Country Director
Chief Ecotourism Officer

Born and raised in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Tojo “Lytah” Razafimahefa has more than 18 years of experience working in tourism and ecotourism throughout Madagascar. He studied tourism and business administration and began his career in 2005, when a cousin living in the United States hired him to organize and conduct a tour for a small group of Americans. Tojo Lytah found this experience so enjoyable, enlightening, and inspiring that he knew he had found what he wanted to do with his life. Although he knew a great deal about Madagascar from books, his family did not have much money, and this was his first time traveling to any extent. He fell in love with his country, its nature and habitats, and its extraordinary wildlife. Sharing these experiences with others came easily to him, and he realized he wanted to show the beauty of Madagascar to the world.

Tojo Lytah has worked as a freelance tour guide for several travel agencies, and he became a tour leader specializing in tours for groups from Sweden, Spain, USA, Australia, and Turkey. He has led high-profile tours for US and European zoo groups, as well as for universities and science centers, including the Duke Lemur Center of Duke University. With an extensive list of contacts and resources, he established his own tour consultancy business in 2009, with a focus on “Tourism and Product Development, Seasonality, Ecotourism, and Tourism Business Mentoring.” Tojo Lytah gives presentations and teaches courses in many countries, and he is an invited speaker at numerous conferences, including at the US Embassy of Antananarivo in February 2019—the first and only Madagascar tour guide to speak at this event. Since 2008, he has served as Special Advisor to the Association of the National Guides of Madagascar, and as Special Advisor to the National Federation of Tour Guides of Madagascar since 2014.

In 2017, Tojo Lytah became a founding member of the Confederation of Tourism in Madagascar, which seeks to bring together the private sectors of tourism in the country, strengthen business practices and standards, and to heighten awareness of the professionalism of Madagascar’s local tour guides. Within that organization, Tojo Lytah has twice served as vice-president of the Tour Guides Federation of Madagascar, and he is now president of that organization.

Tojo Lytah strongly believes in ecotourism as a source of development for Madagascar and its people, and as a way to protect the country’s unique habitats and wildlife. He is proud to be co-founder and co-director of Wildlife Madagascar, which reflects his passion for conservation in Madagascar and his desire to improve the lives of Madagascar’s people.

Q&A with Tojo Lytah

Tell us about yourself and growing up in Madagascar.

My full name is Tojosoa “Lytah” RAZAFIMAHEFA LAHIINIRIKO, commonly known as Lytah. I have been a Professional Tour Guide since 2006, and an entrepreneur and business consultant in tourism and travel development since 2009. I am a speaker and trainer in the tourism business, and since 2017, I am the vice-president of the Confederation of Tourism of Madagascar (CTM), the top organization of private sector tourism in Madagascar.

Lytah is, in fact, my nickname, my “war name,” given to me by my second oldest sister when I was born—it simply means “a little boy.” I was born way before term and the pregnancy was hard for my mother, so I was small. But my official Malagasy name has a strong meaning to my parents, it means “the boy whom I wished to have is well arrived; and he will be capable.” The nickname stuck with me, so I kept it, as I also realized it easier name for non-Malagasy, especially with my tourism business.

I was born, grew up, studied, and now live in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar. My dad’s side is originally from the dry deep south of the island, the Androy region. My mother’s family is from the northern part of the central highlands of Antananarivo, where they are small farmers with a small plot of land. Both families had many kids and life was hard, and it was not possible for my parents to go far with school. My mother left her home at age 16 and started to work to help support the family. My father had the opportunity to join the special forces of the Gendarmerie Nationale.

We lived in a military-type camp when I was little. It was surrounded by forest, and that was our playground, that’s how I began to love nature and wildlife. My parents always wanted to give us the best they could, and they really did, through sacrifices and hard work. I was sent to a private Catholic school (College Saint Michel Amparibe), a top school in Madagascar. That is where I started to develop leadership, in class and with the soccer and basketball sports teams. It was such an important time in my life, as it anchored the value of education in me. Thirty years later, I’m still close to the friends I made there.

