The rewards of doing business off the beaten track

By Ayesha Bhatty Clough
Business reporter

image copyrightMOnica Stephenson
image captionIt is a long and uncomfortable drive to get to Gichuchu Okeno's mine from the nearest town

Before Gichuchu Okeno spends the night at his remote gemstone mine, he always asks one of his men to check his bedroom for scorpions and snakes.

The deadly creatures are a daily concern for the 48-year-old, much more so than the wild elephants and buffalo that roam his property in the middle of the Kenyan bush.

And more of a worry than the risk of a lion wandering in from the nearby Tsavo East National Park, which isn't fenced off.

This is an isolated and harsh spot in southern Kenya. The nearest town - Voi - is a three-hour drive away along packed dirt tracks strewn with rocks and potholes.

It can be blazing hot, and you have to truck in everything you need - water, food, fuel and electricity generators. Your mobile phone will definitely not get a signal.

image copyrightMonica Stephenson
image captionGichuchu Okeno says that he and his workers could do with more heavy machinery

But what Mr Okeno's land does have, under its red soil, is a gemstone called tsavorite garnet.

A brilliant green colour similar to emerald, it is much in demand on the global jewellery market, particularly in Asia.

image copyrightMOnica Stephenson
image captionThe houses at the mine often come with added snakes and scorpions

And while tsavorites may not be as expensive as emeralds, their wholesale price is still about $1,200 per gram (£800). So for Mr Okeno, it can be a lucrative business when times are good.

However, doing business "off the beaten track" inevitably comes with complications and difficulties, wherever you are on the globe.

We spoke to Mr Okeno and two very different, but equally remotely-based, small firms in other parts of the world about the challenges they have to endure while running their successful businesses.

Promotion work

Mr Okeno's mine is little more than a big hole in the ground, where he and his six employees toil with one jackhammer and some shovels and axes. He admits that it is a laborious process.

image copyrightMOnica Stephenson
image captionTsavorites are popular with jewellers around the world

"What we lack is an excavator (digger)," says Mr Okeno, who has built two simple, small buildings with corrugated iron roofs to house him and his workers when they are on site.

"I know we are on the right track, but without the right equipment everything takes so much longer."

Yet getting the tsavorites out of the ground is not Mr Okeno's biggest challenge, instead it is selling them for a good price.

image copyrightGichuchu Okeno
image captionGichuchu Okeno uses Facebook to promote his gemstones around the world

"There is no way we can get high prices locally," he says, complaining that dealers from China and Thailand base themselves in Kenya to buy up the local supply and sell it for twice as much in Asia.

Mr Okeno, who set up the mine a few years ago, after previously working as a safari tour operator, instead tries to sell his stones directly to overseas buys.

To promote himself, and find new customers, he maintains a Facebook page, which he updates when he visits his office in the town of Voi.

Yet exporting the stones is an expensive and time consuming business, as Mr Okeno has to first spend more than seven hours driving them to the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

He then has to take the stones to the Kenyan Ministry of Mines, where he has to fill out paperwork. The ministry then only gives him the stones back at the airport, where he can finally hand them over to a courier company for sending abroad.

Including his petrol and export taxes, he says the whole process can cost $200.

'End of the road'

A world away in Canada's far north, hotelier Leo Martel also knows a thing or two about long-distance driving.

His hotel is based in a tiny former mining community called Keno City (population, 15), in the country's Yukon territory.

image copyrightKeno City Hotel
image captionLeo Martel's hotel is a very long way away from a significant population centre

At the end of a road known as the Silver Trail, it is a seven-hour car journey north from Whitehorse, the Yukon's capital.

"It's not a casual drive," says Mr Martel, 64, a retired carpenter from Quebec who fell in love with Keno City when he worked in a nearby mine, and decided to make it his home.

He bought the hotel eight years ago, and it is now open all year round.

Every couple of months he has to travel down to Whitehorse to stock up on everything the Keno City Hotel needs, such as huge quantities of fresh meat and produce for the freezer, canned food, and lots and lots of alcohol.

image copyrightKeno City Hotel
image captionMr Martel says that visitors to his hotel have a fun time

If the isolated location of the 10-room hotel was not enough of a commercial challenge for Mr Martel, you have to also remember that the Yukon gets brutally cold winters.

With mountains, lakes and forests it is a visually stunning part of the world, but winter temperatures can plummet to -30C or below for weeks on end.

However, Mr Martel says that for many visitors the hotel's very isolation is all part of the attraction.

He adds that most of his regulars are Yukon residents, so they are already used to the weather.

They primarily visit from Whitehorse (population 28,000), Dawson City (the Yukon's second largest conurbation, population 1,300), and the village of Mayo (population 400).

"Because we are in the middle of nowhere, people can have more fun," he says. "There's no kids around, we're at the end of the road, it becomes a little escape or a hideout.

"You feed people a couple of drinks and you never know what'll come out of them."

Thirsty island

While the Keno City Hotel doesn't have an easy time buying its alcohol, 8,374 miles (13,477km) away in the South Atlantic the world's most isolated distillery faces a challenge in trying to sell its products.

image copyrightSt Helena Distillery
image captionPaul Hickling has been running his distillery for nine years

The St Helena Distillery is based on the British Overseas Territory of the same name, a small island measuring just 47 sq miles (121 sq km).

The facility was opened in 2006 by Welshman Paul Hickling after he and his St Helena-born wife moved to the island from the UK.

The 57-year-old makes a range of products, including a gin, brandy, coffee liqueur, and a spirit made from St Helena grown prickly pears, the fruit of a cactus plant.

Mr Hickling's products are a hit with the 4,500 people who live on St Helena, but he'd like to increase exports.

The problem at present is that St Helena's only connection to the outside world is by the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, which takes five days to travel to Cape Town in South Africa.

image copyrightSt Helena Distillery
image captionThe distillery makes a range of different products

And sending freight on the ship is expensive, costing £5,000 per container load of goods.

Thankfully for Mr Hickling, things are going to get significantly easier from next year, when St Helena's first airport is due to open.

In addition to making it quicker and easier to export things from the island, the air link is set to see the number of tourists visiting St Helena soar.

In preparation, Mr Hickling has already built a bar and restaurant above his distillery.

He says: "My spirits are reasonably priced, and I have the potential to make 180 bottles a day. It would be nice to be able to sell all of them."