My Perfect Adventure: Philip Leakey

The entrepreneur and son of paleo-royalty tells us that he yearns for young people from around the world to realize the vast amount of opportunity that exists in Africa. Also: He’d want to see Patagonia, meet Charles Darwin, and learn chemistry—all while clinging tight to his Swiss Army knife.

Leakey with his wife, Kate.     Photo: Courtesy of Philip Leakey

Leakey with a portrait of his father, Louis.

The Leakey name is immediately recognizable, at least for the remotest anthropology fan. Louis and Mary spent much of the 20th century proving Darwin right by making profound human discoveries in and near Olduvai Gorge. Their youngest son, Philip, was raised in Kenya and Tanzania, with the Serengeti as his playground.

Eventually, Philip became Kenya’s first white member of parliament, a position he held for 15 years. He left a legacy of conservation: By the end of his political tenure, he’d been appointed to the president’s cabinet, serving as minister of environmental and natural resources.

During the annual wildebeest migration on the Masai Mara plain, he married Katy, an American artist; they moved into a hilltop tent, where they still live.

In 2001, a severe drought left the couple stretching to support 100 Masai families who’d lost livestock and agriculture. Searching for a way to help the people create an income, the Leakeys devised a method of making attractive necklaces and bracelets from the region’s abundant tall grass and fallen trees. They taught unemployed Masai women how to do it, and called their new jewelry company the Leakey Collection. Today, the endeavor provides fair-wage work for some 1,400 Masai artisans, and five percent of profits go toward supporting Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

Having made a life and a living for himself and others in Africa, Philip says that he wants young people from around the world to realize the vast amount of opportunity he sees there. In this interview, he also shares that he yearns to see Patagonia, that he’s fascinated by both Charles Darwin and chemistry, and that he intends, eventually, to devote a year to writing a book.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
A perfect day for me would be to find or assemble a group of young, quite energetic entrepreneurs and to spend the day showing them the many opportunities I see in Africa. Then I’d like to see those young entrepreneurs take them up and pursue them. I would like to inspire passionate people to realize the vast opportunities I have seen in Africa.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Patagonia, to see the wide space, wilderness, and beautiful scenery full of nature that is so starkly different from what I’m used to.

When you arrive somewhere new, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I familiarize myself with the lay of the land. If I’m in an urban area, it’s figuring out where things are located. If it’s wilderness, I orientate myself in relationship to everything around me: rivers, rocks, trees, other plants, and the general area at large.

What’s something you can’t travel without?
My Swiss Army knife. I feel naked without it and use it multiple times every day of my life, no matter where I am in the world.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Where I live now, on the Nguruman escarpment in Southern Kenya, is the best place I’ve ever been. Forty-five years ago, when I first came, it was the most pristine, untouched wilderness of incredible beauty, with the widest diversity of nature. At any one time I could stand on the airstrip I built, turn around, and count 50 rhinos around me. It was truly untouched and unspoiled.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, living or dead, who would it be?
Charles Darwin. I’d be curious to know where his unusual point of view came from at a time when it was difficult to get out of the religious mold. He really stepped out of the box.

What motivates you to keep doing what you're doing?
Curiosity!

When and how did you get into selling natural jewelry?
I first made natural jewelry about 15 years ago and it was to solve a problem. Women in rural areas where I lived needed income and I have a long history of working with plants, so I located a plant from which beads could be made and put my two interests together. Some years later there was a terrible drought and again the women needed an income, so again I proposed the idea. This time with new designs for a contemporary marketplace and a whole new business structure, something that would be sustainable and scalable so that it could expand and not be a temporary solution, but one that could be built upon and create work for thousands.

What advice you would give to someone aspiring to make a life in Africa?
Put aside any preconceived notion of value systems and be open to learning about, understanding, and respecting the value systems here.

Who has been your most influential role model or mentor?
My father. He taught me persistence, patience, and observation. And curiosity.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Yes. The central part of my philosophy is to use every experience as an opportunity to learn and to grow.

Have you ever made a mistake that made you think twice about traveling again?
I’ve made many mistakes but none have made me stop—they make me better able to pursue again.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
I have fulfilled most of the dreams I had as a child. The only regret I have is not knowing more about chemistry.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I’d definitely choose a career that was centered around a knowledge of chemistry, because chemistry presents one of the ultimate horizons of exploration, opportunities, and the pursuit of curiosity.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
The first is to make Katy and I completely self-sufficient on our land, not just food-wise but in relation to everything, including fuel, power, and so on.

Second, I’d want to buy a car in Japan and drive it to Kenya through Asia with my wife.

Third would be to have a year available to focus on writing a book.

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