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The Malawi Connection: When Doing Good Does Good

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 19 September 2013

A tale of book bags, boatbuilders, seedlings, tour operators, community development… and hope

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This is a classic feel-good tale featuring an especially unlikely cast of characters: an African travel company, a UK-based handmade-bag manufacturer, a doctor, a boatbuilder, a community-based organisation in Malawi and the people on the shores of Lake Malawi it supports, especially the kids of a primary school. Like all illustrations of ungrudging generosity at the interface between social enterprise, responsible travel and social good, it involves people who opened their hearts, minds and wallets to the unlikely, who rallied around common causes and who improved everyone’s lives.

Children of the Makawa Primary School catchment in Malawi

The children of the Makawa Primary School catchment in Malawi were the focus of generosity by an ensemble of organisations. Photo courtesy of Responsible Safari Company

A Boatbuilder’s Hands

It all begins on the southern shore of Lake Malawi, where, since its inception, the Responsible Safari Company (RSC), a Malawi-based operator that specialises in experiential travel to Africa, has partnered with existing community-based organisations to offer ecotourism initiatives like day trips and village experiences as a means of supporting community needs such as care for the elderly, HIV education and child sponsorship.

One of the first community-focused initiatives RSC identified is commonly referred to simply as Joseph’s project. The namesake Joseph, a boatbuilder by trade, hails from a small Lake Malawi coastal community that’s two kilometres down an earthen track from the nearest road. When Joseph one day watched his sick houseboy carried down this track, he set about mending it with friends from the community. One thing led to another and he eventually founded CISER – the Community Initiative for Self Reliance – a local nongovernmental organisation that, among other things, helps develop the potential of young people through a secondary school sponsorship program and vocational training. The latter has been helped by Joseph’s role as one of the executive directors of the Mpwepwe Boatyard, which has maintained unique wooden boats since its establishment in 1966.

“When we first approached Joseph, he was keen to get involved with ecotourism,” explained Kate Webb, one of the managing directors of RSC. “Now, since 2008 we have worked on various projects, including a local traditional dance event, ecotourism day visits, child sponsorship and tree planting.”

Joseph of CISER and the Mpwepwe Boatyard in Malawi

Joseph is the founder of CISER – the Community Initiative for Self Reliance – and an executive directors of the Mpwepwe Boatyard in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Responsible Safari Company

Bags Filled with Meaning and Hope

Then, one day, thanks to good fortune, Webb chanced upon Elephant Branded, a UK company that produces unique handmade bags from ethically sourced, recycled and durable products. While the branding and supply chain certainly caught Webb’s eye, an idea was sparked by the company’s policy that “You buy one ethically made, recycled bag or related product and we give one ergonomically designed school bag and kit to a child in Africa or Asia.”

Hopeful, Webb reached out to Elephant Branded and proposed that they consider the partnership between RSC and CISER as a worthy project; the kids that they support in the Makawa Primary School catchment would be the final beneficiaries of the company’s generosity. Elephant Branded responded enthusiastically, offering 600 school bags.

“Donating tangible, worthwhile and practical school bags to children that need them is the cornerstone of our business,” commented Tim Mendelssohn of Elephant Branded. “At the moment, our primary focus is on children in places such as Malawi who desperately need them to aid them in achieving a good education. We want our customers to know that when they buy one of our products, they are donating real things to real children and that, in turn, they are making a real difference.”

Boxes of book bags donated by Elephant Branded

Twenty boxes of book bags donated by Elephant Branded to the kids of the Makawa Primary School catchment take up a lot of space. Getting them to Malawi was made possible in a doctor's shipping container. Photo courtesy of Responsible Safari Company

Yet Mendelssohn is mindful of the need to be realistic. “Thousands of miles, corruption and political pressures often prevent us helping those that need our support,” he continued. Thus, “working with local organisations is integral to what we do. We believe that fostering positive and worthwhile relationships can help both recipients and suppliers, and our aim is to show the world that business can be a positive force for good. By aligning the goals of lots of small business, we believe that a real difference can be made.”

There was, of course, a catch. The “thousands of miles” obstacle reported by Mendelssohn stood like a gaping chasm between the desire to give the bags and the ability to deliver them. With almost all of the pieces in place, “the team was complete and ideas bubbling,” said Webb. “But the crucial missing piece of the jigsaw was how to get the bags here!”

Enter the Good Doctor

Yes, the doctor to the rescue. Almost unbelievably, Webb learned of Stephen Aston, a doctor relocating with his family to Malawi to do medical work and research in Blantyre.

“I was more than happy to find space in my shipping container for the boxes of school bags along with all our household stuff,” said Dr. Aston. “It was a finely run thing in the end, though. The bags just barely made it to my house in the UK in time to be loaded onto the container. I’m sure the school bags will be put to really good use.”

Safely aboard the MSC Susanna, the bags arrived in Malawi in April. Everyone, including Dr. Aston, planned to gather for the September trip to Joseph’s community for the handover ceremony.

One Final Element: the Green Piece

Ownership and practical learning are important parts of any experience, especially when dealing with school-age children. As far as Webb was concerned, “We did not want the bags to simply be handed out to the school children.” So the project team came up with a plan that would really round out the tale.

