With a sweet sense of mystery, the word safari rolls softly through the lips while the mind teases with images of magnificent places like Kilimanjaro and Serengeti.
Tanzania, on Africa’s eastern side, is the birthplace of Erfan Pirbhai. Yet, his own personal safari led him westward to the United States where he earned degrees from Tarkio College in Missouri and University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He was first employed as a statistician and computer programmer at the former Upjohn Company (now Pfizer Inc.) and then as analytics practice director at Experis/ManpowerGroup. Now, as an entrepreneur, Erfan’s journey is reconnecting him with his roots.
On safari with him in love, marriage, parenthood and business is his wife, Janene Pirbhai. Born Janene Weathers in Muskegon, she’s a graduate of Western Michigan University with 25 years of experience as a wealth management advisor with Merrill Lynch.
Together, in 2013, they co-founded Kalamazoo Safari Company to arrange trips and safaris to East Africa focusing on experiences that allow travelers to enjoy the area’s natural beauty, animals and culture.
Erfan and Janene met in 1994 through mutual friends. “He was talking about whitewater rafting, and that piqued my interest; plus, he was extremely handsome,” says Janene, smiling at her husband.
Married in 1999, the Pirbhais enjoyed wedding ceremonies with friends and family in both Michigan and Tanzania; their honeymoon was a safari to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara. Having reluctantly passed up an opportunity to visit Tanzania while at WMU, Janene says her journey with Erfan was “the trip of a lifetime, a dream come true, and a bucket-list item” all rolled into one — but better. “I fell in love with a Tanzanian and then I fell in love with Tanzania,” she says.
The genesis for Kalamazoo Safari Company came when the Pirbhais offered to organize “a big trip” to Tanzania for friends and associates in 2012. “We said to whomever wanted to go, ‘We’ll make all the arrangements,’” says Janene, laughing at “how little we knew then.”
When 28 people from eight states and Brazil signed up, she found that her hands were more than full; they were tied. Some wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and some didn’t; some wanted to visit the Serengeti and some didn’t. There was this special request and that special request. “I couldn’t find a safari company who would work with us at a reasonable price,” she says.
Luckily, the Pirbhais connected with Elvice Marano, who owns a small Tanzania-based company that caters primarily to European customers. “They would customize and were reasonably priced. They listened and were amazingly responsive, and everything came through fabulously,” Janene says.
Since that first group safari, the Pirbhais have solidified their partnership with Marano and honed their business model to focus, first and foremost, on safety while also providing hands-on service and affordable prices that range from $450 to $600 (and higher) per day plus airfare.
“People want to know what to expect,” says Erfan, who speaks fluent Swahili. “We provide detailed information on how to pack, what to wear, the climate, the people, culture and safe travel tips.”
Likewise, the couple ask prospective clients what interests them — ascending Mt. Kilimanjaro, hot air ballooning over the Serengeti, witnessing a great migration of two million zebras and wildebeests, seeing exotic birds, watching animals birthing in the wild or simply feeling the pulse of Africa?
To fulfill clients’ dreams, Kalamazoo Safari Company offers two types of trips: hosted and private.
A hosted tour consists of 12 to 18 people — individuals, couples or small groups — who come together and travel to Tanzania in the company of either Erfan or Janene. “We take care of everything so customers can turn off the rest of the world and truly be on vacation,” says Erfan.
A private safari is customized for groups or families of any size, including couples, who want to create a unique experience with a hired guide and tailored lodging at an appealing price.
A safari normally lasts five to 10 days. The company is hosting two this year — one in June and one in October. The Pirbhais have also organized five private safaris and three climbs for 2016.
Customers interested in going to Tanzania can travel at any time, although Janene says the rainy season of mid-March through mid-May “is not ideal.”
After a hosted group returns, the Pirbhais often throw a post-safari reunion in their spacious rural home at which the travelers share photos, videos and reminiscences.
“We’re in the customer service business,” says Janene, who continues to work at Merrill Lynch, devoting her early mornings to Kalamazoo Safari Company and evenings to her family.
Erfan, who retired from the corporate world in late 2015, now has three jobs: chief entertainment officer of the Pirbhai family; chief executive officer of Kalamazoo Safari Company; and part-time executive consultant to Foreign Links Around the Globe (FLAG International), a worldwide student exchange organization.
With more time to devote to Kalamazoo Safari, he’s excited about creating theme safaris for people interested in painting, writing, geology, ecology, anthropology, history, holistic health, indigenous crafts and possibly programs geared for high school students. “These safaris would be life-altering,” says Janene.
