Maria Baryamujura

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Maria Baryamujura's work was prepared when Maria Baryamujura was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


Maria Baryamujura is developing community-based tourism that allows people to use their culture and livelihoods to benefit from tourism, create sustainable rural lifestyles, and expand tourism offerings to capitalize on the growing sector in Uganda.

The New Idea

Maria is combating urban migration by helping rural households and communities in Uganda to reap economic rewards from tourism. Her organization, Community-Based Tourism Initiatives (COBATI), is changing traditional perceptions of what constitutes tourism by turning various aspects of rural cultures and livelihoods into tourist attractions and creating income-generating activities for rural people. She is helping a group of households to provide tourists with services and tourism experiences beyond conventional offerings such as wildlife viewing.

These household enterprises form the basis for infrastructure development and other government services, providing incentive for people to stay in rural areas. She creates a new understanding of tourism among tourists, rural communities, tour operators, and local government officials; growing perceptions beyond the traditional wild game and bird viewing in national parks and exotic hotels to include domestic tourism that focuses on people and their cultures.

To tap into the increased tourist traffic that accrues from this new definition of tourism, she organizes rural communities into a network of viable and sustainable community-based tourism enterprises as competent service providers. She then turns these successful community based enterprises into role models for other households and community groups to transform their homesteads and livelihoods into income generating ventures.

The Problem

Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, over 80 percent of Ugandans live in rural areas. Primarily subsistence farmers, they are largely dependent on land to grow food for home consumption. Without an adequate understanding of modern economics, they sell very little of their produce for extra income. Rural farms have seen their agricultural output dwindle over the last decade. High populations and high birth rates coupled with low farm output render subsistence agriculture an unsustainable livelihood. The result has been regular migration of people from rural areas to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities. While experts in agriculture have advocated for value addition to agricultural produce from rural areas and diversification of livelihoods, very few people in rural areas have the necessary skills to carry out such ventures.Until the 1970s Uganda had a booming tourism industry. Once a preferred tourist destination in East Africa, Uganda saw a sharp decline in tourist traffic during the period of political upheaval between 1970 and 1986. In an effort to revive the industry in 1986, the government focused on increasing tourist traffic to the country’s national parks. Government also concentrated on attracting foreign investors to set up state-of-the-art infrastructure to provide services to foreign tourists. Investment in tourism has become an expensive venture.

This narrow definition of tourism, primarily foreign tourists visiting national parks for animal and bird viewing, has excluded many local people from benefiting and participating in the industry. Rural communities without the financial might to invest in the sector do not share the economic profit from the national parks in their backyards. Instead, the profits have been repatriated back to the city by private investors. As a result, communities living around potential tourist destinations in rural areas have become resigned to the impossibility of making a living from tourism. They now brand it an activity for the rich only.Uganda government’s strategy to revamp the tourism industry has met with nominal success.

In 2005 the government launched a national campaign to improve the country’s profile in a bid to attract more tourists and investors. The “Gifted by Nature” campaign targeted the international audience by running commercials on CNN. While tourism is acknowledged as the fastest growing sector in the country today, attracting an increasing number of tourists each year and bringing in added stimulation to the economy, there were significant omissions in the campaign. Very little was done to promote rural areas—where almost all national parks are located—their people, their cultures, and hundreds of historical sites and geographical attractions around the country. On the contrary, trends in the industry show that tourists are now more interested in experiences beyond wildlife; they want to experience indigenous cultures, lifestyles and meet indigenous people in their local settings.The success of the government’s marketing campaign had yet another paradoxical result.

The increased tourist traffic led to increased migration from rural areas into towns and major cities. People wanted to take a share of the economic activity in towns. The mix of Western and indigenous cultures has been interpreted as erosion of indigenous culture. Rural populations blame this “cultural erosion” on tourism and continue distancing themselves and their homesteads from the industry.

The Strategy

Maria’s approach is to localize the tourism industry. By first re-defining the meaning of tourism—to include cultures and unpromoted tourist attractions—she is opening up more opportunities for rural communities to participate in the lucrative tourism industry. To benefit from the new opportunities, she organizes sustainable community-based tourism enterprises within the community that provide tourists with cultural experiences. Finally, she turns these enterprises into role models for other households and communities to turn their own livelihoods and settings into viable tourist attractions.Maria starts by helping households claim a space for themselves in the industry. She defines a tourist as a person leaving their home for 24 hours or more who will need food and accommodation.

