“Do you know there is a tree that smells exactly like Rooibos Tea? These are the kinds of things you discover when you travel with visually impaired travellers through the Kruger National Park.”
Sertorio Mshotholo, owner Ntwanano Safaris, explains that interacting with the blind has made him realise that “although I have eyes, I do not always see what is around me”.
Ntwanano Safaris was the runner-up winner in the highly successful Jurni Gem Competition. The company received just short of 1 000 votes from the public in South Africa, who voted that Ntwanano Safaris was a truly exceptional and unique tourism SME.
Sertorio started Ntwanano Safaris in 2000. “I love to interact with people and be out in nature,” he says. “That is why I decided to launch my tourism business together with my wife Marlene.”
It wasn’t easy to break into this highly competitive tourism market around the Kruger National Park. However, in 2003, Sertorio discovered a niche market about which he was genuinely passionate. He started developing specialised tours for the visually impaired and blind travellers.
Sertorio explains he grew up in the more impoverished neighbourhoods of Soweto. He often saw how people with disabilities, especially the mentally ill, were isolated, abused and rejected. Sertorio decided he wanted to make a difference for the people he had seen struggling. He started incorporating accessible tours in his business and dedicated a particular focus on people who are blind and visually impaired as well as people who are deaf. He takes all his travellers on a journey to explore the senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and spatial awareness.
As part of the company’s social-economic upliftment initiative, Sertorio recruited two highly proficient sign language interpreters from neighbouring communities to help with hearing impaired guests
Says Sertorio: “In Xitsonga language, which is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, the word “NTWANANO” means “Unity or Togetherness”. We aim to bring people from all walks of life together to experience Africa’s rich cultural heritage.”
We sat down with Sertorio to chat about his business and his love for tourism:
What challenges did you encounter when you started your business in tourism?
It was quite challenging to find the funds to start a business. Even further down the line, lack of funds to participate in trade shows is an obstacle. Trade shows are crucial to growing your business, but they are expensive. You need to take into consideration the cost of travel, accommodation, securing a stand, and producing marketing collaterals, among others. On this note, it is important to mention that South African Tourism and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks and Agency, have over the years, supported our company to access marketing platforms both domestic and international.
Another challenge is that it is hard for emerging entrepreneurs to access a tourism market that is dominated by big tourism operators.
What is some of the advice you would like to share with starting tour operators in the region?
My top advice is to be hands-on and available for the business at all time.
It’s also essential to master all business skills from human resource management to financial discipline and to understand the rigours of information technology.
A few more tips are:
Know the laws that govern the industry and be ready to abide by them. Remember that short cuts can be detrimental to your business.
Never try to be a jack-of-all-trades. Seek specialist support and focus on managing the business.
Be part of industry associations.
What is the one thing you wish you had known when you started this business? Would you do anything differently?
I wish I had learnt the skills on how to run business in general.
How important is technology to build and promote your tourism business?
It is imperative. There is very little that one can do without mastering technology. You need technology for communicating timely with potential clients and for marketing your business.
What do you love the most about South Africa and your region?
The people. South Africans are very welcoming.
In my region, I love the diverse tourism offerings Mpumalanga offers.
Jurni Gem winners such as Micro-Adventure Tours and Ntwanano Safaris embody what South Africa’s tourism industry is about: passionate people connecting their region and culture with travellers from across the world. These are the words of Jurni CEO Dr Nomvuselelo Songelwa.
“The Jurni platforms, including a new SME booking tool and a new Visitor App & Information Portal, will put Jurni Gems like Micro-Adventure Tours and Ntwanano Tours & Travel on the tourism map. These solutions will make it easier for travellers around the world to connect with our proudly South African hidden tourism gems.”