Editor’s Note: Deep in the heart of Ghana’s Mole National Park, is an ecolodge that promises luxury and an experience to remember. We came across Zaina lodge a couple of years back when we were searching for places to visit in West Africa. At that time, the lodge was still under construction. It was plain to see that a lot of thought and work had gone into the project. Since then we’ve followed the progress of the lodge and it is truly a beautiful place. Zaina lodge is not just a hot ecotourism spot (we have been eager to visit), but it is also providing jobs and opportunities to the people of that area. We decided to get into the mind of the person behind Zaina lodge, CEO Andy Murphy. We hope you are as deeply inspired by this interview as we were.
You are an American living and doing business in Ghana. How did that happen?
I first came to Ghana in 1998 as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I fell in love with Ghana from the moment I arrived at the airport. I had been a consultant in the US and came to Ghana as a business volunteer. I was handed what was for me, a dream assignment. The job description was as follows:
– There are elephants migrating along the Red Volta River Valley and attacking farms. We want you to work with the farmers to sort that out.
– We think there is potential for tourism, so we want you to explore (I actually had a budget to build a canoe and check out the White Volta River).
– There is a Women’s Farming Association, see if you can help them make more money
I lived in a village in the Upper East Region of Ghana called Binaba for 3 years. It was during this time that I learned about tourism and conservation issues in Ghana, and developed my understanding of the facets and challenges of rural life in Northern Ghana. After that, I landed a job with the Conservation organization I had been working with as a Volunteer: The Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC). NCRC had funding from USAID to support Community-based Tourism across Ghana, and I opened up and managed their Northern Ghana office in the city of Bolgatanga. I worked with all the major tourism destinations in Northern Ghana, helping them with training, marketing, and basic visitor facilities.
Tell us more about Zaina lodge and how it came to be.
Zaina came together from a confluence on interests. Our main investor has been looking to do something in the park for 40 years. My business partner did his masters research on Mole National Park in the late 80’s and has been looking to do something in the park since then. I wrote the business plan for Zaina as a final paper for an Emerging Markets Real Estate Class at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 2006. I had left Ghana in 2004 to pursue my MBA.
In my work on community-based tourism in Northern Ghana, we saw that the only real way to unlock the development potential of tourism is through investments in high-end accommodation, which then allows you to attract a different class of traveler to an area. Tourism in Northern Ghana has been aimed primarily at the budget traveler. We felt there was potential to attract a difference class of clientele to the North.
At the same time, the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission of Ghana was going through a process of developing private concessions in national parks. Although our long-term goal is to establish a lodge in one of the community wild-life destinations we worked with, we knew we had to start in Mole National Park, as it is the main destination in Northern Ghana. We had to wait 2.5 years to get the concession award letter for Mole, and then it took us 6+ years to raise the money to build Zaina. We started construction in early 2013, and opened our first 7 rooms in October 2015. We finally had all 25 room completed in March of 2016, almost 10 years after the original business plan was written. As my business partner always says, “The patient man in Ghana always wins…”
What made you decide to pursue an MBA?
I had spent 6 years living in the Upper East Region of Ghana, one of the poorer parts of the country. I lived in a village called Binaba for 3 years as a volunteer (no electricity or running water) and then another 3 years in the Regional Capital, Bolgatanga. In my time there, my personal observation was the system of international development was broken. Benefits were going largely to the people who worked for the big NGO’s or Development Aid Agencies, with very little going to the average person in a village or community. My conclusion was that the true key to prosperity for a country like Ghana is the establishment of successful rural businesses that provide sustainable incomes at the local level. I knew the skills (and credibility) from pursuing an MBA would be far more useful than another type of degree.
I went back to pursue my MBA almost 9 years after completing my undergraduate work. I kind of felt like an old man at Harvard! However, having had lots of different work experiences by that point, I more or less knew what I was about. I focused my energies and time on developing professional products that I knew would have long term benefits. One of them being the b-plan for Zaina. There is a development side to Zaina, but there is also a pure business opportunity as well. There has been an explosion of high-end business hotels in the 3 major cities in Ghana in the last 12 years, with no corresponding development in quality accommodation in Northern Ghana. While others have been focused on building hotels in the cities, we have been the guys quietly locking up opportunities in some of the most beautiful nature destinations in Ghana.
It took you close to six years to get funding for Zaina lodge. What was that like?
As I mentioned before, my partner always said that the patient man in Ghana always wins… What helped us was that neither of us was financially dependent on Zaina happening. I was working at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, DC managing a global program. I thought that would be a 1-2 year gig, but life has a way of working the way it wants. We started our capital raise in 2009, right at the time of the global financial downturn. That really slowed us down, as a lot of investors were hurting and were cautious. People were also hesitant to back a green- field hospitality investment in an unproven market. On top of that you had the audacity of two guys raising the money who had no previous hotel experience!
We closed the capital raise in October of 2013. But in June of 2013 I had already decided quit my job at WWF to make sure I could see the Zaina dream through. It was always an interesting combination of managing my work at WWF and then using my leave and flying to Ghana for short trips moonlighting as the CEO of a start-up lodge company. In the end we raised 90% of the money within Ghana from private investors, both Ghanaian and non-Ghanaian. Our investors are all long-term, they believe in conservation and community development, and each of them either knew myself of my business partner personally.
