Africa: Meet Najib Balala the Man who makes Kenyan Tourism tick
Is Tourism CS Najib Balala the coolest cabinet secretary in the Jubilee government? Balala wakes up at 5am every day. I know because in booking our appointment he insisted on an early-morning meeting.
It is the eve of World Tourism Day when we meet at his Teleposta office. He is sharply dressed complete with an Ankara bowtie!
I ask him about his new style.
“I have revamped my look to be fresh and fun,” he explains.
He is chatty this morning partly because he just celebrated his 49th birthday.
“I am 49 years old, it is so fantastic!” he says, beaming.
I must be forgiven for having thought him much younger and I tell him as much. Honestly, he looks 10 years younger. What’s his secret?
“Nothing,” he says, laughing out loud, “I am just happy!”
Surely he must have had a few procedures here and there, I prod.
“None… I just dyed my hair, the rest is just good diet and exercise,” he insists.
Moving on quickly, the CS asks to talk about mining before we delve into tourism.
“When President Uhuru Kenyatta called me and invited me to take up the mining docket, frankly I was taken aback. I had no previous knowledge and it was a grey area but he told me that it wasn’t about me but about service to the people, something I took to heart,” Balala says.
With gusto, Balala took over the new mining docket and made headlines, first making sure policies were in place and then cleaning house. Was he scared?
“Yes, I was but I had the backing of the President and goodwill from industry players. I gave it my best shot,” he says.
But back to tourism. The year is 1996 and a fresh-faced Balala, then just 29 years old, founded the Kenya Tourism Board. He went on to be mayor of Mombasa. When he was appointed Minister of Tourism in Daniel Arap Moi’s government, he was at the helm as tourist numbers steadily increased.
And after the post-election violence of 2007-2008, as part of the Grand Coalition government, once again he was the man to watch as he worked to save an industry that was bleeding. Balala it seems is the go-to man whenever the tourism industry is in trouble, so how does he do it?
“I love my job. I am passionate about this country and truth be told I have been to almost 60 countries around the world but I am yet to find a place as beautiful as Kenya. Marketing Kenya comes naturally to me,” he says. That explains why our tourism marketing budget has tripled in this financial year.
But there seems to be more focus on the coast than any other region. Aren’t there other tourist attractions in this country?
“Of course there are but a bird in hand is worth two in a bush. We must make sure we increase the coastal numbers by making it more attractive especially for domestic tourists… we are opening up the western circuit and the Rift Valley too. And in association with the counties we are achieving much more.
So does this world traveller have a preferred destination? “Oh yes! That has to be the Mara! I took my family for the wildebeest migration and we had a grand time, man that was awesome! We stayed at the Amara Ngama Lodge… beautiful!”
Now that we are on the subject of family, I grab the chance to delve a little deeper. Balala gives me that joyful smile again. “I got married at 21 years old and that’s why my firstborn son is more like my brother…I have four children and the difference between the first and last born is 20 years!” Was that by design or default, I ask.
“By design,” he says. “Like everything in my life I love order. My 7 year old keeps me on my toes.”
And that was all the CS would say on matters family. So I ask him about his political ambitions. “When it comes to politics, I can’t say never, but I am happy to serve right now in this docket and I hope that I can continue once the President is re-elected. Politics is a different ball game but I am glad I have experienced both divides and can confidently make a decision based on what is on the ground,” he says.
As I leave, I ask him what we can expect from him and his ministry in the months to come. “More coolness,” he says, “more freshness and more fun. We are listening to the people and implementing changes. We know that tourism is no longer about JamboKenya and that is why we are trying out new stuff and going digital… if I am still here in the next cycle, look forward to better times,” he concludes.