Travel

An African Eco-Resort With a Greater Sense of Purpose

David CrookesA Segera villa, one of eight that guests can stay in, surrounded by lush plantings of palms, cactuses, succulents and brightly colored bougainvillea.

The former Puma C.E.O. Jochen Zeitz is dining under the stars at Segera, his 50,000-acre ranch in the middle of central Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau, when he pauses over his steak and squints out into the sprawling savanna. “Sometimes you think there nothing’s there, but take a minute,” he says. “See how the bush comes to life.” Sure enough, as we peer through the inky blue twilight, what had appeared to be tall tree trunks start to move, and soon we can make out the silhouettes of giraffes grazing amid the shadowy acacia trees, and hear the elephants lumbering through the undergrowth toward the nearby river.

Slide Show: In and Out of the Bush at Segera

In late March, the German-born Zeitz opened a new eight-villa retreat here — an intimate cactus-ringed oasis of lush gardens, saltwater swimming pools and rustic-chic dwellings in the shadow of Mount Kenya. His partner in the operation is the Wilderness Collection, a subsidary of a high-end eco-tourism company, in which he and the French retail and luxury conglomerate Kering are investors. While Wilderness markets the luxe lodge, it’s very much Zeitz’s project. He selected the European antiques, the vintage Land Rover and cocoa-colored Rolls-Royce convertible, and the 2,800 bottles in the wine tower. And it is his 3,000 head of cattle, his impressive collection of contemporary African and diasporic art, and his 1929 de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane — the very one used in “Out of Africa,” which he scooped up recently at auction for $260,000.

Still, it’s not the amenities but the attention paid to sustainability that makes Segera so remarkable. Zeitz made his name and his fortune at Puma. The youngest C.E.O. of Puma when he rose to the position in 1993, at 30, he quickly turned the struggling sportswear label around, coordinating its $7 billion acquisition by Kering (formerly PPR). He stepped down as C.E.O. in 2011, and today he’s devoting his considerable management and marketing talents to conservation. “I’m trying to go beyond the traditional clichés of an African safari,” Zeitz explained earlier in the day, following a flying session that saw him circling the ranch in a bright yellow two-seater Super Cub. “We need to engage rather than educate people,” he said, adding that a stay at Segera is “an opportunity to change thinking, to change behavior, because we’re touching guests at an emotional point in their journey.”

In Segera, Zeitz, 50, has found a tract of land uniquely worthy of his conservation efforts. The region boasts Kenya’s second highest concentration of animals, and the ranch itself hosts 150 varieties of birds and 30 species of large mammals. Any short walk or game drive around the property can reveal lions, giraffes, endangered Grévy’s zebras and patas monkeys, gazelles and elephants.

Zeitz made his first trip to Africa, a visit to Kenya, in 1989, and instantly fell in love with the country. Frequent return trips brought about an environmental awakening. He was confronted more and more with “the negative sides of business from an ecological point of view,” Zeitz says. “I realized it was time to change the way I conducted business.” Puma soon began turning heads not just for its financial performance but for its environmental initiatives as well. In 2010, Zeitz started a five-year plan to lessen the company’s environmental impact by 25 percent. The following year, Puma became the world’s first major corporation to release environmental profit-and-loss statements. Despite some successes, Zeitz notes that corporations have a long way to go, not least those in the tourism sector: “It’s shocking to think about how little the travel industry cares about sustainability — and it’s the basis of their business!”

At Segera, while guests can partake in all the usual safari activities — ranger-led game drives and nature walks, pop-up bush picnics and sundowners on the savanna — the ranch also invites them to experience what Zeitz calls the “4Cs” (conservation, community, culture and commerce).

Working with an “experience manager” and villa host, guests assemble their daily itineraries from a menu, picking something from the “conservation” section here (planting acacia trees, say, or assisting in the tracking and monitoring of monkeys and zebras), something from the “community” section there (learning about traditional beading from local women or visiting a foundation-financed school). The “culture” options might include a tour of Segera’s museum-quality art collection, curated by Mark Coetzee, who formerly looked after the Rubell family’s holdings in Miami. The commerce component brings guests behind the scenes of Segera’s cattle ranch and beekeeping facilities. They might also shop at the retreat’s boutique, stocked with items designed by the Zeitz Foundation ambassador, Vivienne Westwood, or handcrafted by local female artisans.

The revenue generated by their stays — prices start at $880 per guest per night, all in — keeps the more high-minded projects chugging along. “You simply cannot sustain a place like this ecologically if you ultimately don’t have the money to do it,” Zeitz says, noting that employment plays a key role as well. “We also need to think about sustainability in terms of making it possible for people to earn a living while they’re participating in a sustainable lifestyle.” Or, as he put it in a speech to a gathering of travel-industry power players last year, “Sustainability is no longer about doing less harm. It’s about doing more good.” Therein lies the future of Segera.