A Leg Up for Kilimanjaro's Porters

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Written by  November 29, 2018

Operating on a shoestring budget, this non-profit is working to improve conditions for porters in Tanzania.

As an American, I admittedly knew little to nothing about Mt. Kilimanjaro before living in Tanzania. Now, having successfully summited in 2016, I can tell you it truly will change your perspective of the world—literally and figuratively. 

With roughly three porters per climber, plus additional cooks, guides and specialty crew, moving mobile camps up the mountain is a massive operation. Yet, they make it look effortless. While it was my mental and physical determination that helped me get to the top, none of it would have been possible without the logistical and emotional support of my crew.

Unfortunately, the majority of Tanzania’s porters will experience exploitation and mistreatment, including being inadequately fed and forced to carry overweight bags. Regulations for working conditions do exist, but they’re rarely monitored or enforced. The pay isn’t much better. Despite a 2009 government decree that porters should be paid a minimum of $10 per day, surveys indicate pay continues to be closer to $6 per day.

In a country where 12 million people earn less than $0.60 per day, it’s still employment that no one would turn down.

But in a country where 12 million people earn less than $0.60 per day, it’s still employment that no one would turn down.

The situation only worsened in 2016, when the Tanzanian government implemented an abrupt 18 per cent increase in taxes. Although it meant an increase in national parks funding, it came with an unintended consequence—already-slim profit margins were reduced and, as a result, porters' work conditions and salaries suffered.

Fortunately, through the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), climbers can verify which companies offer ethical climbs. KPAP is the only monitoring and compliance organization of its kind to ensure fair treatment of porters and crew.

Investigative porters

Led by American Karen Valenti, KPAP is a non-profit initiative of the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC). Living in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, Valenti has dedicated the last 14 years to this cause and community. With a shoestring budget, she and her team ensure tour companies adhere to best practices, while educating and advocating for the ethical treatment of porters.

"The local companies participating voluntarily allow each climb to be scrutinized by KPAP," explains Valenti.

KPAP does this through its team of 80 specially trained "investigative porters." Each partner company agrees to have an investigative porter on every climb and the porter receives their salary and tips from that climb. The investigative porters monitor the climb conditions, including ensuring the crew members receive three meals per day, that bag weight doesn’t exceed limitations, and that proper equipment is provided.

The non-profit has also implemented several education, health and training programs, to improve the quality of life for porters and their families. For example, KPAP’s lending program allows porters to borrow climb gear at no cost.

In Tanzania, where the safari and mountain industry provides the main source of economic security for thousands of people and their families in the region, this work is much needed.

"Climbing with a KPAP partner company is to raise the voices of the hardworking people who cannot speak for themselves," says Aziz Msuya, director of Trek2Kili, which is one of the 35 local companies currently partnered with KPAP.

Through their partners, KPAP currently represents the working rights and conditions of 7,000 porters on the mountain. However, while all local operators are openly invited to participate in this free, voluntary certification, as few as 12 per cent of operators are currently registered—and as many as 13,000 porters continue to be exposed to unsafe work conditions.

It’s hoped that over time more climbing companies will participate in the program, but until then, it’s up to consumers to push for transparency and ethical climbs.

This article was originally published in Verge's November 2018 issue. 

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Published in Beyond the Guidebook
Melissa Foley

Utilizing over two decades of executive marketing and business development expertise in corporate America, combined with extensive global travel experience, Melissa Foley provides a unique perspective on tourism development. Having worked as a marketing consultant to the East Africa safari industry she is very passionate about the ethical treatment of the mountain crew.

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