Hon. Najib Balala
CABINET SECRETARY (CS) MINISTRY FOR TOURISM AND WILDLIFE
Hon. Najib Balala was appointed to his current position as the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife by President Uhuru Kenyatta in January 2018. However, many Kenyans might not be aware that Hon. Najib Balala has had a long and distinguished career in the public service since 1998 where it all began when he was elected the Mayor of Mombasa.
“This is the third time I was being entrusted with the tourism docket due to my vast knowledge and experience in this field. I was given the added responsibility of taking care of Kenya’s national heritage of wildlife. I am always called upon to rescue the Ministry when trouble arises such as the Westgate Mall attack by Al Shabab in 2013 and now the devastating Covid-19 pandemic,” he says.
He is currently one of the longest-serving members of the Kenyan Cabinet, with an accumulation of sixteen years serving in different portfolios, eleven of those in the Tourism docket. History will remember him mainly as the specialized Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, the docket in which he has edged indelible footprints through a management by walking around strategy.
As he leads the team, CS Balala is the man the country has invested tremendous trust in to steer the sector towards a recovery path and then growth, after the devastating effect occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. Together with travel and hospitality, tourism is one of the hardest-hit sectors. Many in these sectors have lost lives and livelihoods. However, with the expected availability of vaccines in adequate measure, there is hope that the industry will be cushioned somewhat from worse effects of both the disease and economic disasters.
On and off the tourism docket, CS Balala is the lead actor playing a major role in the Kenya Tourism movie, sustaining its growth and anchoring hope for the millions of Kenyans whose life and livelihood is hinged on the health of the sector.
Through his charm and amiable personality, CS Balala is able to work closely with private and institutional investors in the development and offering of world class tourism offerings. He has managed to earn the trust and participation of wildlife conservation and regional development agencies to ensure that the economic potential of this vital sector is prudently and sustainably exploited.
As an example, CS Balala’s performance is best exemplified by the record-setting tourism performance in 2018 when the country received over two million international arrivals. This improved performance was endorsed by the President and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), Ms. Gloria Guevara, in Nairobi, when she symbolically released the WTTC Economic Impact Research 2019 for Africa.
In 2018, Travel and Tourism grew by 5.6% and contributed to the creation of 1.1 million quality jobs for Kenyans. This growth rate was faster than the global average of 3.9% and the sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) average of 3.3%, making Kenya then third largest tourism economy in Africa after South Africa and Nigeria.
This rare feat earned CS Balala the recognition, and was subsequently bestowed with the WTTC Global Champion Award at the 2019 Global Summit in Seville, Spain. On this occasion, CS Balala was cited for his work on Social Impact. The annual WTTC Global Champion Awards recognizes public officials or countries that, through their leadership, have made a difference through unique public policies and initiatives that have increased the competitiveness of the sector within their respective countries. The award also recognizes leadership in enabling gender equality, inclusion and diversity, engaging local communities, and making the sector more attractive for future generations.
CS Balala’s star continue to shine in global tourism fora, where he has been elected twice to chair the prestigious global United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) Executive Council. The Executive Council is the most powerful committee of the UNWTO that elects the Secretary-General and makes decisions on many critical and strategic issues of the organization. For now, CS Balala laments that it will take longer than expected for the global tourism and travel to re-bound to the upward trajectories witnessed in the period 2018-19 before Covid-19 pandemic shook the world.
CS Balala opines that the travel and tourism sectors have to change with the times to adapt to the dynamic expectations of the clients in order to offer the kind of products that are constantly in demand and which changes in real time. The new norm will have to emphasize on health, safety, technology and more so, value for money. “As a country, we are diversifying the product offerings so that the country has a range of fresh and differing products on offer. In 2019, for instance, we launched 15 magical Kenya Signature Experiences, which are a cut above our normal offerings. The second phase of this has seen an additional 29 products enlisted, giving a wider choice of must-visit experiences for local and international travelers, totaling 44 signature experiences across the country”, the CS adds.
“Africa, through the African Union leadership, must also invest strategically in inter-connectivity of the whole continent by Air, Railways, Roads and Waterways to spur tourism and travels among the 1.2 billion inhabitants of the continent. The same must be done by national governments at the local and regional levels. One big lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic, is the importance of domestic tourism even as we think globally,”The CS opines.
In mitigating the effects of the Covid-19 in a bid to keep the sector open, CS Balala launched the Magical Kenya Tourism and Travel Health and Safety protocols on July 1, 2020. These were vital guidelines to inform the tourism industry on how to operate safely to ensure the safety of tourists and the workers in the sector.
