There are certain individuals who remind us that success doesn't always begin with a birthright or bank account—and that a strong, passionate spirit can overcome all obstacles when in pursuit of a dream. For Alan and Harriet Lewis, Willy Chambulo is one of these rare individuals: a true gutsy leader who started with nothing and created a thriving safari business with the power to change lives.
A humble beginning
Willy grew up in the small village of Longido in Northern Tanzania. His heritage, like most everything about Willy, is unique: German on his father's side, Irish on his mother's side, and Maasai from both sides. "My life was very different then," remembers Willy. "My father was very poor." The family lived in a mud hut, and Willy only received seven years of primary education because his parents couldn't afford to send him any further.
When Willy left school, he was ready to take whatever job was available to him, despite his young age. His mother knew a man who owned a small garage, so Willy went to work there as a mechanic. Soon, he was working on vehicles for a small safari company in Arusha. The wage was incredibly meager: "I earned a half-dollar a month," says Willy. But the job would provide him with an invaluable experience that would inspire a huge change in his life: He left Arusha to repair a vehicle that had broken down in the Serengeti.
Bitten by the "safari bug"
Willy was instantly struck by the beauty of Serengeti National Park and the hotel that housed the safari guests. "It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen in my life," says Willy. And like so many visitors who set eyes upon the wilds of Tanzania for the very first time, Willy couldn't wait to see more. Upon returning to Arusha, he asked his boss if he could go on safari. His boss told him that he'd try to make it happen—and sure enough, two years later, Willy got the chance to drive a group of Tanzanian locals. "I took interest right away in the wildlife," says Willy.
Despite his newfound passion, Willy took a break from safaris when he was invited to work as a tire changer in Switzerland, where he stayed for about a year before he got homesick. "I missed my family," he says, "and I had left them at home with nothing." Before leaving Switzerland, however, he made a purchase that paved the way for all of his future successes: he bought an old Volkswagen minibus for 800 Swiss francs, painted it green, and fitted the roof with an open hatch.
While getting the bus back home proved difficult—"I drove it across the Sahara and through the Sudan, but I couldn't cross into Kenya because there was a war," Willy remembers, "so I had to go back to Port Sudan and ship it to Mombasa"—eventually Willy and his vehicle were reunited in Tanzania. It was all he needed in order to operate his first safari drives—first as a freelance guide with a friend from Switzerland, and later as the owner of his own safari company. Willy founded Kibo Safaris in 1993 with the very same VW bus, and he was soon able to expand his fleet of vehicles with the purchase of a more traditional Land Rover.
His house is your house
In 2001, with Kibo Safaris running smoothly, Willy decided it was time to build new homes for his family. He started with a brick house in his village for his mother and father, and then built a second one for himself, his wife, and their son. He decided that this house would have an extra room so that his friends from abroad could come and stay with him. "They loved it," says Willy. "We would cook and eat together, and then go out on safari." His friends enjoyed it so much, in fact, that Willy was compelled to add more and more rooms—until eventually he had twenty. And from his own personal compound, Willy's first safari lodge was born.
Willy was still focused on slowly investing in Kibo and purchasing new vehicles in 2002, when he first met Alan Lewis. Alan instantly believed in Willy's operation, and realized that Kibo could provide the safari experience and personal touch that he was seeking for his OAT travelers to Tanzania. "Alan has always helped me," says Willy. First, he invested in Willy's latest building project, a lodge situated on 600 acres of farmland in the Ngorongoro highlands. He also helped Willy purchase additional vehicles.
Looking forward to giving back
Today, Willy owns nine safari lodges and camps and 78 safari vehicles—a far cry from a single mud hut and a battered Volkswagen bus. Through it all, he remains committed to using his ever-growing influence to improve the lives of his fellow Tanzanians. When staffing his lodges, for example, he supports the local economy by giving preference to the people of neighboring villages; currently, he employs 320 people. The farmlands on Willy's properties sustain his many visitors with an abundance of fresh produce and livestock. And he has partnered with Grand Circle Foundation to rehabilitate the nearby village of Karatu—initially focusing on the local primary and secondary schools, and now expanding his philanthropic goals by investing in the village as a whole.
Rather than go to his head, Willy's success has gone straight to his heart—and at Grand Circle Foundation, we are honored to call him a partner, an Honorary Director, and a friend.