Free trial

Ethical holidays in Africa

Monday February 19, 2007

Zak Abushal

Ecotourism has become a buzzword for the 21st century; but in fact the concept probably arrived in earnest around 10 years ago as holidaymakers were spoilt by cheapening airfares but increasingly frustrated by package holidays. They wanted something more and sought an alternative. This is where we stepped in, or more specifically, my friends Amy Carter and Neal Allcock did. Theirs was a partnership I found myself dragged into at the early stages when the business was just getting off the ground. And what started off looking like a harebrained idea soon began to gather some pace.

The idea was to build a fair trade tourism resort. It would allow visitors to choose the kind of holiday they wanted. It could be a beach holiday, where you sip cocktails and stare out onto deserted sands, or you could be more energetic and go diving and out on safari. Another possibility and perhaps one of the resorts standout features was the chance for visitors to take part in projects in the local community.

Mozambique isn?t for the fainthearted. Years of civil war has wracked its people as well as its infrastructure. The fighting ended in 1992, and since that time the country has made a concerted push toward a market economy. It?s still seen as one of the poorest nations in the world, but this once Portuguese colony is making strides towards a prosperous future. Mozambique?s GDP per capita may still languish at $1,300, ranking it 161st out of 182 countries, but each year its economy is growing by almost 10%.

Mozambique has all the hallmarks of an entrepreneur?s dream. A low economic base but already signs of rocket-fuelled growth, like the government throwing money into infrastructure and the odd multinational looking to get in early and establish that first mover advantage. But it also exhibits the signs of a despotic state: AK47 bullet-battered buildings with no windows or doors, left derelict years ago. It?s a country that swims in a quagmire of corruption and draconian laws, governed by chiefs and tribal leaders. Five years ago Mozambique?s currency was 32,000 meticals to the pound; it?s now at 49,270.

And yet, despite what appears to be a desperate situation, it offers one great compelling argument, too alluring to ignore. It has a coastline that stretches for almost 2,500km, not entirely untouched, but if you reach far enough north where it seems only missionaries dare to tread (yes you can still bump into them by the planeload), you?ll find fishermen and seaweed pickers and mile upon mile of virginal beach and equally unspoilt sea. The country offers even more: you can find thick bush, home to elephant and lion, literally within metres of the sea. And this is why Amy and Neal decided on an ecotourism lodge, which would adopt fair trade principles; it was a smart business idea geared toward supporting the local environment.

Opening a business in Mozambique is very labour intensive. If you think that you can do business in Africa the way you can in Europe then you?re mistaken. In the West you can often get by with a meeting then some emails and maybe the odd phone call. But in Mozambique, it?s a case of out of sight out of mind. Unless you?re prepared to be in people?s faces day and night you?ll get nowhere. And this means you can?t discriminate between tourism ministers and village chiefs. There?s a lot of hand holding and spoon feeding; and these aren?t any ordinary spoons, they tend to be laden with dollars, since bribery is commonplace and no more sneered upon than if you or I tipped in a restaurant at home. From the outset we refused to pay out bribes. Try factoring bribery payments into a business plan that your accountant has to sort through!

We had found an ideal spot just north of the large(ish) town of Pemba in a small village called Guludo. Pemba is the most northerly town in Mozambique, as far from the capital Maputo as you can get. We found a 30-hectare spot with both beach and bush in the middle of Quirimbas National Park. It was absolutely ideal for the resort. Sadly, our hopes of a quick (or painless) sale were dashed when the owner of the land, an elderly man who controlled a whole swathe of coastline, brought his son in to help with the negotiations. This meant a drawn out affair of inconclusive meetings and fairly pointless discussions. After three months of talks we settled on a number more than 10 times what we hoped to pay. If you measure that against a similar-sized plot of land in the West then there?s no comparison, but it still felt like we were being conned.

Construction of the resort was extremely time-consuming. Not only sourcing all the necessary materials but it was a nightmare getting the right people in to oversee the building. Original plans were scrapped and redrawn; budgets and deadlines were missed. It definitely didn?t go to plan, and when construction was finished the resort looked very different from the original design. However, it was no less impressive and more importantly, it never wavered from an ethical and environmental point of view.

Mozambique is many things but fundamentally it?s a country trying to break free of its history. Red poles on the roads mark spots where landmines are still to be found. The Halo Trust, which has been working in Mozambique for 14 years, is entering its last 12 months of landmine clearance, which signals a step on the road to recovery. The rewards of doing business in Mozambique are far greater than in many other places.

The business, which Amy and Neal named Bespoke Experience, is thriving, but it?s been a long time coming. As with any new business the first year is the toughest, and any problems are magnified when you?re operating in such an alien environment. But Amy and Neal battled through and are five years into their dream. There?s already a second lodge on the way, 15km south of the flagship resort, Mipande Beach Lodge. The resort and its directors have won numerous awards, largely for their commitment to ecology and dedication to the local area and its people.

Bespoke Experience

Photographs courtesy of the Bespoke Experience website

Inspired? If this strikes a chord with you, why don't you share your experiences with other Guardian Abroad readers? Visit our talkboards and spark up a conversation. Or if you're interested in submitting an article, look at our editorial policy to find out how.

View more articles in the NGOS category
View more articles about Mozambique

Advertiser Links