Trying and failing to make a difference. One entrepreneur’s quest to help others, abroad.

As an entrepreneur travelling in poor or developing regions, it makes you appreciate just how easy you’ve had it, how much you’ve been given, and how lucky you are to have been born somewhere where education, skills (and healthcare) are supplied for free, and to all. 

I believe it’s true of mainstream capitalist cultures like ours, that comparatively, knowing what you want and working hard to get it means you have a more equal opportunity of success. Yes, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ethnicity and dis/ability still have a way of unleveling things, but at least these characteristics are protected by law in the UK under the Equality Act 2010.

Elsewhere, cash is king. And although basic education is common place in more countries than ever, accessing further/higher education and actually being able to do something with it afterwards comes down to money. And depending on the where you live, some of the characteristics mentioned above, mean persecution instead of protection.

Being a female entrepreneur in 90% of the world, as I’ve learned and talked about in my previous post, is a particularly tough ride in many cultures as the traditional role of women isn’t one that would accept or allow for such ambitions.

On my travels this year I’ve met some really interesting entrepreneurs. Some who are helping others, and some I’ve personally tried or am trying to help.

In Mozambique I met a guy called Ben from LA who founded a Water NGO and employs a team of local people to help bring fresh water to rural communities who still have miles to walk everyday to access it.

We had a very interesting conversation over dinner one night as I asked him how he ended up here, in this small village of Massinga, running his own NGO. He told me his story, one of having been involved in large scale work in war-torn countries including  the Sudan where mass genocide was (and still is) taking place and human rights violated every day. I sensed from the distant look in his eyes when he recounted this fact (but not the details) that he had seen some terrible things. He told me it was heartbreakingly disempowering to try and make a difference in a place where things were so f****d, as realistically it was a drop in the ocean with the enormity of the situation. And how often, aid ended up in the wrong hands, effectively fuelling wrong doing.

He figured that focussing on bringing resources to support the most basic of human needs to people who didn’t have it, in countries that are in relative peace, was an easier more achievable way of saving lives. So he decided to start a small water NGO, fundraising in the US to help people in Africa by building one well at a time, and spent half the year here and half the year back in LA, travelling back and forth every couple of months or so.

I hadn’t really thought about this before, but many developing countries today have entirely skipped a fundamental part of development. Bypassing crucial infrastructure like fresh water, electricity, industry and transport and launched headlong into the digital and technology age.

But in Subsaharan Africa, local people aren’t getting access to any of the tools and skills necessary to apply themselves using digital, for example to market and grow their businesses.

I was fascinated by what I saw on my travels in Mozambique. For example, you can’t go more than 5 minutes before seeing Vodacom (aka Vodafone) bright red branding adorning small shack-like shops selling air time and data top-ups.

Similarly, Kenyan based success story and Vodacom joint venture with Safari-com ‘M-PESA’ (mobile payments and for anyone with a phone) is advertised everywhere and used by most locals as their financial services solution instead of traditional banks, most often used for paying bills by transferring money to other people.

To provide the 3G connection, there are Comms Towers everywhere spoiling the unspoiled views. These ugly (but necessary) white rusting structures thrust out of the bush and into the landscape like something reminiscent of war of the worlds, all the more visible because they are so incongruent in a vista where everything is low rise.

Most people I met had smart phones, ranging from basic ones to recent iPhones, but I also noticed even the poorest looking had little old school Nokias. I must say it was rather strange seeing women walking down dirt track roads, in traditional dress, babes swaddled on their backs, carrying water on their heads, wielding machetes in one hand and texting on their mobiles in the other.

You may be asking as I did, ‘if there isn’t any electricity, how do they charge their phones?’ Well, another incongruous sight you see outside the rustic compounds of mud hut houses, are miniature plastic solar panels, scattered around like tiny power farms with their little battery packs being fed through black wires, stocking up on precious power. One thing Africa has is an abundance of sunshine after all!

Global advancements in technology are meaning that low cost hardware is empowering people everywhere to transcend social and economic barriers, gain awareness of what’s out there (beyond their physical and financial travel restrictions) and consume infinite content from the pool of data online.

A sobering thought however, is that here in one of the poorest countries in Africa (Mozambique is actually forecast to be the second poorest country in the world in 2019 according to Focus Economics) 80% of people have a mobile phone and are connected to the internet, but only 40% of the population has access to clean running water.

To put that into context, more people have a Facebook account than can avoid waterborne diseases and infant mortality. There’s something not right about that. And without further education and skills in digital, I can’t see many Africans getting the most out of their cyber revolution, being able to develop software, write code or create digital products and services for themselves.

