RUHENGERI, Rwanda - Most people who want to invest internationally might consider India or China. Instead, Denver businessman Gaylord Layton decided to put money into a small African country with a history of violence and poverty.
He built a luxury lodge on a volcano in Rwanda and says it’s one of his proudest accomplishments.
The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is built in the shadow of Mount Sabyinyo in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
Sabyinyo is the oldest of the eight major volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains. If you step outside into the dewy air at the lodge, it’s almost as if you can hear all of Africa. The sounds of villagers, livestock, and wildlife echo through this volcanic valley.
The Virunga volcanoes are home to the rare and famous Mountain Gorillas. Tourists come from all over the world to spend time with the fascinating creatures, but might not spend as much time with the local people.
The villagers here are often shy, but mostly just busy. Living off the land is hard work. They’re now reaping more reward for their toil, after their country’s president invited Layton to come visit Rwanda.
“The idea of me going to a country and actually doing something, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s strange.’ I went anyway, and once I got there I just fell in love with the country,” said Layton.
Layton is the president of investment firm Tayside Associates LLC. He had never considered Rwanda a good place for money, until he saw it with his own eyes a few years ago.
“So we went up and I went ‘Oh my gosh, I have never seen such a beautiful piece of land like this,’” said Layton. He decided to build a 5-star luxury safari lodge right there.
“It’s a place where Rwanda can show off what it’s got, it’s natural beauty,” said Layton.
Layton partnered with the Governor’s Camp safari company and the African Wildlife Foundation to build and manage the Silverback Lodge.
It officially opened in January and is now bringing two extremes together. Land owned by some of the world’s poorest people is now a vacation spot for some of the richest.
“One of the best parts of this is that it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Layton.
Guests at the lodge pay up to $600 per person per night. In another five years, Layton will get his principal back and some profit. Then, he’s out.
“I did not want to be a land barren or a businessman forever in Africa. My purpose there was to help,” said Layton.
It was important to him to build a business model other entrepreneurs could follow. The lodge brings jobs and buyers to the local community.
“They’re selling their crops in the hotel. They’re selling milk and eggs in the hotel, which is bringing some good incomes,” said Fidele Habarurera through an interpreter.
Habarurera is chairman of the community trust that owns the land and will get a percentage of the lodge’s profits. The trust, called SACOLA, also gets a $50 per night fee from each guest.
When rooms are fully booked, the trust is expected to get up to $150,000 each year. The money is already being used for water projects and education, including teaching the community better health and conservation practices.
“This is a real model of how community and business can work together,” said Layton.
While tourists get a fabulous place to stay, the community members are getting better lives. In the shadow of Mount Sabyinyo, a global partnership is a new ray of hope. It’s what Layton intends to be an example for all of Africa.