For more than a year, Tatjana and I have been working tirelessly on starting our own tour operator for fair and sustainable educational tours to Sub-Saharan African counties: “Mingle Africa”. What began as a mere idea, sitting on a balcony in Berlin sharing a bottle of wine, is going to turn into reality in January 2016. One of the final steps was launching a crowdfunding campaign on EcoCrowd on November 24th to raise 15.000 Euro within the next 45 days.
Having both a background in development studies and African sciences, the idea for our business was clear from the beginning. African countries are being advertised within the tourism industry by the same stereotypes over and over again. What is being sold to tourists is wildlife, landscape, beach and folklore. “Discover Africa’s Magic”, “Travel to the Heart of the Dark continent” are among the headlines used in the tourism industry.
Within Europe there are plenty of tourism companies that offer exciting educational tours, including arts, history, politics, literature, etc. They too tend to reduce the African continent to clichés and Eurocentric ideas. A typical “cultural experience” during a trip to “Africa” (notice something?) might involve some drumming, dancing Zulu/ Maasai people.
That’s pretty much it. I probably don’t have to point out that this description would be a highly incomplete picture of any country, let alone an entire continent when it comes to “culture”.
With our own tour company we want to change that. We want to be the first specialized outbound tour operator for educational tours to Sub-Saharan African countries on the German market. And we promote fair and sustainable tourism, aiming to be CSR-certified by TourCert in 2017. Running the danger of sounding like a dreamer, we want to change (or help to change) the Eurocentric perception about African countries.
So what is different about our tours? Our first product, the “Educational Tours”are designed to provide intense insight into e.g. cultural, political and historical aspects of the destinations. Apart from common sightseeing sites, we include highlights in our tours such as lectures by local experts, visits to vernissages, readings, concerts, plays, and meeting contemporary witnesses, e.g. people that were active in the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. To put it short: Africa is more than safari and “traditions”. We want to show a diverse picture of diverse countries.
Our second product, the “Campus”, is a seminar- and workshop program for young adults, ages 18-25, providing a global learning experience. This program has been designed as an alternative to “voluntourism” (volunteer + tourism) in social projects, which has been highly criticized by various people in the past years. During a six week seminar- and workshop program in Uganda, Tanzania or South Africa, our participants get to know their host culture in an unbiased manner, trying to avoid a Eurocentric perspective on global and developmental matters by leaning about those issues from local experts. We don’t send high school graduates off to teach, we want them be able to learn, to challenge their own perceptions and to enable them to ask critical questions.
Learning by doing
When I was asked to write an article for this blog on our startup I was thrilled. And then I ended up sitting in front of a blank page (don’t worry, I am used to that feeling from my Ph.D.) for two hours wondering what the message was that I wanted to get out there. Obviously I want to inform as many people as possible about our project. Get them (get you) to contribute to our crowd funding campaign and get everyone to share our idea with as many people as possible. But apart from the obvious, I want to share the experience of opening our own business while still being in the process.
There are plenty of articles out there giving advice and sharing experiences. But most of those articles are being written in retrospective. Mostly by people that were successful with their business idea. And you find plenty of handbooks on how to start a business, not to mention all those websites promising 10 (or whatever number) steps to successfully opening a business.
When someone decides to open her or his own business, obviously that person is convinced she or he has a great idea. There are plenty of doubts, yes, but you wouldn’t try if you were not convinced that there is a market for your idea. So you start gathering information (including reading all those dodgy “10 steps to success” websites), you start planning your products, you start doing market research and very carefully you start mentioning the idea to some friends or family.
Now if you think they are thrilled to hear it, think again. The most common question was: Do you actually know how to start a business?
Well to be honest, I didn’t. One year ago I had no clue how to write a business plan. And most of the handbooks didn’t really help. Then we started writing one which did quite well in the BPW business-plan competition in Berlin-Brandenburg. We even got invited to the pitch for the “Sustainability” prize. I also had no idea how to do the financial planning for an entire business (my high school math teacher would probably be very surprised I even tried), I’d never gone into a bank before to hold a financial pitch in front of ten very intimidating-looking people in suits, I’d never once sat down to negotiate a business contract with people twice my age.
Even after we finished the business plan competition, my parents very carefully and politely asked if we were actually going through with our idea. Well, we wouldn’t have spent all those hours if we didn’t. And by then it wasn’t just an idea any longer.
The big launch
The latest “first time” is starting a crowdfunding campaign. Just like so many other ambitious people starting their own business, we are trying to raise money by relying on the crowd. Some succeed, some fail. We obviously hope to be among the lucky ones who manage to raise the money. But as all handbooks tell you, it has not much to do with luck. It has to do with knowing how to plan the campaign. So again, I did a lot of reading before launching the campaign. Doing a lot of reading on a topic is what you are used to when working on your PhD. It gives you a certain feeling of security.
But the second thing I had to learn is that no matter how much you read or how many seminars you visit, you will never feel absolutely certain that what you are doing is right. At some point you just have to start. So writing this article is part of just getting started.
Because there comes the day when you actually have to put your idea out into the real world, tell people that are not friends or family about it and anxiously wait for their response. That’s a very scary part. So since we started our crowdfunding campaign, we have been checking the comments on our Facebook page, e-mails and messages every minute. After the official launch, we were both sitting hooked to our laptops, waiting for the first person to contribute. What was actually just a couple of minutes did feel like hours.
So far we are overwhelmed by the positive responses, by people reaching out, offering support and even asking for an internship with us. Getting this kind of response makes us confident that what we are doing is actually working out, that the idea didn’t just make sense in your own mind.
By now even my parents have stopped asking if this is what I actually want.
(Written on November 25th, 2015.)
By Nora Witt*