As someone who spent my formative career years in corporate, then quit the rat race, and have so far made a relative success of year 1 in my own start-up biz, I made the decision that I wanted to give back in some small way (albeit not starting a charity or NGO just yet). My embryonic philanthropic ambitions are part of my vision for this ‘life I want to lead’, and think to myself that if I can do some good alongside having this privileged work life, balanced with the luxury of travel then why not try to help others less fortunate?

In my corporate jobs, we were always supporting some big charity or another selling merchandise and fundraising, but being self employed, I wanted to see if CMX could make a bigger difference in a smaller but more tangible way.

I described what ‘giving back’ in service of others through my biz could look like to my coach, also called Claire, and framed it as taking on selective pro bono projects that would give individuals or groups with potential a head start using my skills. Back in the UK in the first few months, I ran some mini workshops for free at home, around my kitchen table in Hackney, to help out other entrepreneurs with new and growing businesses in London to think about their business challenges and CX opportunities.

I didn’t do it for this reason, but helping people turned out to produce some nice little case studies and testimonials that helped me get started too, but the main buzz I got was seeing the difference I could make so quickly by bringing another skillset they didn’t have to the (kitchen) table.

On each big adventure this year, I’ve been on the look out for someone to support internationally with the hope that my CX and digital skills could help them to overcome their barriers to success. Ideally, I was looking to help people where the impact they could have by being successful themselves would be a positive force for wider impact on their local communities. 

However, it’s been a learning experience in its own right as I’ve tried (and failed) with varying degrees of success to produce something that will stick and make a really make a difference.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  Maimonides.

But where is the line drawn between giving the man/woman a fish and becoming a full time fishing instructor?

One really simple but highly effective thing I did was help a couple of baby boomer lady Lodge owners with whom I stayed with in Africa set up Instagram accounts. I gave them little 121 tutorials on creating engaging copy and content, and taught them about following the right accounts to grow followers and the power of a good hashtag. (FYI lodges are small hotels and they support sustainable development by employing local people)

I guess on the fishing scale this was more like sharing ‘practical fishing tips’ that they could implement immediately (and I’m still seeing their confidence grow in the posts I see them put up online). These guys already had decent websites and were using TripAdvisor and to drive positive reviews and revenue.

So now all I needed to do was find and help someone with a great product, but lacking a solid digital proposition to take the next step in the CX development. But where would I find one such a person, and how could I do web design on the road without my toolkit?

Cue David.

He’s the South African owner of a horse ranch that took me riding on a two day safari of the beautiful Overburg region of the Western Cape of SA (btw I’m horse mad, riding ex-racehorse ‘Francis-Albert most weekends when I’m in the UK).

My guide on this riding odyssey was a local Xhosa guy called Michael who didn’t speak much English but was a wonderful horseman and although we struggled to communicate sometimes, also great company. So impressed was I by the riding experience on their homebred Boerperds, galloping across the beautiful beaches and Fynbos laden bush that I had tonnes of questions for David, particularly about the horses and how he recruited and trained local grooms and guides.

I was in South Africa at exactly the same time in 2018 that Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president and taking myself on a solo self drive adventure from Cape Town along the Garden Route meant I got to hear a lot about politics on the radio. As I was the only rider on this particular safari (yep customer numbers had gotten that low) and with David being a nice guy who didn’t want me to eat alone, we went out for dinner in the sleepy town of Stanford. My questions began with horses, but my curiosity moved onto his views on the politics of the worsening social situation.

He explained that despite being much better off financially than the rest of Africa (all but Nigeria in fact), the country is more racially divided than any time since apartheid ended, and in dire straits politically following years of corruption.

He described with passion how the country had been systematically raped of it’s resources by European settlers, who had taken slaves, land, gold and diamonds and didn’t give anything back.

How these foreigners, in their attempts to ‘civilise’ the tribes, left indigenous people bereft of their own culture, without infrastructure and with substandard education. All amounting to the growing tin roofed townships full of black people surrounding big cities where white people work in glass skyscrapers and live in locked down gated secure communities today.

He explained the history of apartheid from the perspective of someone who had lived through it, and told me that to this day, it had left such deep wounds between black and white that he doubted they would ever really heal.

He talked about tourism being the single biggest opportunity for the whole country, and his belief that employing young men from the local community in tourism was the best way of helping integration, the best way to provide sustainable income for individuals and that ultimately the money would be spent back in the local economy.

I deduced that his horse safari company had become more of a ‘for-profit social enterprise’ than a traditional business.  

We talked a little about how things were going, and he explained that they were loosing customers to bigger safari companies who were great at marketing. And that numbers of horses (costs) were growing, despite the rider numbers dwindling (revenues).

One look at his website revealed part of the problem… something built for desktop 15 years previous the had not been updated or optimised, ever! 

So seeing as this was the 1st big ‘chance to give back’ I’d been looking for, I offered to help David redesign his website.

