With all the heaviness a lot of us have been feeling – from the personal impact of the pandemic, work-related stress, family pressure and other issues, it is without a doubt that we all need a good break and deserve to spoil ourselves and loved ones with a little bit of a lovely break.
Louis Vuitton Owner, Bernard Arnault once said, in the luxury business, you have to build on heritage… and one woman who is doing just that is the owner of a safari-style boutique in the center of Cape Town, Ikhaya Lodge, Ruth Kamau.
Ruth Kamau has a breadth of experience in business and as an entrepreneur. Throughout her over 25 years of professional activity, she has covered the hospitality industry, food-related and healthcare industries. She has worked in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and New Zealand.
Ruth is managing director and co-owner of iKhaya Lodge & Conference Centre, a boutique guesthouse and conference venue in the heart of Cape Town City. She has managed this enterprise for 15 years, driving occupancy levels to average 70%, created systems and processes to ensure professionalism and consistency and leads an energised Pan-African team distinctive in the long tenure of the staff.
This has led to industry awards such as Western Cape Winner of South African Department of Tourism Lilizela Awards 2016 in the category and runners up in 2017, Travel Noire’s Top Ten Most Beautiful Black Owned Hotels in the World and top reviews on Booking.com and Trip Advisor.
Q. Through my engagement with you, I could sense your bubbly character and that you carry humility, and calm in your nature. Is this a true reflection of who Ruth is? How do people around you describe you?
Ha! This makes me smile. A promo plug for myself… if only. Well, I would hope they describe me as optimistic, compassionate, and good at identifying solutions. That I approach life with integrity, a sense of humour and grounded in faith, in God.
Q. August is Women’s Month in South Africa. There’s a general sense that Women’s month tends to be performative and when the month ends, and the spotlight is taken away, we as women continue to be faced with injustice. What are your thoughts on Women’s month’s celebrations in our country?
It’s a sad reality that in South Africa we’re in the throes of an epidemic of violence against women and the girl child. This may make celebrating Women’s Month seem performative, but if we ignored it altogether, it would relinquish whatever attention we get, to focus on issues pertaining to women, on a national platform. This would not be helpful. Perhaps what needs to be more evident, is a series of goals that need to be achieved over a twelve-month period, initiated in August, and celebrated twelve months later. And this would help to make Women’s Month a practical signpost.
Q. Through our Womenomics segments on the platform, we often talk about the importance of women being financially independent. Let’s rewind back to your childhood. Where did your drive to become an entrepreneur and be financially independent come from?
I grew up on a busy farm, and my parents did not draw distinctions on who did what amongst us children. As the farm evolved into a productive and profitable commercial endeavour, the transformation engaged my imagination as to what is possible, when one sets their mind on their goals. Both my parents were unafraid of pursuing their dreams, going beyond the farm into restaurants and dry cleaning. That they worked hard, and had long days, was part of this package, and from a young age I understood the importance of setting fear aside and embraced a solid work ethic. The rewards were well worth it and as a woman, the sense of walking solidly on the ground is simultaneously empowering and calming.
Q. With your family living in Kenya, and bringing up your children in Cape Town – how do you balance those family dynamics and how do you prioritise family time when business is demanding?
I am blessed to have fulfilled my dream of owning a boutique guest house complete with a conference venue. This was a childhood dream. That it manifested in arguably the most beautiful city in the world, has been a special gift. This has made living away from the magical country of my birth a bearable trade.
My family may be physically distant, but my parents brought us up as a close-knit unit, and with the marvels of technology today, we’re always in touch. It would’ve been an added joy to have my children interact with family more than has been possible but, my parenting style would not have been any different had we lived in Kenya. I enjoy being a present parent, and that meant treating the needs of my children with the same emphasis and urgency as my business. Their playdates, assemblies, doctors’ appointments, tent building in the lounge and aimless drives in this beautiful landscape, were diarised in the same way as my meetings with clients and staff. They are my greatest treasure and they needed to know that, and so be content in that knowledge, to also celebrate my achievements, as well as my plans.
Q. When did the bug for the hospitality industry bite? Why did you choose this industry?
I honestly believe I came fully smitten. I love people and take pleasure in being hospitable. My industrious parents loved to host family and friends and we were always cooking, fetching and carrying. The fun turned it into a dream of making a living out of it. My mother is a firm believer in monetising dreams. Choosing hospitality after a great stint in multinational corporations, seemed like a unique and yet seamless way to play to my strengths and live my dream.
