I’m lucky enough to work with and alongside some incredible woman, but on International Women’s Day, celebrate one incredible lady who is breaking down barriers on the Kenyan safari scene.
Grace Leonard is a powerhouse. Leader. Mother. Inspiration.
As General Manager of Elewana Elsa’s Kopje, in Meru National Park, Grace is one of a rare breed: a female Kenyan in charge of a luxury safari lodge. And as well as the day-to-day challenges of the job, there’s the responsibility of being a role model, too.
Grace became interested in conservation at a young age. “My exposure started in the small town of Maralal, in Samburu County, where I grew up,” says Grace. “Human-animal conflict was an issue, with buffalo and elephant damaging farms. Most of my classmates were put through school with support from conservation companies.”
“A lot of tourists came, the majority of whom had driver-guides,” she continues. “One day during the annual Camel Derby, I saw ladies guiding the guests, plus one who was in charge of the activities. I was in shock! It was the first time I’d seen ladies in such positions.”
This was game-changing. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Grace states. Being exposed to those female guides, as well as witnessing the work of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai – the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize – shifted her beliefs.
“Role models represent and expand what is possible,” says Grace. “They inspire women to be more ambitious and aim higher, and they demonstrate the mindsets and behaviours required in order to rise.”
However, gender equality remains a big challenge in East Africa.
“There is a lack of safe spaces for women and girls to live free from gender-based violence, as well as a lack of participation of women in decision and policy-making at all levels,” Grace says. “We need to ensure women are involved in peace-building, conflict prevention and mitigation. We also need to narrow gender gaps in education, training and employment, and improve access to credit facilities and market opportunities.”
There are practical issues too. “It is difficult to have a family – a husband and children – and still work in bush lodges,” Grace admits. “For us to balance this, we have to trust a third party to take care of the children. Fortunately, Elewana is one of the most supportive companies. But we need to educate communities that females working in hospitality and conservation can be focused and still take care of their families.”
Grace has some sound advice for women who are interested in working in the industry. “Create your own personal definition of success. Understand how your company makes money. Cultivate friends at work. And have a vision for your career. In 2022, we had eight girls from our national universities who successfully completed their three-month internship; some were so good that we called them back to work.”
One thing is essential, she believes: “Women must support women. Reach out to role models both within and outside your company. Choose great mentors, and be a mentor to other women.”
Grace is doing just that, inspiring both professional colleagues and her own family.
“I count myself lucky that my daughter has been able to see me at work. She gets to see a woman in a senior role, as well as learn about hospitality, history and conservation. I believe this inspires her to strive and to develop her dreams at a young age.”
She admits it’s not easy for women – but nothing worth doing ever is. “There are no shortcuts,” she says. “Keep working, keep striving, never give up. Fall down seven times, get up eight. Keep moving, keep growing and cultivate a culture of commitment. Roll up your sleeves and go to work.”