Henrietta Mwangola is Managing Director of Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge in Tsavo National Park, the first game lodge in Kenya. Many safari lodges in Kenya are run by men, so it is unusual to come across a woman who has held the role for over a decade.
She was born and raised in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa, a major tourist destination. At that time her uncle was the manager at Serena Beach Resort and her family often visited him at the hotel.
Mwangola’s smile and easy-going personality make every guest feel at home. Her interest in hospitality was sparked at an early age, although she originally wanted to be a chef.
“I applied to Kenya Utalii College but there were limited places in food production and I didn’t make it,” Mwangola said.
After high school, Mwangola studied food and beverage service at Utalii College. She then enrolled for a degree in Hospitality and Business Administration at Les Roches School of Hotel Management in Switzerland.
Her work has taken her to various establishments including Sopa Lodges, Mara Safari Club, Jacaranda Nairobi Hotel and Ritz Carlton Hotel in Michigan, USA.
Her career developed at the Serena Hotel Group. As of 2006, Mwangola served as Assistant Lodge Manager at Samburu, Tsavo and Ol Pejeta Serena lodges. Just three years later, she was promoted to lodge manager at Kilaguni Serena.
At first, Mwangola only wanted to work in city hotels. At one point, she even considered leaving the industry altogether. But after working in several national parks, she says, “I became familiar with lodges.”
Now she has a passion for the job, which is made even more fun by her extroverted nature.
“I like meeting people, interacting with them and making sure guests enjoy their stay,” she said.
She says managing the lodge has enhanced her knowledge and leadership skills. While a manager at a city hotel might focus on specific areas of running a hotel, “at the lodge you become a jack of all trades because you do everything and improve on areas where you are weak.”
Whether it’s first aid, fire safety and security, how the routers work or what the gas and fuel supplies are, the lodge manager needs to know everything.
She adds that a well-rounded lodge manager needs to have general knowledge, including information such as the names of wildlife or keeping up to date with global current affairs, politics or sporting events.
After 15 years in lodge management, there’s little she doesn’t understand. But, she says, “learning is every day, especially as technology advances.”
Being a female leader presents challenges, especially when a significant number of employees are from neighboring patriarchal communities.
“We have to respect each other and then the rest will take care of itself,” Mwangola says of her leadership style.
Clear communication, professional work ethics and compliance with established procedures, including on disciplinary matters, are essential.
“Also learn how to work with people from the local community without looking down on them.”
Lodge management means early mornings, late evenings and long periods without family.
“We miss city life and families because our kids can’t go to school here,” Mwangola said. She collects her days off and takes vacation time to be with her family.
When she started her career, there was no cell service and a bus ride to work could take a day.
“Now there is internet here. You can always reach people and it’s as good as being in a city,” she says.
Although more women now work at safari lodges than in the past, not many have risen to the rank of lodge manager.
“I would encourage women as it’s much better now, with good support systems and accessibility,” says Mwangola.