The grass was tall and dried to a golden crisp by the unforgiving summer sun, ready to be devoured by the hungry wildebeests and zebras soon to cross over during the Great Migration. We spotted hyenas by the dozen, watching in a mix of horror and admiration as these strange mammals famed for their shrill cackle fought viciously over a decapitated zebra and its prized, striped head, while the cubs feigned innocence as they rolled in the dirt.
We continued on, silent spectators to the many scenes of the Maasai Mara in our custom electric vehicle. The majestic mane of the king of the savannah waved in the wind as he napped atop a hill and his female counterparts kept watch from the nearby tall grass. Families of elephants playfully entangled their trunks on the plains, giraffes took refuge beneath the shade of acacia trees, and hippos bathed in the muddy river. Beyond the more sought-after creatures, we spotted smaller critters of the Mara too—lilac-breasted rollers’ brilliant feathers flitted through the sky and the small but mighty dung beetles rolled balls of dung over thrice their weight.
A hush fell over the car as we spotted a trio of cheetahs stalking their prey in the plains. After we watched them patiently advance towards their prey, we stretched our legs beneath the branches of an acacia tree while warm gold and tangerine-tinted hues spilled across the horizon. En route back to camp, the only sounds that slithered across the savannah were the rumble of dark clouds and the crack of lightning as a storm slowly started to roll in, harmonising with the rhythms of nature that emerged at nightfall. We were lulled into a trance by the crickets and insects echoing across the grasslands as we returned to Kenya’s first, fully carbon-neutral lodge, Emboo River.
I have been on countless safaris across East and Southern Africa and South Asia over the last decade, all of which have been inclusive of humbling wildlife sightings, curated camps, and an incredible immersion into breathtaking landscapes. Each one has also been accompanied by the deep, guttural sputtering of the safari vehicle’s engine every time it stops and starts, loudly announcing its presence in the savannah and emitting unwanted pollutants into the fresh air. Although riding in an open-top Land Cruiser is practically synonymous with a classic safari, it also clearly imprints one’s carbon footprint on the environment. For those still nostalgic for the classic safari experience, Emboo combines modern technology and innovation with old-school style and sentiment, its electric safari vehicles blending the best of both eras.
They took 1990’s Land Cruisers and updated them with electric engines, a transformation that seems obvious and yet remains novel among even some of the most environmentally-conscious safari camps. Emboo River is built on a foundation that sets it apart from the rest: It is the first carbon neutral safari camp in the Maasai Mara and Kenya as a whole. While its sun-powered, electric safari vehicles are one of the flashiest draws of Emboo, this element only scratches the surface of the camp’s impressive model, sustainable travel that rethinks and revolutionises its conceptualisation of sustainability.
One night, a few years back, Valery Super and Loic Amado exchanged frustrations and ideas over dinner in the Maasai Mara with William Partois Ole Santian, then manager of the camp they were staying at. As someone who has grown up and worked in the Mara, William holds grave concerns about its future. “I have witnessed the Maasai Mara change, especially during the last 15 years,” William commented. “This change is driven, amongst others, by environmentally unfavorable business approaches that have started mushrooming around the Maasai Mara, massive community land degradation, and rampant drought combined with excessive rains during unexpected times of the year.”
Over a conversation that extended well into the night, the three began imagining a safari camp that was radically different from the rest. “We talked for hours about this unique ecosystem, sustainability, and our frustrations regarding the status quo of the safari industry,” said Valery. “Guests want to see unique wildlife but when staying at these old lodges they negatively contribute to the ecosystem through polluting vehicles, solid waste, untreated wastewater leaking into the soil… The negative impact was enormous. Someone had to make a difference, so we did.”
Within a matter of months, that dinner conversation sparked the early workings of Emboo. The three of them found a beautiful space oozing with potential but in need of deep transformation. The property was overgrown, the rooms were damaged, and the vehicles were no longer operational. Immense hard work, innovation, and love were poured into the space over the next few months and on July 1, 2019, Emboo River welcomed its first guests.
Since its inception, these three masterminds of sustainability have fully committed to their goal of constructing a self-supporting system. They have taken meticulous measures to reduce their carbon footprint from the onset, rather than buy carbon credits, and as a result, they have created a conscious, action-oriented wildlife experience. “The vision of Emboo River is based on offering a fully sustainable and luxurious experience to our guests,” Valery elaborated. “For this reason, we decided to go all in on sustainability from the start. We were not looking for temporary solutions or going sustainable only bit by bit.”
To monitor their carbon emissions and achieve carbon neutrality, Emboo adopted a system that follows the three-tiered approach of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, a global standardised framework to measure GHG emissions. The first tier traces carbon emissions that are directly under an operation’s control; for Emboo, this is their safaris, which take place in electric vehicles that are charged with solar energy, meaning they emit no carbon emissions in this category. The second tier concentrates on their energy source, and since Emboo operates 100% off solar power, they emit zero carbon emissions in this scope.
