Zainab Ansell - Tanzanian Tourism's Indomitable Entrepreneur
I first heard, Tanzanian, Zainab Ansell speak at the launch of a joint UN Women and UN World Tourism Organisation report that examined the role of gender in sustainable tourism. Zainab was an engaging presence as she took the audience through the growth of her enterprise – ZARA Tanzanian Adventures (a tour operator specialising in trips ranging from safaris to Kilimanjaro expeditions) – and how their forward thinking gender policies both benefitted the community and made sound business sense. I wanted to find out more about the story of this indomitable woman whose business now employs close to one thousand people. Over a series of emails, I asked her about the beginnings of ZARA.
She told me that, when she had been young, her aspirations were “to hopefully get married and have a family” but “in life one thing leads to another”. “After finishing high school I worked in a leather factory selling ladies bags - not so stimulating - however it was a job and I could contribute support for my mother and father. I met a customer who told me about a job opportunity at the Kilimanjaro airport, working as a secretary for a construction company building a hanger. I managed to land the job.”
From this first job in travel, she progressed to the offices of Air Tanzania in nearby Moshi. “At that time I opened a bank account and started to save.” “I liked the airline business, meeting people and working in the department of reservation and sales. The job was fine, however, after a few years I thought I could do better. I had a dream, I wanted to open my own travel agency and so in nineteen eighty four - an eventful year - ZARA International Travel Agency was born and I also became a bride.”
“A couple of years later, after a great deal of hard work, which paid off - ZARA became a member of IATA (The International Air Transport Association ) which gave the company a certain credibility. The trading license was very expensive and I noticed that it also covered not only the travel business but also mountain climbing and safari tours. In 1986 that part of the business was started and has continued to expand to the position it holds today as a result of a great deal of determination and hard work.”
Zainab told me that, as a woman, she encountered many challenges when setting up her business and that she had to “to overcome the fact that in the early nineteen eighties women were not so easily accepted into business circles as men. It was believed that women should stay at home producing children, cleaning, cooking and taking care of their husband. Most of the positions of authority were and still are dominated by men, however, opinions and attitudes towards women have changed for the better. Thirty years on it is now easier for women to start up their own business ventures, obtain licences, bank loans, locations and respect, however, it is still believed by many that women should stay at home and take care of their family.”
She’s keen to use the success of ZARA to advance and improve the employment of all members of local communities and says that it “has actually educated many into believing that women can succeed not only in business but in many other walks of life. This attitude is making it easier for women to find their place in the job market and to seek employment, education and better careers.
In ZARA we try to maintain a balance of gender with our employees. In a developing country like Tanzania women can actually improve their family and community situation by having employment.”
This is an argument backed by statistics. Michelle Bachelet – UN Women Executive Director and former President of Chile - said on a visit to London last year “For every one dollar given to a woman in the developing world, ninety percent is spent on her family. The similar figure for a man is forty percent.”
Zainab is a force for good in all areas of sustainable tourism. She advocates for a ban on hunting safaris, calling them “short term thinking” and cites “maintaining the national parks by supporting eco tourism” and “educational advertising and fair trade practices” as two of the priority areas of improvement for the tourist trade. The ZARA Charity supports a number of causes including the Mount Kilimanjaro Porters Society, a local hospital and a fund sponsoring Masai children through school.
Aside from building a successful and sustainable business, Zainab tells me that her biggest achievement is “having given birth to two beautiful daughters.” I get the feeling that, with such an inspirational mother, these girls are destined to achieve great things.
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