Guiding climbers to the top
The roof of Africa, the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro, is a popular destination for climbers from all over the world. Hundreds of tour operators from Tanzania offer their services to guide these climbers to the top. One of these companies is Nature Discovery. In 2008 they embarked on a mission to change the status-quo and address the hard issue of ethical porter treatment standards.
With the help of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) they started to expose the negatively affected porters work conditions and changed their system completely. Thomas Holden, the previous manager of Nature Discovery, shares his story.
In this article
Climbing to the Roof of Africa
Mount Kilimanjaro attracts thousands of climbers every year and it’s extremely popular. It’s accessible to a large range of tourists wanting to reach the ‘Roof of Africa’ and it sees over 60.000 tourists per year on the slopes. Due to the relative ease of organising tours and the readily available labour, many tour operators offer the climb for a cheaper price by cutting corners and treating their mountain crew poorly.
The park fees are high which is why climbing companies try and undercut each other. They reduce salaries, staff food and transport cost, as well as liability and medical insurance policies for both staff and climbers.
The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project
In order to address these issues and to create full transparency on what exactly happens on the mountain, KPAP was founded in Moshi (2007) by Karen Valenti. KPAP is a non-profit organisation and raises public awareness about ethical treatment of porters on Kilimanjaro and assists climbing companies with implementing procedures that ensure fair treatments and transparency. They focus on solving the problems by reporting incidents of issues according to their standards, which document and ‘score’ companies based on set standards which include how porters are hires, paid, tipped, outfitted and treated.
Climb operators that participate, and it’s for free, must achieve a certain score over each season in order to become a KPAP partner – a merit-based partnership. KPAP has also embarked Nature Discovery in their project and supported them in making a change and to set an example for other climb operators.
Thomas Holden managed Nature Discovery between 2003 until the pandemic hit and has a background corporate social responsibility (CSR). Thomas: “It seemed like a natural fit that we would run our tours with conscious concern for the environment and treating our employees in a fair way. Our website stated that we were concerned about the well-being of our porters and we were reporting that we were paying the best wages on the mountain.”
KPAP’s system revolves around getting feedback from porters and conducting porter interviews. In 2008, KPAP interviewed porters of Nature Discovery after their climbs and retrieved direct and honest feedback. The results were not what Thomas was expecting. Thomas: “Karen came to me and told me that there were practices going on with my guides and porters which was not in line with what we were saying on our website”.
“My first reaction was denial, because my staff were supposedly not following our companies’ protocols. I couldn’t believe this was happening in our company, but once the truth was told, there was no turning back”.
Exploitation of porters
The focus of KPAP is to create transparency into the porter treatments in a fair way. They completely focus on solving the problem down on the ground instead of handling it between management. Karen organised a one on one meeting between Thomas and Nature Discovery staff to get the truth out. Thomas: “It was shocking to hear the things that were happening at Nature Discovery, that they are common and still happening today in other companies!’
The evaluation reported on porters paying bribes to get access to work, porters staying quiet while guides steal their tips, porters being squeezed into tents without adequate meals or gear, porters being heavily overpacked (20kg is the maximum), porters being underpaid and not respected. Furthermore, they are often bullied into silence. This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of systems in place to exploit porters.
Thomas: “My first reaction was denial, because your staff is not doing what they are supposed to be doing. I couldn’t believe this was happening in our company’, but once the truth was told, there was no turning back”.
Changing the system
After evaluating and analysing the current practices, Nature Discovery and KPAP began devising honest and fair procedures and systems that would guarantee fair treatment. Thomas: “It also gave us a chance to create more transparency and to protect our porters”. KPAP began sending up an additional monitoring porter up on the mountain to report back on the practices. This ensured direct and honest feedback on the situation.
Nature Discovery then developed a database that allowed them to register and track their porters, and organise and plan their work. It calculated how many days porters have worked and automatically makes work rosters for climbs, so all porters would have work distributed fairly. Thomas: “This eliminated the practices of paying bribes to get work. It stopped instantly”.
Next, they focused on the creation of a transparent tipping procedure. It required informing the clients on the exact number of porters on their climb. They hired porter welfare officers meeting and informing clients at the start of every trek, which verified the actual number of porters, to ensure transparency for the company and the trekkers. Thomas: “No more exploiting clients tip money for ‘ghost’ porters”.
Nature Discovery also opened bank accounts for all their porters to ensure they were paid in full and on time. Thomas: “We created transparency about who we asked to be on the climb, who came on the climb, and who got paid for it”. Nature Discovery also ensured clients tipping porters directly by removing the guides from the porter tipping process.
Consistency and transparency
It has been a long road and a lot has changed within the companies’ structure. Nature Discovery feels all procedures are now in place because of the vital support from KPAP. Thomas: “KPAP gave us recommendations and support on how to change our systems. They spent tremendous time and effort on us, because they were unsure at the time whether these objectives could even be reached.
We committed ourselves and have become the example of how this can be successful”. Currently, there are now over 100 KPAP members reaching the standards and many more who are applying to become partner.
“We can’t lose control for one bit, we have to maintain this, stay active and keep track of all changes”.
Thomas explained that by taking KPAP’s feedback and suggestions seriously and making it a top priority to address them, they got every staff member on board. Thomas: “Our employees are ambassadors for sustainable tourism and fair practices. I want them to be involved, committed and fully aware of this”.
To maintain this commitment Nature Discovery meets twice a year with its porters to hear their feedback, listen to them and discuss issues. It’s a full Q&A session where the top manager goes and meets all the porters to directly talk with them. Thomas: “Removing all these management layers and allowing the top manager to deal directly with the staff is a key component”. Having all these meetings and substantive sessions, ensure that the porters’ concerns are heard and addressed directly.
This is a very inspiring story we need to replicated in Uganda from the grassroot level. We know porters are hired at The Mountain Ruwenzoris and most of all at the Gorilla Parks . These are questions we need to enquire on whether ethical principles are being applied locally . Even if they are , we still need a compliance mechanism that we should benchmark from our colleagues in Kilimanjaro
Yes absolutely Tony. What do you think needs to happen to develop such a compliance mechanism in Uganda?
Wow. That is a good one because I like challenge.
This is great work Thomas and the KPAP. I would encourage all other sectors of the Tourism sector in Tanzania to take up the same practices. There are still so many temporary workers or staff who are exploited and ill- treated all over the country.