Charles Kishi is building the travel site you’ll book your next trip through
His company, ZaNiheza, promises “the greatest journey of your life.” It’s a sentiment Kishi experienced firsthand.
If you plan a trip to Morocco, you’ll receive conflicting reports. Or at least I did. A colleague swooned at my itinerary, demanding a minute-by-minute recap of my time in the country. A family friend, however, looked more concerned than I have ever seen him and implored that I was as safe as possible while I was there. Though definitely swoon-y and not scary, Morocco was indeed a whirlwind. The weather was exceedingly hot, the markets were exceedingly packed, and the experience was exceedingly unique. Case in point: the street outside our hotel was a parade of transportation options more outlandish than the last. A horse-drawn carriage gave way to a 1980s Mercedes Benz sedan-turned-taxi (a genre of vehicle I still call a “Marrakech cab” no matter its location) before yielding to a top-of-the-line Lamborghini.
All of this is to say that it may have been nice to have some guidance. And if it is direction you seek, that’s where Vancouver-founded venture ZaNiheza comes in. The name combines words from the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda: murakaza neza (meaning “welcome”) and niheza (“it’s beautiful”). ZaNiheza bills itself as an immersive travel marketplace, meaning it prioritizes tour guides and experience-based travel opportunities rather than poolside beers. The team is building a platform for local tour providers to both make money from and make memories for travellers. As it stands, the company has linked up with over 30 travel partners across eight destinations — Morocco is one, so is Rwanda or Tanzania or Ghana — that promise “the greatest journey of your life.”
If there is anybody that knows a thing or two about an expedition, it would be the company’s co-founder and CEO, Charles Kishi.
His journey starts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kishi’s parents immigrated there from the family’s home country of Rwanda in the late 1970s. He was born in Kinshasa, the country’s largest and capital city. A metropolitan upbringing in such a location meant that a young Kishi was exposed to Western culture early and often. He flashes his bright, emphatic smile as he recalls falling in love with action movies and his favourite TV show, Dallas.
While the decade started with distinctly ‘80s television programming for Kishi, it ended with tragedy. In 1987, his mother became ill. The family moved back to Rwanda. That time in their lives, Kishi tells me over Zoom, taught him an immense amount of resilience. Despite being, as he describes, “really, really ill – on her deathbed,” her maternal instincts never left. “She remained a parent,” as Kishi puts it, and never missed an opportunity to dispel wisdom or deliver discipline — seemingly out of nowhere. “Parents have ninja powers,” he jokes in a callback to those action movies he loved as a kid.
Within four months of moving back, she passed away. Kishi lost his mom at nine years old. Then, four years later, he would suffer another catastrophic loss: the death of his father. Orphaned as he became a teenager, Kishi still credits his parents for who he is today, saying the short time that they spent together laid the foundation for the rest of his life. “My dad was a very practical person,” he recalls. His father taught by example, and the biggest trait he passed to his son was business acumen. An accountant, Kishi’s dad asked his young son what he wanted to do with his life. Kishi recalls telling him that he just wanted to have his own business one day.
As they say, bad things come in threes. The hope is that the occurrences are mundane — a trio of minor inconveniences. For Kishi, unfortunately, it was momentous. His move back to Rwanda narrowly predated one of the largest tragedies in human history. Kishi was three years removed from his father’s death, and seven years from his mother’s, when the airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down near Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, on April 6, 1994. Though journalists and historians disagree on the exact start date of the plans for the genocide that would follow, this acted as the flashpoint.
“I was trying to get used to this life of being a 13-year-old orphan, 14-year-old orphan, and so on,” Kishi thinks back. “It wasn’t until I was 16, three years later, that I was like, ‘okay, I am an orphan. Life has to go on.’ Then the genocide happened.” At this point in our conversation, Kishi has been talking near-nonstop for the duration. But it’s at this moment that he checks in with me, concerned he is going a tad long. In hindsight, I wonder if he needed a break; a quick timeout as he graciously shares his firsthand account of a grim tragedy I know only from CBC documentaries and Wikipedia.
I couldn’t help but hang on every word, though there weren’t many to be said about the years he spent surviving the genocide. He summarized it neatly by admitting that he was almost killed more than once. Kishi managed to flee Rwanda. He arrived (re-arrived, in fact) in Congo before continuing on to Kenya. After celebrating his 19th birthday in the country, it was time to move again. Despite the love of Dallas, Kishi settled on a perhaps unlikely destination. Not Texas, but British Columbia. When he disembarked his plane at YVR in November 1997, he didn’t even know English. What Kishi did know, however, was that he wanted to start a business.