Who or what inspires you?

Many things and people inspire me in different ways, but for me, travel offers so many life lessons. The beauty of nature and wildlife inspires me. I delight in watching nature documentaries and historical films, they provide knowledge and learning. I am also very inspired by those who are still able to smile and truly give, despite the little they have. Isn’t that rather like mother nature, continuing to give us so much, despite what we do to her every day?

What draws you to support wildlife conservation?

One of the first Madagascar tours that I planned and conducted on my own was for my cousin and his in-laws, Kelly Smith and Karen Smith, an American couple from Bend, Oregon. It was the very first time I had really traveled throughout Madagascar, my first time to guide people in areas I had never been to. Growing up, we rarely went on holidays, and then just visiting relatives nearby—my parents just couldn’t afford it back then. But on that first trip, I completely fell in love with Madagascar and its nature. I felt like I’d been doing this for years—spotting animals in their wild habitat, meeting and interacting with local people, enjoying the sunrise and sunset in the middle of nowhere—I just loved it all. I knew that’s what I wanted to do in life, showing Madagascar to the world. Because I also started to see the destruction of the environment, it’s clear that there is a big dilemma between the decisions people make every day to survive and nature conservation. I saw the gap between modern conservation techniques and local reality. There’s a need to bridge that gap—and there’s a need for people to become that bridge.

Kelly and Karen returned four times more to Madagascar. One day while we were taking a hike in the rainforest and enjoying nature’s realm, Karen said something to me in tears “Lytah, I never thought to still be able to see and enjoy Madagascar’s wildlife. We were so worried about how much of these forests would be gone before we could come back here again. How many of the beautiful people of Madagascar will be able to stay in their countryside and still thrive? And yet here we are back again, with an amazing travel experience.”

That was a revelation to me, a true life lesson that nothing should be taken for granted. What we have today could disappear tomorrow, even as precious and unique as it is. The clock is ticking, and time never stops, we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. If so many people travel the world to see and to help preserve our island, how much more should I, as a native Malagasy, give and do to preserve it? We have to start today, to sustain the future we hope for.

What book or film has influenced you or made a strong impression?

“HOM” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is a complete gem for me. It’s so amazing how photos and film can touch your very inner being. He was able to send strong messages in such a soft and lovely way. I dream of one day being able to produce something like that for Madagascar.

At the end of their first Madagascar trip with me, Kelly and Karen Smith gave me a book titled Madagascar Wildlife, by Nick Garbutt. It’s a lovely, friendly guidebook for nature lovers and travel enthusiasts, and I learned a lot from it. And you know, it’s amazing—now we have this NGO called Wildlife Madagascar!

On their second trip, they brought me a BIG gift, the knowledge of Steven M. Goodman, PhD. He is the field biologist for the Chicago Museum of Natural History and one of the most experienced of foreign biologists who have conducted research in Madagascar. His book is titled The Natural History of Madagascar, and it is such a comprehensive synthesis of our island’s priceless natural treasures. That book, along with Dr. Allison Jolly’s Lord and Lemurs, Peter Tyson’s The Eighth Continent, and my own knowledge inherited from ancestors and local people developed my enthusiasm for providing quality and unique guiding experiences.

What is one of the most memorable experiences in your career?

I was hired to guide a tour of nine people from Stockholm Sweden, back in 2005. They were all teachers from the Spanga Gymnasium – Naturhuset, well versed in biology and wildlife. I knew it was going to be a big challenge for a first-year guide, but it turned out to be a memorable and successful trip in ways I could never imagine. A few months later, they invited me to come to Sweden for an event around “Biodiversity,” an exhibit at the school, and they wanted me to speak to their students about Madagascar’s biodiversity. That was the first time I represented Madagascar abroad, and I ended up traveling back to Sweden over the next several years. In 2007, I was even invited by the Tallberg Foundation to attend their yearly Tallberg Forum, a huge gathering of well-known and respected leaders, influencing people from around the world. I never thought I would meet some of these amazing people and to listen to their talks as a speaker myself, and to participate in a working group with some of them. I was the first Malagasy to have ever been invited to that event. The same year, I collaborated with Spanga Gymnasium to speak about lemurs and Madagascar at the lemur exhibit at the famous Skansen Akvariet (Animal House) with Jonas Whalstrom and his team.

