When he left Rwanda as a boy in 1994 – the year of the country’s genocide that killed as many as 1 million people – Charles Shima vowed he would never return.
He’d been stopped at a checkpoint, forced to his knees. He feared he might be killed.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘If I survive this, if I’m not killed today, I’m out of Rwanda and I’m not coming back.’ It’s just what I said to myself.”
With his older brother, the 16-year-old orphan made his way to Kenya and, ultimately, to Canada, where he completed his education and took up accounting, his late father’s trade. Family business called him back to the country 24 years later. He didn’t want to go.
ZaNiheza founder and CEO Charles Shima
“I was very scared to go,” he recalled over a video call from his home in Vancouver. “Very, very, very scared.”
Returning changed his life – as well as his world view.
“I only had 10 days. I was seeing how Rwanda had evolved and developed,” he said in English accented by the British school in Kenya where he learned the language. “I saw it with my own eyes. Mostly, I saw the potential of the youth. Something really touched me.
“I tried to see if I could see the country again as a local. I remember things I used to love when I was there as a child. I was looking for local, immersive experiences. I was searching online, and I really couldn’t find what I was looking for. The idea really grew from there.”
“The idea” became ZaNiheza, a travel marketplace for immersive experiences that connects travelers with verified local curators in Africa and other developing countries.
“I didn’t understand then what I was thinking,” Shima said of his first return to Rwanda, “but when I came back I started to do research. I think everything in life is something like destiny. Something is guiding you.”
Today, after being named one of British Columbia’s top 20 startups in 2021, ZaNiheza offers the kinds of immersive tours and activities in countries like Morocco, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa that Shima couldn’t find on his return to the continent. The CEO and founder spoke with PhocusWire about the company and his hopes to show the world a side of Africa few travelers see. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
ZaNiheza is a beautiful name. What’s the story behind it?
ZaNiheza is a combination of three words [from Kinyarwanda, the official Rwandan language]. “Welcome” and “It’s beautiful.” We like to say at ZaNiheza it’s not a tour, it’s an experience. The experience starts from when a traveler gets in touch with ZaNiheza. It’s a video-driven digital mall. We can do more in fulfilling the vision of providing an immersive experience for the traveler, from when they book with us until they go to the country.
You have said you wish to dispel misconceptions about Africa. Tell us what you mean.
In North America, the image most of us have of a place like Rwanda is a country ravaged by war. It’s stuck in our mind. Therefore, we have this fear. But Rwanda is a beautiful country. The beauty starts from when you log into our platform by showing you images, content, of where you are going, what you will be eating, what you will experience. We are focusing beyond the safari, beyond the wildlife. Because the beauty to me is what connects us to the human nature. It really stays with you.
Being from Africa, you have also experienced misconceptions about what your life was like, haven’t you?
The Africa people [think they] know is not the Africa in Rwanda and Congo that I grew up in. Life was normal. I didn’t grow up in a hut. My dad was an accountant. [He] was one of the first in the country to have a Mac. We had a computer in my house in 1986. He brought this machine into the house. He put it on a desk. He said, “Charles, this machine is going to change the world.” That’s where my love for computers was born. We bonded on that. He used to show me the numbers on the screen. When he was in a good mood, he would let us [Shima and his older brother] play Pac-Man. We had to behave to play Pac-Man. From our point of view, life is normal. We were just another regular family, in my point of view. We’ve had some really unfortunate events, more than other countries, but everything else [about his childhood feels] normal.
That was before your father died, when you were 13, and the Rwandan Civil War began not long after that, followed by the genocide in 1994. Almost 30 years have passed. What do you want people to see today?
If you want to go to Rwanda, what you will think of is the hospitality of the people, the food you eat. It’s not the imagery of what was happening in 1994; it’s how they rebuilt the country. It’s modern. It’s clean. They have this growing coffee shop culture everywhere in the city. I like to focus on cities. Rwanda has now what they call [a pedestrian-only] zone where they have no cars. The streets are blocked and you can take beautiful pictures as you shop while you walk. You see the palm trees and wonder, “Am I in Miami? Where am I?” I’m working hard on finding these unique, amazing experiences that you would not see otherwise. We have the technology to bring those amazing experiences online.
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What is your 30-second pitch to investors?
ZaNiheza is a video-driven digital mall for travel in Africa and beyond. We are connecting travelers with very fine local curators.
How difficult has it been to attract investment?
[Shima smiled.] I’m sure you are aware of the challenge faced by Black founders. The statistics show that we are highly, highly underfunded. That’s the reality you have to deal with. Unfortunately, my timing [ZaNiheza launched in the months prior to COVID-19] was really interesting. No one planned on the pandemic. It’s very challenging. We have to remember why we started this and keep going.
A year from now, what state do you think your startup will be in?
ZaNiheza has evolved. The vision has always been there, but there’s a way everything comes together. Moving forward, this is the way we’re going to be viewed: a digital travel mall that’s going to focus on providing immersive experiences in Africa. You can imagine the potential within that realm. A year from now, I foresee we’ve raised money [he laughed] and more travelers will use our booking platform.
What is your endgame (going public, acquisition, growing and staying private, etc.)?
I have always had an exit in mind, and that’s going public, in about 10 years or so. Another thing I like to envision is creating wealth for the underserved. A startup can be a good vehicle to do that. You bring in investors today, the magic happens when we go public.
Most interviews about new businesses end here, but you have larger hopes, don’t you? Can you speak about your ambitions to raise awareness about Africa?
Travelers who have never been to the continent of Africa, they are missing out. Until everyone makes their way there, I will keep preaching this. Even I am amazed at the experiences I am discovering. There are 700 million people who travel for culturally infused experiences, but they don’t go to Africa. So you see the work we have to do. Africa is 54 counties. I’ve been looking at the tourism boards in Africa, and they are kind of lacking in how they promote their countries. I can maybe name three countries that have developed their tourism board in terms of websites and attractions and everything. The rest is dark. And that’s where lies the opportunity.