You also recruited your staff even before the buildings were raised. What informed that decision and how did you go about that?
The number one business challenge in Ghana is human resource management (or human capital as we used to say in my consulting days), especially in the service industry. We knew we were about to open a high-end hotel in an area where none had existed before and at the same time we had a commitment with the government to hire as many local people as possible. The solution was to first partner with a management company that could provide us with the right experience and skill sets to manage the lodge.
In the end, our first manager, chef, and food and beverage manager all came to us through a company called the Raxa Collective. All three of them had experience in opening and running 4-5 star safari lodges. In the hotel industry, pre-opening skills are far different than just operating an existing hotel. We also had a Ghanaian deputy manager in place who had been a part of the industry for years.
Our next step was to hire a few selected staff from Southern Ghana who has the skill sets we needed to compliment the team. At the time that included a Sous Chef, head of House Keeping, a lead waitress, and lead bar tender among others. We hired and had our department heads in place by February 2015, about 4 months before we started testing rooms and eight months before we opened. That team spent several months bonding and establishing our standard operating procedures, and then we hired our opening team between April and July 2015.
At the start, we had just over 50% of our staff coming from Northern Ghana, but as of today, that figure is closer to 75%. We consistently have guests compliment us on the friendliness and attentiveness of our staff. Some of that comes from the training and our family style of service, however a large part is also due to personal pride and a sense of ownership. Many of our staff grew up in the park. This is their home, and the existence of Zaina, and working at Zaina, is a source of pride. There are many businesses in Ghana that cannot replicate what we have here at Zaina for this reason.
This has been quite a journey for you; what moment of the journey is most memorable?
It sure has! There have been too many memorable moments to count… What comes to mind is the firsts. Getting Zaina established was a constant struggle. After all those battles, and highs and lows, seeing people react to Zaina Lodge and experience it for the first time was particularly special. In late September 2015, we hosted an episode of Miss Malaika, a Ghanaian reality TV-show. That weekend was the first time we had been full. We launched the bonfire and night-time cultural display for the first time that weekend. It was a magical experience for the whole team to see people enjoying Zaina and falling in love with the lodge.
However, by far the best moment for me was having both my daughters come to Ghana this summer and experience Zaina for the first time. Launching Zaina has meant 3 years of being apart from them. Being here with them was a very special experience. Chloe, my youngest, learned to swim in our pool! I will never forget my time with them here.
Your daughters are absolutely adorable. What is the most important lesson you would like them to learn from your life?
I want them to know that anything is possible, so long as you put your mind to it, and back that up with persistence and determination. That we do not have to accept the world as it is, but can rather focus on bringing into being the world that exists in our minds. Though I know that is not an easy path to follow. In many ways, Zaina Lodge exists today largely because of a sheer refusal on my part, and that of my partners, to ever give up. Even though we had many opportunities to do so.
But the foundation for both my girls needs to be faith, humility, patience, perseverance, respect and kindness towards others, and a very healthy sense of humor!
Has living and doing business in Africa changed or shaped your world view in any way?
Absolutely. My first 6 years in Ghana shaped my world view. It is impossible to live in a rural village surrounded by poverty and not be changed. But it’s not the poverty that shaped me. It was the positive attitude, kindness and ingenuity that I experienced amongst friends and co-workers. The entrepreneurial spirit that exists across rural Ghana. You cannot exist in a world like that and not feel an obligation to give back, to at least use the talents you have been blessed with to make difference in the world.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to live and work on four continents, from Washington, DC, to Amsterdam to Beijing. But no matter where I went there was always a part of Ghana with me.
Finally, for those thinking of visiting Zaina lodge, what can they look forward to?
Prepare to be blown away. Most people can’t believe Zaina is actually in Ghana. The view from the main facility and the rooms is breathtaking, a 200 degree of unending woodland savannah, complete with an infinity pool and waterholes below the lodge where elephants swim and antelope come to drink. We used local materials, but did not compromise on luxury. Each of our 25 rooms is a luxury tented chalet with a large deck with a view, complete with air-conditioning, wi-fi, hot-water, personal mini-bar and an indoor and outdoor shower. We have been told by our guests that that we our beds offer the best sleep in Ghana, which makes getting up for an early morning safari a particular challenge!
We will help you experience the wildlife of the park in our custom made Toyota Land-cruiser safari vehicles. You may chance upon an elephant wandering on the property. In addition to elephants there are many types of antelope, warthogs, baboons, green and patas monkeys, and many other species in Mole National Park. Our trained guides will help you experience the park can also take you on other cultural experience like visiting the Mognori ecovillage or visiting the Larabanga Mosque, one of the oldest in West Africa.
After safari, the Zaina dining experience is second to none. From the fresh squeezed juices and baked goods at breakfast, to the wonders that Chefs David and Udit turn out from the Zaina kitchen. Whether you want to try our local specialty, Guinea Fowl light soup, or any one of the continental specialties we offer. And before you get comfortable, there is also the 110 Zaina cocktail safari offered up by John and PK and the Z bar. You will not be disappointed.
On top of the experience of the facilities, our family style of service will be like nothing most guests have ever experienced. By the time you leave Zaina, you will feel like you are leaving old friends behind.
To make your bookings for Zaina lodge, visit their website.