Doing Good With Book Bags and Saplings in Malawi

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

This is a classic feel-good story featuring an especially unlikely cast of characters: an African travel company, a U.K.-based handmade bag manufacturer, a doctor, a boatbuilder, a community-based organization 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.

The children of the Makawa Primary School catchment in Malawi were the focus of generosity by an ensemble of organizations. 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 specializes in experiential travel to Africa, has partnered with existing community-based organizations 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 kilometers 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 organization 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 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 U.K. 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.

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 organizations 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!"

Kate Webb (far right) of the Responsible Safari Company helps distribute bags donated by Elephant Branded to the kids of the Makawa Primary School catchment in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Responsible Safari Company

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 U.K. 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 U.S. $0.20 per bag and for this they would receive the bag... and a tree seedling! -- Webb

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 U.K., 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!"

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 organization 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?!

Update: The Responsible Safari Company and Elephant Branded have just been shortlisted for the Most Original Marketing Campaign award at this year's Pure travel show.