- Food & Drink
- Design & Culture
- Cars, Jets & Yachts
Grace Uwingeneye tells Elite Traveler about blending guest experiences with vital conservation efforts.
By Kim Ayling | March 8 2021
Sat on the outskirts of Nyungwe National Park – one of the last mountain rainforest habitats in the world – in the southwest of Rwanda, One&Only Nyungwe House has been welcoming guests to visit this unspoiled part of the world since 2017.
While the resort itself is invitingly luxurious and beautifully designed, it is the immersive experiences and itineraries in the nearby national park that attracts visitors. The park is home to a large number of wildlife species, including 20% of Africa’s ape species, and as part of its extensive programming, Nyungwe House offers expert-led Rwandan safaris allowing guests to witness these rare species in person.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are putting a spotlight on women doing amazing work in the luxury realm. One such woman is Grace Uwingeneye, who is a guest experience guide at One&Only Nyungwe House, Rwanda. In this role, Grace is responsible not only for creating magical and immersive guests for hotel guides but also for working directly with the local environment and communities on conservation projects.
Grace has called Rwanda home her whole life, having been born in Rulindo, in the country’s northern province. After spending summers working for non-governmental organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Grace headed to the University of Rwanda to study Zoology and Conservation and upon completing her studies began a role at Nyungwe National Park as a primate research assistant.
Now, Grace applies the knowledge gained throughout her career in her role at One&Only, where she has been involved in several amazing projects including supporting former poachers and working directly with local schools to teach children about the importance of conservation. Another key element of Grace’s position is ensuring that the experiences she creates for guests actively immerse them in conservation projects, show the importance of protecting and preserving the Rwandan landscapes and encourages relationships with local communities.
We spoke to Grace to find out more about her role, One&Only’s commitments to sustainability and what guests can expect when they next visit Nyungwe House.
What first attracted you to a role with One&Only?
I wanted to find a career where I could continue sharing my experience and knowledge about nature and the Rwandan wildlife. I’m inspired by wildlife protection, living in nature and ways of increasing knowledgeable skills about animal conservation. I was also attracted to opportunities where I could support local communities, which is of the utmost importance to us at One&Only Nyungwe House.
What has been the highlight in your career as a guest experience guide?
The lifechanging encounters with the various primates of Nyungwe Forest, such as the chimpanzees and monkeys; the conservation talks; captivating stories about our country; leading activities in the Volcanoes and Akagera National Parks; introducing guests to the rich biodiversity of Rwanda, birding and inviting guests to participate in various conservation projects such as planting trees are just some of the highlights.
I really enjoy nature-based experiences including educating guests on our local plants, from discussing their traditional uses in medicine to showcasing the entire tea process from harvesting the leaves to preparing a cup of tea.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to creating authentic, immersive guest experiences?
Our guests always wish they had more time for all the activities in Rwanda. Guests who stay at One&Only Nyungwe House want to experience the best of Rwanda and learn about the history, culture and people – all in addition to chimpanzee or gorilla trekking.
As an example, our itineraries introduce guests to our culture of archery and spear throwing and tell the tales of our ancient warriors; educate on Rwandan conservation efforts; include a visit to the Gisakura community; explore the countryside to learn about our nickname (Little Switzerland); tour Lake Kivu and trek to see the gorillas or chimpanzees.
Do you think that guest expectations will have changed following the pandemic?
Rwanda is often a bucket list destination for travellers and a trip to visit One&Only Nyungwe House is planned far in advance. As consumers have not been able to travel at all over the past year, I think their expectations and excitement level will be very high. After a long year of concerns about their health and safety, I believe guests will want to enjoy special experiences and create memories while appreciating the true delights of travel.
In your opinion, how could guests who visit One&Only Nyungwe House and its surrounding national parks do more to protect the natural environment?
We invite guests to participate alongside us in Umuganda – a nationwide initiative in Rwanda in which locals spend the last Saturday morning of every month working in the local community, giving back in some way, from developing infrastructure to environmental protection. Past guests have helped the community in maintaining the roads, building schools or helping to conserve local flora and fauna. Any guest who has been able to participate has loved this experience.
Using recycled water bottles is one easy way to help decrease waste in our beautiful natural parks while trekking. At One&Only Nyungwe House we provide a complimentary water bottle for our guests to help eliminate plastic waste. Finally, we have introduced a memorable tree planting experience where guests have the opportunity to plant a tree on the day of their departure which will bear their name.
Is OONH making any additional effort to limit its own impact on the environment?
Together with One&Only Nyungwe House, we are currently working with a community of former poachers in Nyungwe National Park to teach them lessons on sustainability. These efforts are improving their livelihoods as they now create hiking trails in the park.
We are also teaching the community how to grow edible mushrooms as an alternative to bushmeat. Plus, we have started a mentorship program to teach children in school about conservation. This involves working with clubs in schools to start conversations about conservation, teach the importance of Nyungwe National Park and share what my career as a conservationist involves. Additionally, I am working closely with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on better conserving and sharing information about the rich biodiversity in Nyungwe National Park.
It was during your time working for non-governmental organizations that your passion for protecting Rwanda’s environment and communities was ignited. Could you tell me more about these organizations and what you learned from them?
During my internship at CoEB (Centre of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resources Management) located at the University of Rwanda, I learned about conservation and sustainability. I studied the protected areas of reserved forests and rare and endemic species in the mountainous region of the Albertine Rift Valley.
At the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) I learned about Phenology, bird’s species identification and ringing and attended training organized by the Rwanda Development Board, Rwanda Chamber of Tourism in partnership with GIZ. Once I started my university, I continued to work for NGOs such as Never Again Rwanda, Pro-femme Twesehamwe. Working with these NGOs helped me to learn and grow professionally, but also helped in developing my skills, such as improving my English.
Your role at One&Only Nyungwe House goes further than just creating guest experiences, and you are actively working within the local community. What do you think is the most meaningful initiative you have implemented in this area?
Our Guest Experiences team is focused on community awareness and the protection of the natural environment through community involvement. Our objective is to involve the community, especially the local population surrounding and living in close proximity to One&Only Nyungwe House, in the conservation of biodiversity.
This is one way to control poaching, woodcutting, overharvesting the forest and other illegal activities. In fact, I’m already supporting the local community of Nyungwe from South-East/Kitabi /Nyamagabe. I am passionate about protecting our natural environment and my work with rehabilitating former poachers and helping them move away from poaching towards other sustainable ways of living.
The ex-poachers supported by the resort have changed their approach towards environmental conservation. The mushroom farming project we introduced helps them sustain their families financially. We would also like to involve the younger generations in conservation which is why I visit the local community schools.
Are there any exciting new experiences that OONH guests can look forward to when they begin to travel again?
One&Only Nyungwe House has introduced an exciting yoga experience in the serenity of the jungle under the tree canopy followed by a chakra balancing and tea presentation at the One&Only Spa. For adventurous guests, experience the rainforest from a dazzling new perspective – on the famous Canopy Walkway. The only walkway of its kind in East Africa, this breath-taking construction hangs 60 meters above the forest floor between giant trees and towers, revealing a stunning view of the flora and fauna, both below and above.
Another unique experience would be a day trip to see the King’s Palace at our local cultural village and visit the traditional healer. Finally, guests are able to enjoy the best view of Lake Kivu and see Idjwi Island across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
If each guest could take away just one lesson from their stay at OONH, what would you want it to be?
For me, the everlasting memory for every guest who visits One&Only Nyungwe House is seeing first-hand how conservation, community awareness and wildlife protection can work together to protect nature, especially the Nyungwe rainforest while increasing knowledge and awareness about animal conservation.