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Byron Thomas Of Niarra Travel: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable

Being a new, young founder, I am being told a lot to be tougher and clearer with my team, which is a concept that doesn’t come easy to me. Remember to make mistakes, they are where you learn. Let other people below you make them too — and support them when they do.

As part of our series about how companies are becoming more sustainable, we had the pleasure of interviewing Byron Thomas, founder of Niarra Travel.

In 2012, Byron Thomas joined a luxury travel company to share what he loved about creating safaris across the continent, soon managing the Africa department and always with a keen interest in sustainable and responsible travel. The events of 2020 gave him the opportunity to create something new with these values at its core alongside a passionate, experienced team — and so, Niarra Travel was born.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born in Scotland in 1984 after my family moved from what was then Rhodesia to escape the war in the mid 70s. Descendants of missionaries and traders who had been in Southern Africa as early as 1817, they soon returned, this time to South Africa. Growing up close to Durban in South Africa from the age of six, my love and passion for Africa’s people and wilderness was deeply embedded from a young age. I moved from banking in London, to volunteer construction in South Africa’s underprivileged ‘townships’ for what I thought would be a year or so and ended up being 5, into travel and tourism — been here ever since!

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Through all of my experience in the travel industry, I felt that Africa was being commoditized, marketed, sold, and profited from improperly; I wanted to launch a new brand to create informed travel experiences that leave the planet’s wild places and local communities in a better place than how they were found, but also, mainly, to get more of the money to the people and projects on the ground.

Niarra Travel is committed to transparency in everything we do, from our pricing and commission structure to how our partners operate on the ground. It launched with a significantly reduced commission structure of 10% (which on average, in Africa, is around half or less of the status quo), hoping to create a model that leaves more money with the people and communities on the ground that need it the most — and more funds available for initiatives supporting their community, sustainability, and conservation efforts.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

We named Niarra after an incredible place in Northern Mozambique that is mostly still unvisited by tourism. We also realized that the word Niara means “with utmost purpose” in Swahili, or Kiswahili, a Bantu language spoken by millions throughout Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. We aim to guide discerning and conscientious travelers in making better choices for people and place, while ensuring the positive impacts of travel are maximized where it’s needed most.

We achieve this by scrutinizing every chosen partner based on our sustainability pillars (community and culture, conservation, and carbon footprint) so we know that our trips contribute to the long-term sustainability of habitat restoration, wildlife conservation, and local development. Our commission model means that more money goes to those on the ground, supporting them not through charity, but a straight commercial model. In turn, our clients get access to some of the most inspiring people, places, and regeneration projects on the planet.

In addition to contributing to climate solutions via conservation projects on the ground, we also send 1% of each trip’s total cost to carefully selected carbon projects on each continent, that aren’t just offsetting projects, but actual drawdown projects.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Interesting question. I think that in the past we have seen these two concepts as diametrically opposed, as in, sustainability is not inherently profitable, and if you are making a profit, you aren’t being sustainable. I think the key here is to drive sustainability through commerce — charge for it.

Of course, a lot of changes that businesses can make towards sustainability can actually reduce costs and improve costs and therefore profitability, for example using less power etc. I think one of the most important things to do is market the change towards sustainability positively i.e. as something that makes the consumer feel good — but something that still has a cost, and paying towards the cost of say, solar or other renewable energy is something to be proud about.

Niarra is an example of this. We still need to charge fees to cover the costs of our services as a tour operator. I am proud of those fees, and I don’t try to hide them; they enable us to still over a world class service — at a competitive price — while still sending much more money than the industry average to the destinations.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are some things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

Not sure I am qualified to give parental advice here!

I really think one of the most important concepts we all need to learn (side note it may well be kids teaching parents these things!) is the concept of having a shared global carbon budget. With the number of people on the planet, we only have a certain amount of carbon that each human can spend. To have the best chance of avoiding a 35.6 °F rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.

Why should a kid (or parent!) in the US be allowed to spend 16 tons a year, when in Europe the average is 8 tons per year, and globally it’s around 4 tons per person? In the same way as we learn to budget financially, I think it’s a great think to decide on your budget for the year and plan how to spend it. We of course recommend traveling with Niarra, as you will be supporting carbon drawdown projects with us that don’t impact your budget all said and done!

I really think that travel is something that we need to keep doing. Travel offers the opportunity to be one of the most powerful forces for good. When it comes to parents inspiring their children, the next generation, it can start with where we choose to travel: for me personally, it is not about my favorite place, or the place I have on my list to visit — it’s about choosing the place that most needs us. Parents can choose the destinations where their visit will really help safeguard the future of those landscapes, wildlife, and cultures that rely on tourism to survive. Parents can also model slow travel to their kids; this is for several reasons — to reduce carbon footprint, take the chance to really get to know a destination, and leave more impactful dollars in one place. For example, gorilla trekking in Rwanda: spending a trip in one country rather than traveling around to different destinations for multiple legs of an itinerary reduces the carbon footprint of travel, but also gets tourism dollars to more than just the gorilla sector, ultimately helping with conservation and sustainability along with important element of supporting communities that are not immediate benefactors of the gorilla parks. Finally, planning family travel around a specific purpose — for example, learning about rewilding efforts — fosters a deeper, up-close relationship to the wild places that need care and protection, so that they can flourish for years to come.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

I have to say that I am surrounded by so many amazing, supportive people, I feel like it’s more that these things were all said, I just wish I could remember it all!

Being a new, young founder, I am being told a lot to be tougher and clearer with my team, which is a concept that doesn’t come easy to me. Remember to make mistakes, they are where you learn. Let other people below you make them too — and support them when they do.

Take the time to set out a work contract with people — for example, how you want to work together, what you want, what you don’t. Stick to it!

Things take way longer than you think they will, realize and be okay with that!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many. Ciara Owens, a good friend at my previous role, really comes to mind here. She really showed me — with a lot of patience — that I needed to improve on a lot of things. She gave me carefully considered feedback, often when I was hearing it, and not applying it. Instead of closing down, she persevered and was always there. She was one person that really helped me on the never-ending journey of improving self-awareness.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Travel big, not often. Stay local for most of your travel — and go large once a year for as long as you can — to a place that really needs it.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

The late great Desmond Tutu once said: If you want peace, don’t talk to your friends, talk to your enemies.

I remember being in several conversations about conservation in Africa — having hunters as part of those conversations is so key to progress and change. It reminds me to always bravely communicate and deal with issues head on, before they become bigger issues.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

We have so many incredible travel stories on our website, and we’re always adding new itineraries and destinations to our roster that are inclusive of the wide spectrum of travel styles. Readers can follow along in real time via our Instagram, @niarratravel.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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