Rwandan-Canadian Charles Shima is deploying technology to create immersive cultural experiences for tourists in Africa. His dream? To build a unicorn in the travel sector.
Charles Shima was a young boy when he had a gun pointed at him at the height of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Luckily, he survived and was able to leave the country, which he loved, to tell his tale.
Destiny made him cross the high seas to the greener pastures of Canada, but little did he know he would return, almost 25 years later, and instead of being faced with just horrific memories, also see new hope in the East African country he once called home.
“I saw the changes that had happened in the country at that time and also the many opportunities you notice when you are in Africa. I had an ‘aha!’ moment and the idea was tourism and travel.”
This epiphany resulted in ZaNiheza, a travel marketplace for immersive experiences connecting travelers all over the world with verified local curators in Africa and beyond.
“I have always been passionate about the cultures of the world. I started building ZaNiheza as a tour operating company in Rwanda,” says Shima to FORBES AFRICA.
Shima fell in love with Africa again. The journey back home had unearthed a new passion to rebuild Rwanda with the goal of providing opportunities for the youth as well.
“When I arrived in Canada, there was a lot of bias towards Africans. I was no longer Charles Shima but just another black man. So, you have to basically fight for any opportunity you have. The success you have as a black person in Canada is only related to sports or music. And I thought ‘if someone can build a Microsoft, why not me; if Elon Musk can go to the moon, why not me?’ That made me feel if I ever built a company, it would have to change the world.”
ZaNiheza was launched in 2019 with the vision to change how the world experienced Africa. Shima was ready to start laying the foundation to build the next African unicorn until things went sideways. By March 2020, the Covid pandemic hit and the travel industry all over the world came to a complete standstill.
“We continued building this vision that goes beyond a tour operator company and my vision is global. So, I was thinking how can we bring the culture of Africa to the world and what we did was to build a global channel creating content and original shows about travel and [by] talking to the young women and men who are making a difference in Rwanda first,” says Shima.
Shima and his team continued to build bespoke travel packages in anticipation of the world reopening again for travel.
“We are in over seven countries in Africa and… on our way building the next unicorn in the travel sector. This is something that already exists in other countries like Europe etc, but when it comes to Africa there is no company that is really doing this.”
The company also has a presence in Vancouver, Canada, where they recently qualified for a startup competition that raised over $20,000 in funding for the business.
“What sets me apart is how we want to market Africa. It’s not just about wildlife. We need to go to the grassroots and then use the technology to make an impact. In Africa, your mindset has to change. You need to build from scratch and have the patience and drive and passion when everyone is going to say you are crazy. Seeing Africa through our eyes is my focus,” says Shima.
Shima says he has invested over $50,000 of his own money into the business which has gone into building the technology as well as creating the supply. The company is currently working with local travel curators in African countries. The young man from Rwanda has come far.