My Swedish best friend Mrs. Bitte Kajler, now a retired teacher from the Spanga Gymnasium and one of the Swedish travelers on my tour, and I co-founded a small association called “Twinschool – Youth Collaborative” that connected students in Madagascar with students in Sweden. The project won a Microsoft “Best Innovative Teacher – Collaboration Project” award in 2007, and we wrote a book, Madagascar Djurliv about the experience. We were also able to provide funds for five students from Madagascar to attend university. This whole experience led me to many other opportunities to speak about Madagascar’s tourism and wildlife in different countries around the world.

I also always remember the first San Diego Zoo tour I led in 2015, a wildlife tour that’s hard to beat in my career, and the first time I met Debra and many other people who are now Wildlife Madagascar board members. That was the beginning of Wildlife Madagascar. 

Why did you want to create Wildlife Madagascar?

You know, I have always believed, and I am still very confident, that ecotourism, conscious travel, and responsible tourism are major sources of development for Madagascar. That is what I know and love to do, and I see so many good practices worldwide where conservation combines with tourism very well. After that many years of tour guiding, you see and learn a lot from your tourists and from the local people. But then again, you also see how much we have lost within a short period of time. Tourism has given a great deal to me, and now I want to give back to it so many more people can experience Madagascar. Effective conservation is one way to do that, not the easiest, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

I enjoy guiding people around Madagascar, especially if it’s around wildlife and photography, and when you grow up with your passion, you want to share it with others, to reach for a bigger horizon. I love to spice things up with craziness, so when Debra Erickson invited me to join her to co-found Wildlife Madagascar, I said—after a minute of silence and looking at my baby boy—“hmm, why not?! Yeah, let’s go, it’s crazy but let’s do it.” But I don’t want to do things just like the other organizations. I’m very thankful to them, very grateful for what they do. But I also see a lack of concrete results and a positive impact on the local people. So, as long as we partner with the local people and build collaboration for their success, I’m in. I just want to do something unique and special, that people will remember. I know we have a lot of challenges ahead, but as I tell Debra, only the best things are worth doing, and the best things are always hard!

What are your hopes for the future?

As an island, Madagascar is filled with such special and unique wildlife. But sleeping in a golden bed means nothing if you do not know and realize it’s valuable. We need to create a sustainable socioeconomic structure. Whatever we do today will not improve the future if we do not give the local communities the chance to stamp their sense of belonging onto it. The best ROI and security for our investment resides in the local people—in how much they partake of the actions and how effectively they are included as shareholders of the capital. Nature and wildlife are beautiful, indeed, but there is no beauty more memorable than a human being’s smile. Everything we do to preserve nature must also serve the well-being of the population. If nature stands, forest thrives, water will keep quenching soil’s thirst, food will grow, and the people will be healthy and productive.

So, I do dream of planting seeds for the future, for our kids and the kids of others, for families we might never meet. We aim to plant good seeds, BUT we cannot do that alone. Collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, mindset, and foresight are the arms of that vision.

I dream of our friends, members and donors, future tourists and curious travelers joining us on this adventure, coming to Madagascar and experiencing its unrivalled nature. I hope they will support the cause we believe in and the actions we take. I hope they will see it as an investment in the future, so that we will all see our seeds becoming good trees, bearing good fruits, and that others will take the seeds and plant them again. My parents invested in me with huge sacrifices. I want to invest in my children so that they will see, know, and enjoy way more than I did. No one hates green, right?!