Being my first time doing something like this on the road, the only approach I knew was to do a workshop, which is what we did, using a map of the Western Cape as my mapping board and cut up pieces of paper and blue tack as my post-its!

Together we mapped out the design for an entirely new site complete with requirements for images and copy, and as the pictures below show, we had a great time doing it. I got him to take snaps of each section and gave him an introduction to Squarespace where he thought his daughter would be able to self build, and sent him off hopeful that this could be a turning point for him in attracting new customers.

Sadly David never did anything with the design…. On reflection, this approach was more like teaching advanced fishing without the basics course.

The next person I helped was a guy called Nelio from Mozambique. He had already set up a small business running tours to the Red Dunes of Vilanculos on the Bazaruto Archipelago and I thought, was really onto something offering to show tourists the real Mozambique by taking them to see the local communities, schools, restaurants, bars, live music and markets. I experienced his hospitality myself, and loved my time there! As someone who wants to experience something different on my travels and avoid tourists traps, I thought a local person running this kind of tour could really appeal to adventurous Western travellers like me and that this had big potential for him. I was so inspired by the fact he used the opportunity to help local people, showing me his facebook page stories of building desks for children to work from in schools and he seemed so passionate about sustainable tourism that his story was not only marketable but could make a big difference to his home town.

This time, I decided to go all in, and design and build a website for him. I wrote the copy, used my own travel photographs and tried to help him with the proposition. I was back in the UK when I started work, and the challenges of a language barrier (me unable to speak Portuguese and his not so great English), and different attitudes to deadlines emerged. I built version 1, paid for a years web hosting and the domain name as a gift, believing that it would be worthwhile to help. And unfortunately he didn’t manage to do his side of the work until I was travelling again. When I explained I wouldn’t have time to finish before I return mid January, he began to treat me like he was a paying client of mine and I wasn’t performing. So unfortunately, with hours of my time lost and the first version of the site up, we parted ways without this idea ever reaching full term. This time I had done too much work, and using my own accounts meant I couldn’t easily transfer ownership (not that the way he behaved made me want to do that now anyway).

This time I’d just given the fish. Albeit a very time consuming fish. And realised that this was also the wrong approach.

However, on this adventure, I’ve met someone special I think I can use all of these lessons of failure to help in a more sustainable way.

Enter Mrs Sen. A 25 year old entrepreneur and owner of the Homestay I rated 10/10 in Sa Pa, Northern Vietnam. In the last 12 months, she has started her own business, got married AND had a baby. We got on brilliantly, and I was enthralled by her story of choosing not to live the traditional lifestyle allotted to her of moving in with her partners parents and keeping house, but with Mr Sen bought the lease on two home-stays in the rural village of Ta Van.

She told me the story of how they met, when he was a tour guide and she was studying English at collage, how their relationship blossomed over 4 years before they decided to tie the knot and that being from two different minority tribes meant they were up against it to be allowed to marry. They (and baby) live in a room, just off the main homestay restaurant building and split their time between the two home-stays, with Mr Sen running the second. At the time I was there, her mother in law was visiting to help with her 2 month old son, and when I thought about what a wonderful example of a female entrepreneur she is, balancing the juggling act of motherhood and work, I knew that coupled with their awesome homestay Customer Experience, that she was the one I wanted to help next.

They don’t have a website at all, or the money to pay someone to build one, so I have offered to help. But this time I have taken a very different approach.

  1. Mrs Sen has set up the Squarespace account in her own name and me as a contributor so she has ownership from the start.
  2. She will buy the domain name and pay for web hosting which is her investment in using it.
  3. We talked about ideas together including the name of her .com and which stories are unique selling points, so we got lots of planning done quickly.
  4. We agreed the site navigation upfront so expectations are managed on what the output will be.
  5. I gave her a template of information/photos in line with the outline design that I need for the copy and will be finessing rather than creating things from scratch (less time investment needed from me).
  6. We agreed a way of working that puts the onus on her to deliver as much as it does me so we are in partnership on this one.

I only met Mrs Sen a week ago, and she has already completed the template of information I needed and sent me the photos using We Transfer for the first time. We are chatting on WhatsApp daily and feel like the way we bonded over just being two women in business, trying to live out our own dream is a much better starting point for helping someone than I had with the chaps before.

Being entrepreneurial is all about trying and failing, learning from the failure and trying something different in the hope of success. My adventures in setting up CMX, and now working towards being a full time digital nomad are all about taking the leap and not being afraid to fail. I feel like helping other entrepreneurs who are less fortunate than me is a wonderful opportunity to give back, and also learn my own lessons along the way too.

I have a good feeling about ‘My Sa Pa Homestay’ and Mrs Sen… so watch this space!

Some of my South Africa snaps 

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