon learned that the business was lucrative. He later on took up a touting job and sometimes doubled up as a driver.
“It didn’t matter to me that I was a university student taking up a job as a tout or driver. I simply held my head high aware that this was just a temporary phase of life,” he explains and adds that life is a journey and where one is today may not be necessarily where they end up in life.
Simon took six years to complete his undergraduate studies instead of the standard four years because he had to defer several times for lack of school fees. On graduating, he joined the corporate world beginning at Brookside Dairy Limited before proceeding to Unga Limited. It was while working at the latter that the Internet craze bit him.
Sarah, on the other hand, grew up in Blue Valley Estate in Embu County and studied at a local school within the town. On completing high school at Kabare Girls High School, Sarah relocated to Nairobi and took up a course in accounting. However, she soon realised she was not passionate about it. She therefore dropped it in favour of information technology (IT). Even then, she realised her passion was not in IT and thus enrolled for a Bachelors degree in business management.
As a course requirement, Sarah needed to undertake a project. Without putting much thought into it, she decided to do a project on marketing small hotels online for budget travellers.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing or even how to go about it. In retrospect, I realise that no experience in life goes to waste as this knowledge has now come in handy while running Bonfire Adventures,” she explains, adding that she began blogging at around that time and that’s when her path crossed with Simon’s.
Managing business and family…
Today, Simon is the CEO of Bonfire Adventures whereas Sarah is the managing director. The couple believes in maximising on their strengths and as such Simon, who is the more outgoing of the two, is in charge of sales and marketing whereas Sarah is in charge of human resource management and finance.
Married for eight years, the couple has two children – four-year-old Austin Mtalii Kabu and five-month-old Anita Kabu. Being young parents, Sarah and Simon have learnt to incorporate family in their travel so as to spend time together due to the busy nature of their business. Like any other couple, they admit they have had their share of challenges but have learnt to deal with them and not drag their personal differences to the business.
“Marriage requires wisdom on how to deal with things as well as knowing which battles to fight when and where,” says Sarah adding that they both realise many people including their staff and clients look up to them and hence they strive to make things work.
Although grateful for the successes they enjoy today, they still have big dreams for their business. “We look forward to a time when we can rally Kenyans to fill up a plane to travel to their destination of choice the same way we now rally them to fill up a van and travel. And this is possible with patience and persistence,” the couple says.
Being strong believers of happy marriages, the couple is especially passionate about romantic getaways, honeymoon packages, wedding anniversaries, unique engagement proposals, and glamorous wedding destinations. Other than travel, Sarah and Simon enjoy watching movies as well as reading books.
Published April 2017…