Q&A: Ben Keene, Tribewanted

How did you come up with the idea for Tribewanted?

A guy called Mark emailed me five years ago and asked if I wanted to build a tribe. I added my travel and development experience to his online vision and we threw it out there.

What made you believe you could do it?

What made me believe we couldn't? Nothing.

What's your background?

Middle class Englishman destined for a corporate career until a conversation with a Tanzanian mountain guide aged 18 that convinced me that the world worth living in wasn't in an office. Since then I have travelled to do projects in tourism, sport and development and with Tribewanted tried to take it to the next level of social enterprise by engaging a much bigger audience through social media.

What were first steps to making the first tribe, Vorovoro in Fiji, a reality?

Googling islands for sale. Convincing an island broker we were serious. Getting on a plane to Fiji.

How did you pick Vorovoro?

We only had budget to make one trip (grad credit card). Vorovoro had to be right. Luckily for us, and by design for the locals, it was.

Set up cost and funding?

I spent £4,000 setting up the business: registration, return flights to Fiji, simple website. The return after launch was about £100,000 in three months, through membership sales.

It's been much harder since then but it was a great start.

How did you convince the bank?

Didn't need to - we funded it ourselves.

Why are you doing it all again in Sierra Leone (with the John Obey tribe)?

Tribewanted was never meant to be just about one island. Vorovoro was our starting place, our first tribe, our home - but as soon as we had completed our first three years and had proven it could work I Iooked at the file in my inbox entitled 'Tribewanted 2'. I had lots of proposals from all over the world. Sierra Leone won because of the partners and the contrast with Fiji. If we can do it in Sierra Leone we can do it anywhere.

How do you convince a Sierra Leonean village to share with wealthy foreigners?

We came to Sierra Leone with a professional proposal for sustainable community tourism. As we travelled around the Freetown peninsula we were soon inundated with communities wanting to work with us. We have a contract with the community that guarantees Le 8 million a month ($2,000 USD) in goodwill and employment. On top of this we spend money in the local community on food, materials and other services.

How have you funded this time?

We have a partner to fund the start-up of Tribewanted Sierra Leone. It wouldn't have been possible to do a crowd-fund this time - recession plus negative perception of Sierra Leone would have made it a real struggle.

Has it been easier second time round?

So far it has been operationally a lot easier - we have experience of doing it already plus a great team. It's been really well organised which is saying something over here. Marketing and PR has been harder because of the perception of this country and because Tribewanted isn't brand new. We are getting people involved but it's a slow burner. I'm confident we'll build another long-term sustainable project here but it will take time. It's an incredible place to be working and living.

How will you shape the growth of the John Obey tribe - on the beach and online?

On the beach we meet with all the workers/community and tribe members every morning and plan projects for the day - everyone gets involved with whatever they fancy. The great thing for our visiting members is that they can enjoy the amazing beach and get to know the local community, and get a basic understanding of development all in a week or two.

It's exciting to see how well it can work straight away.

Online it's harder this time around - we're not the only online network connected to real world projects. It's harder to get large-scale engagement, despite our core being very dedicated. With the right resources we can build our social network and online impact significantly but for now our funds are going into what really makes a difference - employment, solar panels, earth bag buildings and permaculture.

What are the biggest challenges?

Not on the beach - of course the village experience always has its politics but the real challenge is getting people to Sierra Leone. The arrival isn't easy (visa laws change frequently) and flights aren't cheap. But those that come have real life changing experiences. It's worth telling this story over and over again because the impact is significant and that's our privilege - we and our members get to play a part in telling a good news story about a place most people think is dangerous.

But how will you overcome those widespread negative perceptions of Sierra Leone?

Good social and traditional media. Good PR. Good story telling. Real time updates. Over and over and over again until it starts to sink in.

A big TV documentary would help a lot.

What are the challenges of balancing profit-making with investing in charity and sustainable development?

Easy so fa, as we've got no real profit - we've reinvested everything and more into sustainable development. The model we're working towards is this: Our overseas projects (tribes) like Vorovoro and John Obey work like non- profits, what we put in stays in and any local profit gets reinvested in the country.

Tribewanted UK (online) has the potential with the right investment of becoming an engaging marketplace for people who are motivated by sustainability and ethical consumerism - a fast-growing sector - and we can become a significant lifestyle brand for this audience. Our tribes are our story drivers for the products and services (green energy, fair trade, ethical clothing, etc) that we can then sell. And the more profitable Tribewanted online can be the more tribes we can start and create more sustainable development.

So the model is there to be exploited, we're just waiting for the right people to jump on board and make it happen. While we do, we'll build a new community here in Sierra Leone to prove it can work anywhere.

What responsibilities do eco tourism businesses have for the communities and environments they operate in?

Simple: every decision you make should consider economic, social and environmental impact. When all three are in balance it's ecotourism (or whatever label you want to give it), when it's not in balance it's not ecotourism. For example, we shipped (bad environmentally) solar panels (good socially) to John Obey to create a sustainable power source (good environmentally, socially and economically) for the long-term.

The balance is positive for the all involved.

Is the average consumer sceptical about eco tourism? How do you change it?

I think the average consumer is sceptical about any product and service that says it is green/ethical. The future USP in sustainable businesses is not shouting about its ethical or environmental credentials but proving them. I don't market Tribewanted as 'eco tourism'. Instead, I say we're building cross-cultural communities. It is a given that everything we do looks for sustainable (social, economic and environmental) solutions because that has to be the future of good business and development.

I think you change it by doing it, not telling everyone you're going to do it. Speaking of which, I need to go and help the guys finish the solar power tower....

Plans for future?

Many tribes delivering local sustainable development and connected by a social network of change-making consumers. An adventurous, educational and inspiring way to live.

Watch our video interview with Ben Keene talking about starting and running Vorovoro, find out more about Tribewanted - or join the John Obey tribe!

Image: Tribewanted.com

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