Finally, the third tier addresses emissions that are out of Emboo’s direct control. This includes elements like food for the lodge and the transport of guests and products to the camp. Through Emboo’s detail-oriented approach, they have minimised their carbon emissions in this area. For example, they grow as much of their fresh food as they can and import dry goods in bulk to reduce fuel and plastic usage. And to offset the emissions they can’t avoid, Emboo has crafted a tree nursery, where guests plant indigenous trees—one if they traveled to Emboo by car, and two if they reached Emboo by plane. In order to ensure that they have offset their carbon emissions, Emboo has created their own carbon calculator that is tailor-made for an off-grid business in a remote location and takes into account factors like safari vehicles, generators, and trucks shipping in fresh water.
Beyond achieving carbon neutrality, William, Loic, and Valery are deeply passionate about reducing their impact and contributing to the holistic regeneration of the Mara’s ecosystem. The camp has been constructed to be as minimally invasive as possible, so that it blends into the natural environment. Each detail of the design and operations of the camp has been carefully executed with this intention in mind, so guests can enjoy an immersive wilderness experience without harming the environment. Afterall, “What’s more luxurious than a stay in the Maasai Mara that leaves nothing but a positive impact behind?” prompted Loic.
The camp’s wastewater is filtered in lush lagoons filled with local plants, naturally preventing the grey water from seeping into the local ecosystem. Cleaning products are non-toxic and sourced from Grounded, a women-run Kenyan company, and the swimming pool is filtered without chemicals. A “trash to treasure” ideology is also woven throughout details in Emboo. Food is cooked using biogas powered from food waste produced by the camp, drinking glasses are made from old wine bottles, and their lion-shaped key chains are made from old plastic by a community project in Mathare, an unofficial settlement in Nairobi. The camp is proudly plastic-free and uses reusable beeswax cloths to cover food and bamboo straws. One of Emboo’s latest additions is a vertical garden that expands both the diversity and quantity of fresh food they grow, from red spinach, lettuce, and kale to cauliflower and bok choy.
Beyond their dedication to respecting and preserving the natural environment, Emboo is deeply rooted in working alongside the local Maasai community. “Maasai culture has been the epitome of conservation of the Maasai Mara. Without the Maasai community it would have been impossible to still have this amazing ecosystem,” William, a Maasai himself, reflected. “My community is needed as conservationists, investors, and leaders for the restoration of the Maasai Mara, because we have a great passion for a greener and environmentally-balanced Maasai Mara, and we have a passion to drive and promote social economics now and for generations to come.”
Nods to Maasai tradition can be found in detail throughout Emboo. The tents and lounge are decorated with accents of colorful Maasai beadwork, made by women in the community; some of Emboo’s safari guides are Maasai women, an opportunity that empowers local women in non-traditional roles; and even the name itself has roots in Maasai culture. “Emboo” means “pride,”—like a pride of lions, a group, a community—in the Maasai language. “Our logo features our Emboo Pride or the constellation of Leo, which can be spotted from the camp at night. When guests stay with us, they become part of our Emboo River Pride,” William remarked.
The founders of Emboo are always looking towards the future and are constantly working to improve their existing model and share the knowledge they have acquired across Kenya and beyond. “Going sustainable is a learning process and there are always new innovations coming up that can help us to do even better,” commented Loic. “At Emboo River we offer a testing platform for new innovations… This has led to an ecosystem of technologies within Emboo River and supported by Ambo Ventures, an entrepreneurial platform and community at the forefront of Africa’s green revolution, which are together fighting climate change.”
Emboo’s work is set to play an even larger role in light of recent commitments the Kenyan government has made towards environmental policies. At the UN Climate Change Conference in November 2021, the Kenyan government outlined progressive requirements for operations in its national parks. A ban on single-use plastics and restoration of degraded areas are among the goals, while perhaps one of the loftiest goals is the restriction of vehicles that use fossil fuels and the requirement that cars rely 100% on renewable energy by 2030.
Whether it is your first safari or your twentieth, Emboo offers something unique for even the most experienced safari-goer. In between morning and afternoon game drives, unwind amidst the magical forest along the Talik River. Enjoy a fresh meal riverside, overlooking ravines where elephants and giraffes are often spotted grazing on the far side of the river. Take a refreshing dip in the chemical- and salt-free pool, dig deeper into the sustainability efforts on a tour of the camp, or pay a visit to the local Maasai community. Pass evenings around a crackling fire, where you may find yourselves joined by Maasai warriors who have come to share traditional singing and dancing. Sink into the stillness of the night, gaze up at the dark sky glimmering with stars, and bask in the luxurious simplicity of the untainted wild.
Also Read | Nyama Choma, Kenya’s Finest Cut