While the Pirbhais have helped dozens of people experience the thrill of Tanzania, the richness of their own safari through life lies in the hearts and minds of their children: Daniel, 15, Yasmin, 12, and Zara, 8, all of whom have experienced the majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the beauty of the Serengeti ecosystem as well as the joy of generosity.
In May 2015, Daniel, now a freshman at Mattawan High School, and two of his friends raised $1,500 to buy a pregnant cow for an orphanage in Tanzania and to provide a scholarship for one orphan, a 6-year-old boy named Jefferson, to attend a private school. “There are about 250 kids in the orphanage, and only about one-third of them go to school,” Daniel explains. “We helped him change his life; that’s pretty cool.”
Daniel’s effort was inspired by Yasmin, a sixth-grader at the Gagie School in Kalamazoo, who, amazingly, raised more than $30,000 to help finance a new African lion exhibit at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek.
Yasmin’s endeavor came about — as often happens on safari — serendipitously, thanks to the mural on the walls of Zara’s bedroom. Because of her daily exposure to this stylized composition of Serengeti elephants, giraffes and lions, the zoo naturally became one of Zara’s favorite places to visit, so she chose that location for her seventh birthday party in 2014. “Because of the animals,” she says.
At the party, Janene and Yasmin learned of the zoo’s “Lions, Tortoises & Bears … Oh My” fundraising campaign to fund, among other projects, the African lion exhibit.
Yasmin, then age 10, told her mom, “I’ve seen wild lions in Africa; I want to help people see them here at the zoo.” With a goal of raising $5,000, she went door-to-door in her neighborhood with flyers about the zoo and a request to “please donate whatever you can.”
Diane Thompson, Binder Park’s president and CEO, says, “Yasmin’s parents took a risk and allowed her to pursue an experience that would mold her and shape her, not knowing if this experience of asking adults for money, in person, would be painful or rewarding.”
Persevering through both donations and rejections, Yasmin raised $5,000. Her parents matched that amount with another $5,000. And Merrill Lynch matched that with another $5,000 — a total of $15,000.
Then Yasmin told her parents, “I want to do more.” A brainstorming session with zoo officials led to Yasmin’s “Climb for the Lions” fundraiser, which meshed with the family’s plan to ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, in June 2015.
With a goal of raising another $15,000, Yasmin hoped to secure one $5,000 sponsor, five $1,000 sponsors, and many others who would donate lesser amounts. She promoted the idea to area corporations and to friends’ parents, including Mike and Kate Longman, franchise owners of Zoup!, a soup, salad and sandwich shop on South Westnedge Avenue in Portage.
One day, Yasmin received a phone call from Mike Longman, who was also the coach of Zara’s softball team. “He said, ‘I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that we’re not going to give $1,000; the good news is that we’re going to give $5,000.’ I was so excited. I told Mom, ‘If we don’t put it [our requests] out there, no one will ever know what we want.’”
Yasmin also credits Daniel for inspiring her to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in the first place.
“It was quite an accomplishment,” Erfan says of his son’s ascent in 2012 at age 11. “He would wake up at 6 a.m., on his own, and get on the stair-stepper with a 10-pound pack for an hour to ready himself.”
Daniel was the youngest of 13 climbers — three youths and 10 adults — who started the trek, and he was one of five who reached the peak.
Erfan explains that climbers have two destination goals: Uhuru Peak (19,341 feet), which is the true summit, or Gilman’s Point (18,650 feet), where many people stop because reaching the very top involves grueling traverses around a crater and over challenging rocks amidst vicious winds at very high altitudes.
“When we reached Gilman’s Point, I told Daniel, ‘Congratulations, young man, you’ve reached your goal.’ But he said, ‘We’ve got to keep going,’” says Erfan. “In truth, I was exhausted, but he inspired me. We have a picture of us hugging at the top.”
For Yasmin’s initial ascent, the climb was a full-family affair. Daniel and Janene reached Uhuru Peak, Yasmin and Erfan reached Gilman’s Point, and Zara climbed to Kibo Hut (15,400 feet) before descending with a guide to a lower elevation.
In two years, at age 10, Zara, a student in the Mattawan school system, will attempt to reach the summit. If successful, she will be one of the youngest to climb the mountain according to safety protocols for a standard 4.5-day ascent (rather than a 10-day climb that is more common for youths of her age).
Through these accomplishments, the Pirbhai family has shown that safari occurs in various shapes and forms, that dreams and destinations can be far abroad or deep within, that explorations and discoveries can be physical or service-oriented.
And with the burgeoning growth of Kalamazoo Safari Company, Erfan and Janene Pirbhai will no doubt help inspire others to dream, explore and discover.
To learn more, visit kalamazoosafari-company.com.