Omar Samra is using his small travel company to promote low-carbon expeditions.
Omar Samra is the first Egyptian to have conquered Mount Everest, climbed the rest of the world’s highest summits, skied the North and South Poles and is now set to become the country’s first man in space. But in reality, Samra is a quiet, softly-spoken man with an air of humility rather than brashness.
The 37-year-old London-born Egyptian is arguably the region’s foremost explorer and traveller and his mission now is to reach space. He won AXE Apollo Space Academy’s competition to send 23 people to space and is working with two other space programmes to realise this ambition by 2020. When not preparing for an adventure in space, Samra runs the travel company he founded, Wild Guanabana, which offers people in the region “life-changing journeys” around the world and is also in the process of launching Rock ‘n’ Rope adventure park in Cairo.
Despite his interest in exploration from a young age, Samra was “pretty directionless”, when it came to deciding what he wanted to do with his life. “I set out to study engineering, but somehow fell into economics,” he says. “When I graduated, I didn’t know where to work.” He attained an economics degree at the American University of Cairo and upon graduation, he was accepted onto the investment-banking graduate scheme with HSBC in London in 2000. Within a year he was transferred on a secondment to the Hong Kong office, from where he began to travel around Asia. “From that point, I started to get consumed with saving enough money to travel the world and quit my job after two – and-a-half years,” says Samra. He spent the whole year travelling and visited 14 countries before going back to HSBC.
“I came back and I was broke. It took two years to realise why I had quit in the first place. I quite HSBC again and this time applied for an MBA,” he says.
He enrolled at the London Business School in 2005 and in his first year was asked whether he was interested in climbing Mount Everest. It took two years’ of training, but when he reached the summit, at the age of 28, he fulfilled a childhood ambition and broke the record as the first Egyptian to reach the top of Everest. He then landed a job in brand marketing in London, but took a two-month break in Egypt to recuperate. It was during this time that the British Council in Cairo invited him to speak about his journey to Mount Everest. His talk resonated with many people and the experience encouraged him to decline the job offer in London and instead set up his own company in Egypt.
“The decision was based truly on intuition. I wanted to use this opportunity to make some kind of positive change,” he says. To support himself financially, he worked for a private equity firm in Egypt focusing on emerging markets and spent his spare time visiting schools and universities giving talks. In 2009, he founded Wild Guanabana in Cairo, but with the revolution in January 2011, 80 per cent of his customers cancelled their trips for that year. “The only way to survive was to look for an investor that believed in the idea and allow us to open an office or have a presence in Dubai to give us access to a market that was less vulnerable to changes,” says Samra.
He soon managed to get an investor on board and moved to Dubai. The Cairo office remains open, and is where much of the operations take place. Offering tours, expeditions and explorations, Wild Guanabana attracts travellers from across the region, but primarily the UAE and Saudi Arabia where there is a desire for such trips like the ‘Great Tuk-Tuk Rally” in Sri Lanka, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The company is among the region’s first carbon neutral companies. Each trip is designed with the aim of reducing carbon emissions and maintaining a low carbon footprint.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of extreme places and seen the impact of climate change,” says Samra. “We are a small business and we want to raise awareness of the things that happen beyond our borders and become an inspiration to other companies.”
Samra has used his climbs to raise awareness of other causes he is passionate about. He is the chairman of Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run, a charity started by his late wife who had begun the initiative before meeting Samra, collecting toys from family and friends to donate to orphanages in Cairo. The charity secured a grant from MBC and won the media company’s humanitarian project of the year. There are now eight chapters across the world, delivering more than 100,000 toys to children.Samra has no plans to slow down. He continues to climb, give motivational talks, run a business and prepare for a mission to space.
“I feel compelled to push myself,” he says. “Now I can’t see myself living any other way. I look at myself and I look at other people and I’m not as motivated by the idea of stability and comfort and safety. I value it, but I believe we’re overvaluing it.”