This broad definition allows even households in the remotest of areas to serve tourists. Using a comprehensive curriculum designed for rural communities, she passes on this interpretation of tourism to communities and provides participants with tips on how to share their hobbies, lifestyles, and cultures with tourists in a manner that will earn incomes for them. The curriculum will help rural communities to identify the income potential of their livelihoods and other unique features, how to organize them into attractions, and how to provide service to tourists. Local people identify their own tourist attractions and local opportunities to participate in the industry. Having identified their own potential tourist attractions and local opportunities, Maria takes on the role of a mentor to the households or community groups. She helps them transform these opportunities into products and services and equips them with skills to run viable enterprises. The end result is a network of cleaner, more organized homesteads and more entrepreneurial home owners strategically positioned to provide hospitality services to tourists.

She has developed ten sites in one district to demonstrate her model and hopes to set up a network of homesteads to provide tourists with high-quality hospitality services along the tourist circuit of southwestern Uganda leading to seven of the ten national parks. Using the extensive connections she has developed over 20 years in the field, Maria has convinced top tour operators in Kampala to add community-based tourism packages to their list of products. Also very keen on promoting domestic tourism, she is seeding a generation of young enthusiasts in the field. COBATI is developing packages for primary and secondary schools to visit communities, households and un-promoted tourist attractions. She is also working on a book for Ugandan children educating them about the physical attractions and livelihoods in various parts of the country.Promotion of other physical features outside national parks and wildlife protected areas is one of COBATI’s main objectives, as most of them are located in areas suitable for community based tourism.

Maria has engaged the media in not only spreading her word about community-based tourism, but also to market such marginalized features. Her preferred media is community radio which airs programs designed for rural communities in their local languages. She has been hosted on numerous talk shows and is a frequent contributor to newspapers about the emerging field. She is working to launch a handbook on unpromoted tourist attractions. Maria leverages the success of community enterprises to promote wider community engagement in tourism. Each enterprise opens opportunities for community members to provide products and services to tourists. In the trading process, the households become role models for potential community service providers.

As a starting point, Maria targets communities that are situated along the main tourist circuit in southwestern Uganda that leads to seven of the ten national parks in the country. With the highest tourist traffic this route provides a reliable flow of tourists. After proving the viability of her model to improve rural communities, she hopes to spread it to other parts of the country. Maria is also very cognizant of the danger of commercializing community-based tourism which may lead to monopolies in the field. At every step, she ensures that the services and products remain in the hands of local people. While developing household community operators, she has engaged the district authorities as regulators and quality controllers as well as fundraisers for the sprouting initiatives. This division of tasks has given rural people the power to lobby for government services and infrastructure through the district.

The Person

In 1971 Maria Baryamujura was one of two students selected to travel with her high school teaching staff to Queen Elizabeth National Park in South Western Uganda, in recognition of her creativity as a library prefect. She had never seen such scenic beauty as the convoy drove along Uganda’s main tourist circuit. Thirty four years later she still clearly remembers the tea estates, the picnics on the escarpments overlooking crater lakes, and the amazing landscape of the great East African Rift Valley.

The diner at the lodge was always full to capacity as Uganda’s tourism industry was at its peak at the time. At dinner, Maria, her fellow student and the waitresses were the only Ugandans in the hall. The rest were tourists from Europe, Americas and Asia. Maria started thinking about the communities living along the main tourist circuit and envisioned the different ways they could participate in tourism. This would be the beginning of a lifelong passion and commitment to community tourism.Maria was born in Mbarara in southwestern Uganda. At top of her class and a high school student leader, her life was poised to be a remarkable success until 1976. As a young pregnant mother of three, she witnessed the brutal killing of her husband during the civil war. Plunged into the world of single parenthood, Maria would become a jack of all trades to survive. She has been a dairy farmer, church warden, travel agent, radio talk show host, motivational speaker, tourism consultant and airline representative, and has run a series of retail businesses.

The horrific civil war period between 1976 and 1985—Maria twice lost all her earthly possessions in the wars—would not break Maria’s childhood ambition to succeed. In 1989 she opened Safari Seekers Tours and Travel to provide tourists opportunities to interact with rural people and experience cultures. Her business acumen enabled her to rise to the top of the tourism industry between 1990 and 1996, serving as country representative for Zambia Airways and country sales agent for Royal Swazi Airlines and Cameroon Airlines. She served as the only woman board member on the Uganda Tourist Development Cooperation board. Her excellent record on the board would leave her as the only board member to pass a commission of inquiry and her records helped form the Uganda Tourist Board which currently oversees all tourism activities in the country.Maria is a strong leader with a natural ability to connect with people.

Her success as an entrepreneur and single mother has won her numerous awards. In 2001 she was recognized as a role model widow by Relate Magazine, a leading family magazine. She also initiated a radio talk show, “Self Discovery”, a self-empowerment and motivation program which provides space to people to deal with a cross section of issues affecting the lives of ordinary people.