Dom and Kate Webb are Earth Changers.
What do you get if you cross a couple skilled in ecolodge and business management, education and international development along with a combined love of travel in the warm heart of Africa? The co-founders of The Responsible Safari Company, a social enterprise tour operator offering positive impact educational and cultural travel in Malawi.
Dom: I was originally from London, as my father was a city broker, and moved out to Hampshire at an early age. After school at Harrow, I did a gap year in Kenya working in a rural secondary school, before returning to study Business Management at University in Bristol. A hotel management training programme in Knightsbridge, London, followed where I met Kate, who was at the time at University in London studying Drama and Education.
3 months after meeting, and a little disillusioned with London life, I persuaded Kate that we should take a sabbatical, aged 23. She wanted to sail around the world but as I had some contacts in Kenya that’s where we first headed with a promise to sail from there. We flew to Nairobi and, being white, inexperienced and with no visa, we were laughed out of every door for about 3 months! Eventually after much begging, we were able to procure a 3 month work visas and, Cheli and Peacock, one of Kenya’s most prestigious safari operators, thankfully gave in to us and offered us a job covering maternity leave for a management couple in their flagship lodge. After 6 months, aged about 24, we were approached to start a new ecolodge in the south of Uganda. While we were there, Kate did a long distance Masters in International Development and Education, studying the effects of tourism on local communities surrounding Safari Lodge in Africa, specialising in conservation, education and development.
So that was the start of us setting something up. Talking to our guests every evening, there seemed to be a growing desire for responsible travel but a lack of organisations who offered the chance to visit Charities and grass roots initiatives, and then do a safari at the same time. So the idea was born (over a lot of camp fire G&T’s) to set something up that combined these growing desires responsibly, in a destination that would suit the business model, where we could have adventure in our lives, live within an exciting culture and run a profitable social enterprise employing and supporting local people.
Malawi offered a great opportunity. We had spent a couple of months there previously and it had a great feel. There was little tourism for the country to benefit from already, but they were very good on development and with a people who were very open, offering a real chance to develop tourism hand-in-hand in partnership with communities. There was also great road infrastructure (with Chinese investment) as well as health and safety, which meant it was great for the groups like the schools we now welcome.
In August 2008, we arrived with two backpacks, $500 in our pockets and a basic business idea in our heads. Kate had set up a job in an International school teaching drama and I spent 6 months writing business plans and trying to secure visas, which was more complicated than expected, before eventually launching in November 2008 and we’ve been developing the business since. Malawi is a unique country that lives up to its nickname “the warm heart of Africa”, but as a developing country it’s been a challenge of course too.
There was a period of over 18 months when the economy crashed, there was no forex (foreign exchange, currency trade) in the banks and, with total reliance on imports, very little produce in the country and no fuel in the pumps – so we had almost 2 years of running a tour operator with limited access to fuel and supplies. As such, we had to obtain various licenses through government officials to purchase wholesale fuel, create fuel dumps at our city base and distribute deposits at lodges around the country in the run up to groups arriving. This meant fuel dumps being delivered regularly at 2.00am (when fuel had been delivered from Zimbabwe, but before reaching the pumps) and years of filling vehicles by jerry cans (we got quite good at it, although went through a lot of pairs of shoes!) and constant driving around the country to top up our deposits to keep our group tours and operations running.
Frequently we would have suppliers pull vehicles we were due to hire for large groups arriving the next day, with mad scrambles to find alternatives. The exchange rate has also depreciated by over 400% since we arrived 8 years ago so it’s been a challenge in money transfers and currency trading. We’ve had to learn a huge amount on buying and selling currency, hedging, pre-selling, post-buying… Plus we are a responsible travel company with a remit of sustainable growth in grass roots communities working within different cultural systems. As an ethical business of course we keep above corruption with an anti-corruption policy, yet we have the challenge that it’s ingrained in the system, it’s been a part of culture for a long time. However we try to take responsibility where otherwise no accountability might exist. Operating in the middle of Africa has a multitude of challenges to it!
“At the end of the day, it comes down to a matter of trust within our staff, it’s essential you have a team you can trust impeccably, and we do as much as we can to achieve the most positive results within our operating environment”.
Really the country’s just woken up to tourism in the past 5 years, which is great to see. While I was working in ecolodges and while Kate was working on her Masters in International Development, we both saw a growing need for responsible tourism and ecotourism, to get tourists out of the safari lodges and into the communities and villages, and see how we could bridge the divide between tourism and development. With Kate’s passion for working with local communities and mine for travel and tourism it’s not surprising we decided to combine our loves. So from the start our approach was about distributing tourism-generated income into grassroots communities.
But it’s the people of Malawi who really make it what it is, which is a lovely feeling - although sometimes frustrating as it can be a very passive environment to work in – they are a very calm, neutral, well-balanced society whom it is a delight to visit and work with. Malawi is often called the "Warm Heart of Africa" because of that warmth and friendliness of the people. A spirit of cooperation prevails, maybe because of their many different ethnic groups.
Malawi is also very accepting and supportive of women and greater gender equality than much of Africa, which is something Kate was adamant about when deciding to locate to Malawi, having lived in East Africa where gender balance could be slightly off-kilter. Initially teaching, Kate joined me and the business full-time to look after marketing and projects after 2 years.
