Africa Has Never Had a Black, Female-Owned Safari Lodge Company—Until Now

Meet Vimbai Masiyiwa, the co-founder of Batoka Africa, Africa’s first Black, female-owned safari lodge company.

A guest bathroom at Zambezi Sands by Batoka Africa, with large, white soaking tub surrounded by glass walls and views of  Zambezi River

A guest bathroom at Zambezi Sands by Batoka Africa

Courtesy of Batoka Africa

When Vimbai Masiyiwa launched Batoka Africa in 2020 with her mother, Tsitsi Masiyiwa, in Zimbabwe, they became the first Black African female owner-operators of a safari lodge chain. But even when faced with the challenges of being a young, female, African entrepreneur in a male-dominated safari industry, Zimbabwe-born Vimbai Masiyiwa, 29, mostly sees opportunity. “Instead of viewing my race and age as obstacles, I embrace them as distinct advantages that empower me to introduce innovative perspectives to an otherwise archaic industry,” she says.

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, AFAR sat down with Vimbai Masiyiwa to talk about her vision for Batoka Africa, which she and her mother co-founded in 2020 after acquiring full ownership of Zambezi Sands River Camp and sister camp Gorges Lodge from another safari lodge company. The two lodges strive to uplift local communities living and working in and around the lodges through employment, skill building, and entrepreneurship. Female employment is a key focus area: About 40 percent of staff at Batoka are women.

Batoka Africa is composed of two properties near Victoria Falls: Zambezi Sands, a 10-tent luxury lodge with private plunge pools on a riverbank in Zambezi National Park. Reopened in 2023 after a major refurbishment, the lodge is now part of Beyond Green, a portfolio of luxury lodgings under Preferred Travel Group that demonstrate sustainable tourism practices. (The lodge is plastic-free and runs entirely on solar power.) Nearby, the larger, 30-room Gorges Lodge, which is currently under renovation, is named for its location on the edge of the Batoka Gorge. In May 2024, Zambezi Sands is planning to unveil a family suite for multigenerational traveling groups with a private swimming pool and a dedicated chef, safari vehicle, and private guide.

Based in South Africa and the United Kingdom, Masiyiwa makes frequent trips to both properties and often reports her experiences in nature on her Instagram account. She holds a master’s degree in entrepreneurship studies from the University College of London.

This interview was edited for space and clarity.

Vimbai Masiyiwa Founder (1).jpg

Vimbai Masiyiwa is the co-founder of Batoka Africa.

Courtesy of Batoka Africa

What is the origin story of Batoka?

The founding of Batoka Africa was prompted by our desire to use hospitality and tourism as a catalyst for social change and local economic growth. I came in at a board level initially in the original lodge business about five years ago, and later I proposed and executed the company’s move toward creating a new, more sustainably driven iteration of the lodge business in 2020. Being Zimbabwean, Victoria Falls was a natural fit as it is close to our family’s heart but also a key travel destination.

When did you first become interested in hospitality, and more specifically, the safari industry?

My entrepreneurship and hospitality journey began with a concierge company I cofounded a few years ago. I gained valuable insights into the intricacies of safaris and the luxury travel industry. Trip planning sparked my passion for curating unforgettable experiences for others.

In terms of Batoka Africa and the safari industry, it was an organic start that started just after I completed my undergraduate studies. I traveled with my family to see the Victoria Falls Marathon, and that trip was also the first time I had been on safari since my childhood. While I loved the experience, I was struck by the contrast between the local community’s living conditions and the surrounding five-star properties. As businesses, we have a responsibility to uplift the local communities we exist in, and I have always felt this is an area where the hospitality industry lags behind.

The founding of Batoka Africa was prompted by our desire to use hospitality and tourism as a catalyst for social change and local economic growth.

What are the challenges and opportunities of being a young female African entrepreneur in the safari world? Do you have any role models ?

In an industry where foreigners have dominated in terms of experience and seniority, navigating tourism and the safari world has presented its challenges. Instead of viewing my race and age as obstacles, I embrace them as distinct advantages that empower me to introduce innovative perspectives to an otherwise archaic industry.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by remarkable women. My mother, who also happens to be my cofounder, serves as a constant source of inspiration, consistently motivating me to persevere and forge ahead. One of the most rewarding aspects is tapping into my mother’s wealth of experience and seeing how our skills complement each other.

A riverside safari lunch with six people in Zimbabwe's Zambezi National Park with Batoka Africa

A riverside safari lunch in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi National Park with Batoka Africa

Courtesy of Batoka Africa

How is Batoka helping to be a catalyst of transformation for rural communities, and what are the challenges?

Initiatives to empower women and the surrounding communities of Chisuma include the Women of Shingani sewing collective, which is led by a member of the Batoka staff. Income is generated by selling household items and reusable sanitary items through the program and through guest visits to the collective. Another initiative is the Tesse Fund, where a percentage from each bed night sold goes towards community projects such as healthcare, education, and infrastructure. In-room bath products, as well those used during spa treatments, are sourced from a female-owned and -operated company R & R Luxury in Ghana. With these efforts, Batoka seeks to not only provide luxury experiences for our guests but also to leave a lasting legacy of positive transformation in the regions where we operate.

Two local women sitting on ground, wearing green head scarves and skirts and white T-shirts with motto "Run This Town"

Women play a central role in Batoka Africa’s hiring practices and community work.

Courtesy of Batoka Africa

How do you encourage more women to take on leadership positions at Batoka?

My goal is to lead change toward a more inclusive and representative safari industry that empowers women from diverse backgrounds to flourish. At Batoka, we actively seek to create opportunities for women in leadership roles. However, the reality is that the environment we operate in is still deeply traditional, both from the African perspective and the safari industry holistically, where a cultural shift in the perception of gendered roles has not happened yet.

When we employ women—specifically in the indoor operational roles—we proactively invest in upskilling them to enhance their abilities, not just within Batoka Africa but also throughout the industry. It is our long-term strategic focus to find the balance between honoring cultural norms and actively empowering women to assume roles typically done by men within the industry. By doing so, we aim to cultivate increased opportunities for women to take on leadership positions.

What are some of your favorite things to do in the Victoria Falls region of Zimbabwe?

If you’re at Zambezi Sands, our team offers a range of options tailored to your preferred pace. My favorites include an early morning game drive coupled with a bush meditation—there is something magical about meditating amidst the sounds of the bush. A visit to the Falls is an absolute must—always pack a raincoat. And I love to stop by Batoka Creatives, a community-based initiative showcasing beautiful beadwork and jewelry.

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