In the meantime, the new arrival had a pair of goals: to become fluent in English and to procure a computer. While this new language was something he would have to learn on the fly, a love of tech was crafted from a young age. Kishi’s father was a hobby photographer — “he would have loved Instagram,” Kishi reflected — and he recalls there always had been a camera present in his childhood. Kishi was fascinated, too, with computers, and remembers seeing a Mac for the first time as one might recall a first snowfall. The Mac’s owner ensured the gravity was not lost on Kishi. “He was really happy so I asked, ‘Why are you so happy?’” His answer: “This thing is going to change the life of human beings as we know it.”
So here a young adult Kishi was, halfway across the world from his homeland figuring out a dial-up system. This was the ‘90s, after all. Despite everything he survived, Kishi describes feeling vulnerable at this time of his life. Professionally, but perhaps also to alleviate that feeling of being left to his own devices personally, Kishi fired up the new computer and eventually got into finance — following in his father’s accounting footsteps. He worked first for RBC in the early 2000s. Kishi held finance roles for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and then Housing BC, for over a decade. It was in that most recent role, in the late 2010s, that ZaNiheza started to take shape.
Kishi needed to return to Rwanda in 2018 to help his family solve an issue with his father’s estate. He noticed a distinct change in the country he’d left behind 24 years earlier. In particular, the local startup scene. Kishi wasn’t the only one who noticed the groundswell. One year later, in 2019, Sweden-based coworking space and investment fund Norrsken Foundation announced plans for an innovation centre in the country. Norrsken House in Kigali opened in late 2021. “We have massive demand we can satisfy to become the biggest physical hub for startups in Africa,” Pascal Murasira, managing director of Norrsken East Africa, told TechCrunch. “We believe Kigali is on a path to become one of Africa’s leading clusters for tech and startups, and we want to help accelerate that journey.” With innovation and technology brimming in both his new and old hometown, Kishi wanted in.
Kishi’s intercontinental journey runs parallel to his love for travel. He speaks glowingly of Japan. He loved the energy he felt in London. So, he set out to build what would become ZaNiheza. One small problem: despite his near-lifelong drive for entrepreneurship, he was founding a company for the first time. Hallmarks of startup life like pitch decks or market valuations were all brand new to Kishi. Despite this, and a lack of technical experience, ZaNiheza was born in 2019. He then ran into a big problem: the pandemic.
Kishi, a first-time founder at 44, sans software degree, building out an online marketplace for tour operators while both Rwanda and Canada were facing lockdowns and restrictions, was giving it a go. He wouldn’t have known it at the time, but he was over a year away from hiring a tech partner for the C-suite (Kishi finally tapped a technical co-founder, Hannah Smythe, as ZaNiheza’s CTO. She joined in January 2022). Pre-Smythe, Kishi looked to a juggernaut in the travel space. Airbnb valued having reviews on its platform. Kishi made sure ZaNiheza had those. He found that Airbnb was started as a Wordpress site. So, Kishi built ZaNiheza’s MVP on Wordpress. But, as the globe began to open, and travel started to resume in 2021, he knew ZaNiheza had to adapt too.
“The world is reopening,” Kishi remembers thinking. “I need a marketplace and what I have does not really allow us to onboard users. And finding a technical co-founder was challenging in October, 2021. But, as a founder I just felt in me, that if you start something, you have to keep going no matter what the challenges are. I had a vivid vision in my head of what ZaNiheza is going to be and the social impact it could create.” That vision, both for the direction of the business and its societal values, helped ZaNiheza start to get noticed.
Last September, the company reached the top 20 in Spring Activator’s Fall Impact Investor Challenge, a competition to fund BIPOC founders, women-led ventures, or companies that positively impact societal issues such as racism, sexism, and climate change. This recognition was “quite the honour” according to Kishi, who also felt proud that an organization in his backyard such as Spring recognized his efforts. More recently ZaNiheza was accepted into and completed the Pre-Incubator program by the Toronto-based hub DMZ. Kishi also landed in the Black Innovation Connections Program run by the same organization, a three-month, track-based coaching program that slingshots high-potential Black founders to success and prepares them for its incubator. His East Coast run also featured a stop in Montreal for StartupFest for a pitch session.
“ZaNiheza was really born from an accumulation of my life experience,” a reflective Kishi tells me. “Because, when you survive a war, you feel like — as a survivor — you have to do something. I feel the need to change the world.” In doing so, he’s chasing a lofty goal. “You’ll be covering the next billion-dollar company born in Vancouver,” Kishi predicts of ZaNiheza in an email to schedule our Zoom call. There’s obviously a way to go to reach that valuation. After I followed last year’s surge, I feel it’s fair to say that unicorn status is rarely achieved in a few years. But, let’s not forget what the title is supposed to mean. The key concept of a unicorn is its rarity, after all. Think of it that way, and it’s safe to say he’s already there. Kishi’s journey is one of a kind.
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