We now have a team of 10 in Malawi and 3 in the UK, including myself and Kate who are now based in Devon with 2 young children. In Malawi, our skilled and experienced team are the heart of RSC, incredibly passionate for development, humanities, nature and the environment and we are regularly supporting and co-funding them to gain skills, qualifications and loans plus cover healthcare.
We wanted to link with existing community organisations rather than starting our own charity, to support entrepreneurial Malawians in sustainable community development.
Our Manifesto describes our commitment to the people of Malawi:
- We believe that empowering Malawi’s people through tourism offers a chance for communities to develop out of the poverty cycle.
- We believe that when promoting a fragile destination it is vital to ensure the benefits reach the local communities.
- We are committed to building the local economy in Malawi. By employing local people and creating sustainable growth through social enterprise, we aim to reduce the dependence on the aid industry.
- We focus on ‘Inclusive business in tourism’: To increase business linkages between people from low-income communities and tourism-industry actors, collaborating as business partners on development goals for long-lasting mutual benefit, focusing on positive impacts of tourism on poverty.
It’s this approach which saw us chosen to be part of the programme by The Geotourism Development Foundation to promote pro-poor tourism through enhancing the distinctive aspects of a place to the benefit of both local residents and visiting travellers.
As an organisation, our purpose is two-fold:
To educate Western students and individual global interested travellers, interested in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development on what they are, what is being done to counter / implement them and to increase their knowledge of the developing country or community side of development, whether that is making them better students, better employees, better business managers or better global citizens.
And secondly on the flip side, the core essence of what we do is a partnership between international clients and local communities, skill sharing, passing on beneficial knowledge, experience and finance to these communities so they can become self-sufficient. What we’re trying to achieve is the growth of local businesses through tourism income so they can become sustainable in their own right. We believe in being part of a collaborative effort toward community development sharing responsibilities rather than acting in isolation, to ensure positive impact on lives. Our name reflects a belief in the responsibility the tourism industry holds, both to tourists who visit and host communities, and for the hosts to own the developments taking place in their communities.
We’re not a charity, and proud of that because donor aid doesn’t foster sustainability; and we’re not a volunteer organisation, because we see it as a two-way street, an equal partnership, which doesn’t work without the other party. The intention is we filter a potentially huge revenue stream through our western networks to grassroots projects that just wouldn’t have that ability to market themselves otherwise. Really, that objective is clear when you join the dots retrospectively.
We started as a Destination Management Company and realised fairly quickly that Malawi didn’t have the tourism volume to really make a noticeable difference with our community partners in that way, so we started more group tourism, and notably more educational tourism, which we’ve grown and developed over the last 5 years. A significant amount of our work is school and university groups plus charities to an extent.
Our core operating model is on what we call Global Development Workshops: We follow the UN Global Goal model quite closely and we’ve set up a number of educational workshops with community partners in the south of the country, with modules on healthcare, water management, fair trade, sustainable agriculture, solar energy, renewable energy, climate change, deforestation – real-life working models at a grassroots level interacting with local communities. Our groups come out and work within the communities as a skills exchange. With universities, it’ll be anthropology, international development or sustainable tourism students, coming out and doing work as part of their course programme or thesis. Additionally, secondary schools can take part in various classroom renovation projects with linked schools in the country that we set up and project manage.
We also run a number of trips that are open all year, including Global Citizenship and a Triathlon Challenge.
Our customers are ‘travellers’ in mindset, even if we are all still tourists at the end of the day.
But we still have a lot of bespoke independent travellers’ trips too, so we have a slightly unique operating model, but always ahead of the market in terms of responsible tourism and development, our purpose to forge partnerships with local communities for mutual and sustainable benefit. Of course, tourists will come seeking unfound areas, and the stunning rural villages high in mountains of Malawi will change.
Our company flourishes because travellers are demanding more answers to these hard questions and it is our job to provide guidance to tourists and advise local communities on the best tourism practices. If we take away the jargon, remove ‘green’ terminology, and see, rather than handouts of aid dependency, and if harnessed correctly, tourism has a place, the ability and potential to be an avenue for economic and social sustainable development alongside the protection of cultures and landscapes.
A core focus for us is to assist local conservation, environmental and cultural preservation initiatives, which we do via our ‘Payment for Ecosystem Services Scheme’ in which 1.5% of every booking goes towards protecting the ecosystems tourists benefit from during a stay in Malawi. This has so far generated in excess of $13,500 to conservation, $36,500 facilitated community donations through more than 7,500 travellers, with more than 16,000 beneficiaries.
How you can be an Earth Changer:
Visit Malawi with The Responsible Safari Company
Learn about Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship with immersive insight in key global challenges in rural communities in Africa.
Earth Changers recommends:
"The Boy who Harnessed the Wind" by William Kamkwamba: In 2002, with Malawi battling HIV and drought, a 14 year old refuses to give up on learning and reading when his parents tell him that he must leave school and work on the family farm, no longer able to afford tuition.
My heart will always be...
"...passionate that these programmes can be a key factor in advancing the sustainability of grass root initiatives while at the same time greatly enhancing individuals’ awareness of the world and the growing challenges facing the planet today. If we’re able to achieve a miniscule improvement in the way people think while benefiting local African communities in a sustainable and responsible manner, then without any doubt that is our primary goal".