Mindful of the distance the bags had travelled to reach Malawi and of the desire to offset the carbon emissions of the journey, the project partners took to heart Joseph’s experience as a builder of wooden boats, which has made him very aware of deforestation problems in Malawi. Joseph shared how he and his team learned from the Forestry Department about planting and caring for tree seedlings. Why not share that knowledge and that experience with the school children by getting them to plant trees in return for the bags? Local community workers and school teachers would help.

The idea was an instant hit.

“We thought that this would be a good way for the children at the local school to be involved and would also give them ownership of their school bags. Each family would pay approximately US$0.20 per bag and for this they would receive the bag… and a tree seedling!” enthused Webb.

Children from the Makawa Primary School catchment in Malawi show off their saplings and Elephant Branded book bags

Children from the Makawa Primary School catchment in Malawi show off their new Elephant Branded book bags and the saplings that they will be planting. Photo courtesy of Responsible Safari Company

“The initiative for tree planting is a great opportunity for empowerment of the communities as regards to conservation of the environment, thereby contributing to mitigation of effects of climate change,” agreed Joseph. Just as importantly, “All the stakeholders in the collaborative effort will work together from the initial process of tree planting, management and sustainability of the trees to attainable usage.”

A Successful Global Team Effort

The bag-handover ceremony took place on Monday, September 16. The smiles and good feelings were plainly evident.

“For Elephant Branded, this is our most exciting delivery to date,” commented Mendelssohn, unfortunately not able to attend in person. “By working with our bag suppliers in the UK, we can ensure that children get high-quality products, and by working with RSC, we can ensure that they get the opportunity to use them. Simple as that. This, in turn, enables us to meet both our corporate and social objectives whilst enabling all parties to develop their potential customer base. We now hope this can happen again and again!”

Andrew Kayuni of the Responsible Safari Company on Mount Mulanje with his Elephant Branded bag

Andrew Kayuni, Head Guide of the Responsible Safari Company, climbed Mount Mulanje with his Elephant Branded bag to raise $500 for community-based projects in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Responsible Safari Company

Joseph listed a rich abundance of ways in which the cooperative undertaking has had a positive impact, concluding that “We feel it is important to be part of a collaborative effort toward community development, rather than acting in isolation. We believe we are all targeting the same (vulnerable) community, therefore our collaboration will ensure positive impact on their lives, and a sharing of responsibilities and costs for activities. CISER has a social responsibility toward the communities; its collaboration with other partners will contribute to capacity building through the experiences from other players.”

Webb’s final word: “Over the past five years we have worked on a few multiparty efforts, but usually between RSC visitors, our company and the community. This usually involves linking past visitors or skilled volunteers with the local communities. But this is the first time we have linked with an organisation like Elephant Branded. The idea of using the tools, ideas and innovative business models of Elephant Branded and mixing them with the links, contacts and relationships RSC has built in Malawi really appeals! At each step of the way it has felt like we are playing to one another’s strengths, topped off by applying the skills of Joseph’s CISER team, who will teach the children and teachers how to look after the tree seedlings.’

How many wins can you count?!

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is a co-founder of OutBounding (a content curation tool), Destination Accelerator (education and networking for destination marketers) and EcoAdventure Media (support for eco-conscious brands), as well as a co-initiator of the Local Travel Movement (a platform for people passionate about local travel). For five years, Ethan has been Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world, for which he founded and edits The Travel Word (this very blog).
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Africa, children, Eastern Africa, ecotours, Malawi, poverty, responsible travel news, whl.travel,

10 Responses to “The Malawi Connection: When Doing Good Does Good”

  1. Charlotte says:

    This was a brilliant read, thank you. It’s great to hear about the fantastic work that The Responsible Safari Company and Elephant Branded are doing. How refreshing that there are people like this with such a ‘can-do’ attitude!

    • It’s is refreshing, I agree. And, truth told, it’s much more common than people realize. There are great acts of generosity and kindness everywhere. Would that we got more of this than what usually hits the headlines.

  2. Dom says:

    Well done to Kate and Elephant Branded for making this possible! Combination of great people and great companies and lovely to see the end product and the smiles on the Malawi Kids faces!

    Thanks Ethan for doing the project justice in the write up!

  3. rosie says:

    What a great story! i love the win wins and the add ons.. especially the tree seedlings – a nice, and important, extra dimension. Keep at it RSC and Elephant Branded (very cool bags.. i want one!)

    • Thanks for this reply. I think we can all agree that everyone benefits by this collaboration. As Webb says, they all played to one another’s strengths. They made it look easy too, but we all know that it takes a lot of work.

  4. Charlie says:

    This great article highlights yet again the wonderfully inspiring projects which Responsible Safari Company create and fulfil with so much energy, enthusiasm and great skill to ensure that help and support reaches those who really need it, with their careful and sensitive monitoring to ensure there are as many ‘wins’ as possible!
    Joseph is a truly remarkable man. I had the privilege of meeting him recently – a very inspiring encounter! As a boatbuilder in the UK, I was of course also fascinated by his amazing boatyard on the beach beside Lake Malawi. The wonderful smell of cedar planks being cut has stayed with me ever since! Joseph’s generosity and care for his local villagers inspires most who meet him to stay in contact and offer help.
    Finally, well done to Elephant Branded – what a great example they are to other companies to offer such support and help! I have got one of their bags it’s a great bit of kit!

  5. Caro says:

    Really enjoyed readying the article and especially think that all parties involved are doing great work.
    Would love to see more from Elephant Branded and The Responsible Safari Company !

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