Q. I understand you were brought up with an entrepreneurial mindset. What lessons did you learn at a young age that have kept you firm in business?
I learned that a fierce imagination is the bedrock of feisty dreams, and that it ignites the passion needed to make them come true. That fear is a false expectation; face it and keep moving forward determined to believe in a better outcome, because faith is the key. In all this, be prepared for a rollercoaster ride. Those incredible highs and belly upturning lows that will make you nauseous, and demand nerves of steel to keep pushing, keep doing those repetitive tasks with meticulous attention to enable you to forgive yourself when you miss something that ends up costing you more than you expected.
My parents started the farm together, and I took on iKhaya with my brother who is a silent partner. It cannot be gainsaid that having a ‘safe’ place to bounce ideas and occasionally shore up support, is invaluable for any entrepreneur. Then, after all is said and done, make sure it’s fun most of the time. If it’s not, then why do it? And never, ever forget to be grateful.
Q. Talking about standing strong in business, the pandemic has wracked so many industries – the hospitality and tourism sector is one that took the biggest knock. Ikhaya Lodge is still running today – how did you manage to stay afloat throughout the pandemic?
Honestly, once the pandemic is behind us and we are still running, only then can I exhale. At the moment we’re still in it. Yes, we’re open to receive guests, functions, and conferences whenever possible, but it’s the hardest time yet. However, iKhaya has always been a faith walk for me, and so turning to my faith to keep focused and optimistic, was instinctive. I am also blessed with a wonderful team who are committed to iKhaya. We prayed for the business together before and still do, especially now. The operational principle was always to run a lean machine, and that has paid dividends, not least in how fluid the team is at multitasking and rethinking how we do what we do. In the midst of this, there is a network of suppliers and clients that are part of the balancing act of staying open. Everyone is doing what they can, where they can.
Q. Across different industries, women representation remains quite low. How does this dynamic play out in your industry? Are we seeing an improvement of women occupying positions as key industry players?
Amongst guest house owners it seems fairly evenly split. Many guest houses are owned by a couple and some solely by a woman, such as myself. In the mainstream properties, there is an increasing number of female general managers and senior managers, but not in the majority. It is an industry that requires long hours and working weekends which cancels out many women keen to establish a family. The hospitality associations have better representation though, with many women in senior roles and it may even be a fair split.
Q. You’ve had the privilege of working across different countries – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and New Zealand. Can you talk us through what you exactly did and what you appreciated the most about the cultural experiences of working in these countries?
I studied towards a Business Administration for undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and I have been incredibly fortunate to do the work I studied for, and that in some of the best multinationals, handling great brands. I started off as a brand manager for Kiwi Brands in Kenya, breaking new ground in establishing joint ventures for The NutraSweet Company with partners such as Dangote in Nigeria, and similar partners in other Sub Saharan African countries. I went on to do more of the same in New Zealand working in product development and spearheading product launches there and in Australia. Throughout, my work required travel on the African Continent, Europe and America, to meet with regulatory support, legal counsel, product development and logistics and business partners. It was enormous fun. It made the world seem very accessible to me, and this perhaps is the greatest gift of that time, for me.
Q. You are also an award-winning playwright and novelist; how do you marry your talents and interests together in your business?
My work is left brain time and writing is all right brain. I love daydreaming and words just seem to appear in my mind’s eye and I’m compelled to write. I feel almost cheeky when I write, like I’m eavesdropping on another world where vibrant lives exist. It’s an effortless escape for me and after talking and doing work all day, I love the solitude of writing, even though in the mind, it’s far from quiet, and I’m involved with people all over again. That makes it work.
Q. What are your plans, personally and in business?
Hmm… On both, to hold on to my dreams. That is definitely the plan. To make living my best life, a dedicated pursuit. To grow in self-awareness and remain connected to loved ones. In business, to evolve in ways that keep me connected to the pulse of what is happening around me, and somehow continue to make it a joyful reward. The overall has been to leave this in the masterful care of The Divine. My trust in God is what grounds me.
For more information on iKhaya Lodge, visit www.ikhayalodge.co.za