“In April this year, the Ministry launched an initiative to vaccinate 5,000 frontline personnel in the tourism and hospitality sectors against Covid-19 disease. This exercise has been going on well across the country. The exercise is targeting returning the sector to normalcy as soon as possible while securing the health of the visitors and other stakeholders”, CS Balala adds.
Recently, the CS came out to publicly support the waiver of patents on Covid-19 vaccines as championed by the US government. He disclosed in an interview with the local media that he came out to support this initiative because he believes that facilitating the production and distribution of ‘Covid-19 vaccines, particularly in Africa, will make the world a safer place for everyone. No one is safe from this pandemic until everyone is vaccinated,’ the CS cautions.
In the mid to long term strategies, CS Balala envisages an environment in which the government would invest heavily in the sector, as it did in the 70’s in a bid to spur the growth in the sector in order to recover from the devastation unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This could involve building hotels, lodges and airstrips all over the country to unlock the potential and light up the country for a massive drive for domestic tourism. This kind of investment in tourism infrastructure has been done in the past when hotels like the Hilton, Intercontinental, lodges and airports all over the country.
Turning to the Wildlife, CS Balala’s focus is to improve and modernize wildlife conservation as it directly impacts the tourism sector-of which 70% is wildlife. “It is important to note that most of Kenya’s wildlife is found outside protected areas. It is therefore, important to empower the local communities, which cohabit with this national heritage, to be better custodians and stewards of wildlife conservation through community-driven conservancies. There is going to be major transformation in the wildlife sector too through enactment of appropriate policy and legislative frameworks, which are already in various stages of formulation,” CS Balala postulates.
CS Balala reports that in 2020, the country was excited to witness the increase of the wildlife corridor in and out of Nairobi National Park when the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and Swara Plains Conservancy declared 32,000 and 15,000 acres of land, respectively, for that purpose. In this regard, a title deed was issued to the Nairobi National Park for the 2000 acres of Government land formerly known as Sheep and Goat Research Facility, which is adjacent to the Park, all this achievement was after years of intense lobbying by his team.
“The wildlife sector is very exciting. We have tamed poaching and wildlife numbers which are increasing all over the country. However, climate change is impacting negatively on animals such as Elephants who are not only growing thinner but exacerbating human- wildlife conflict by straying into private farms where they destroy crops while searching for food,” the CS says.
In 2020, CS Balala initiated a rhino calf naming ceremony where the money from the historic event was used to establish a fund across the country for the welfare of park rangers who take care of rhinos. In 2020 alone, 31 rhino calves were named, raising a total of KSH 3.1 million. The initiative also aims at motivating individual parks to compete in facilitating increased reproduction because the more their rhinos reproduce, the more money they get into their respective fund.
2020 witnessed CS Balala establishing the Wildlife Research and Training Institute in Naivasha. The facility aims to coordinate and undertake academic and practical training in wildlife in the country.
In May, 2021, CS Balala launched the first-ever National Wildlife Census covering both land and aquatic wildlife, fully funded by the government of Kenya and expected to take two months executed by the ministry, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the newly created Wildlife Research and Training Institute. The information generated during the census will support the implementation of the conservation and tourism policies and support tools for adaptive wildlife management.
The objectives of the census are to determine the country’s wildlife population and distribution, wildlife population trends over time, identify threats to wildlife conservation and management in the country’s landscape, and, suggest strategies for effective wildlife conservation and management across the country. “The World can learn a lot from Kenya because we are pioneers in wildlife conservation and environmental sustainability, which positively impacts sustainable tourism through promotion of green tourism activities’,” the CS adds.
Before his stint as CS Tourism and Wildlife, Hon. Balala was CS Mining. He has also served in the local government docket as minister in the Coalition government.
CS Balala has been Mayor of Mombasa, where he is credited with the transformation of the once sleepy town to its modern status as a City and the epicenter of tourism on the Coastal beaches of East Africa.
A gentle giant with a magician’s touch, CS Balala was Member of Parliament (MP) for Mvita Constituency between December 2002 and March 2013, where he is credited with the most exemplary development record by an MP in the history of the country. Among his signature performances was the upgrading of all public primary schools in the constituency, reduced the perennial water problem within the area by drilling boreholes in all strategic points, building cabro roads throughout the constituency, among others.
CS Balala has sharpened his leadership and management skills by attending an executive program on International Urban Management at the University of Toronto and on Leadership and Governance at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.