"It appears there are too many people wanting to “do good” in “poor Africa” for the wrong reasons...Luckily most volunteers are genuine and have a better understanding"
Herman Erdtsieck and Marion Neidt are the owners and managers of MamboViewPoint Ecolodge and the MamboSteunPunt Foundation which they founded in 2008. Ms Neidt trained as a Biochemical Analyst while Mr Erdtsieck studied Electronic and Medical Engineering. Previously, they both worked for Greenpeace and then as consultants for communication in health care and rural areas in Africa. Mr Erdtsieck's reason to start MamboViewPoint was "the opportunity to make a difference - in Mambo a little effort can make an enormous improvement in people's daily life". Marion Neidt explains that their aim was "to try another approach for development which could be more effective. If you really want to know how the system works, try to change it!" The Ecolodge and the Foundation have weathered the global economic crisis of the past 5 years which saw visitation decrease greatly and today offer a stable base and source of income for a series of local community projects in entrepreneurship, health, infrastructure and education. In 2014 MamboViewPoint received an award as the best tax payer in the Lushoto district, while in 2016 MamboSteunPunt was second best from 66 active volunteering organisations in the Netherlands.
ECOCLUB.com: MamboViewPoint has evolved into a bustling, sophisticated and authentic ecotourism & community development operation. What was your personal background, original idea and inspiration and why did you choose Tanzania and this village in particular?
Herman Erdtsieck: My friend and wife Marion and me were working in development, but we became disappointed about the amount of aid money which was wasted and also that the people in developing countries became dependent on aid money. We developed a new idea to go “by trade instead of aid” and to build a stable base with an own income to be independent. At that time, eight years ago, it was a new idea, but now many NGO’s and even leaders like Obama and our Tanzanian president Magufuli adapted this way of development. Marion lived half a year in Rwanda, and there we got the feeling that it would be possible for us to live in Africa. Only Rwanda is a French speaking country, and my French was too bad, and also the political situation in Rwanda was, and is, very itchy, which would be too risky. This is why we searched for an opportunity in Kenya or Tanzania, and after a fact-finding mission, we found Tanzania and Mambo as the best out of 7 options.
ECOCLUB.com: Would you say that the Tanzanian political experience of the Nyerere era (Ujamaa, cooperative, village economics, "African Socialism") is somehow relevant to ecotourism & community tourism projects such as yours?
Herman Erdtsieck & Marion Neidt: Well, this is very interesting. Nyerere is from the past but still in people's heart. Now we have a kind of revival with President Magufuli who was elected last year. This president has a heart for the country and is really fighting corruption. This is also a blessing for us, being a development project since all of a sudden our villagers also start to understand that this corruption is blocking all development. Although we are now desperately waiting for a new regime for a better business climate since the unpredictable rules and laws, the bureaucracy and taxes are blocking small-scale businesses in particular, including the ones working in tourism. Luckily this caught the attention of the government, and at least they now promise to change the business climate also. The policy against capitalism, however, which works out bad, especially for small scale business and eco-tourism, is most likely a remainder of the socialist period where all commercial business was suspected and believed to make tonnes of money at the expense of the labour class. Another nice example of this is the way the rating of eco-friendly hotels in Tanzania is set up: it is more of a commercial tool for greater turnover in the big hotels and more taxes than a tool for development. The system has relatively high costs for rating and yearly contributions and is too expensive for the real small scale eco places like us, so in fact, it is working counterproductively for eco-tourism since the tourists who are following this rating will end up with the places for mass tourism and will be disappointed.
ECOCLUB.com: How important do you consider profitability from tourism operations (accommodation & ecotours), as opposed from donations, for the long term survival of your project?
HE & MN: It is very important to be independent since, most the time, grants come with their demands which often do not make sense or are even counterproductive and time-consuming. Also, in the end, all ventures must become self-supporting and not continue to be dependent on gifts. Besides our lodge, we do a lot of community projects, but all have to be sustainable and directed towards independence on the long term. Unfortunately, as long as business in Tanzania is so difficult, it will need new investors and aid money every time again since the existing companies cannot develop or even survive. So once the business is better, eco-tourism, and its spin-offs can have a tremendous contribution to the development of the country, even more than the large scale tourism in the famous parks.
ECOCLUB.com: From reading the project information on your website, it appears that extra, specific, donations from tourists are required for the launch of many of your community projects. If this is accurate, and as most donations are one-off, through which process do you try to ensure that such projects quickly become self-supporting? In other words, how easy is it for aid to create entrepreneurship rather than dependency on more aid?
HE & MN: As mentioned it is not possible to make any profit with the lodge as a business. Let alone that we can pay projects with it. So for the projects, we depend on our NGO and its donors among many former guests. Projects are one-time, like building a new bridge, or long-term, like making yoghurt and cheese from milk or drinking water supply. The first one has a clear budget with an end; the second ones need to be self-sufficient like people paying for the yoghurt and also paying for the water so the water systems can be maintained. The last one is still difficult since people are used to getting it for free or prefer to drink dirty water or walk far if money is involved. But others like the yoghurt making has become self-sustainable quite quickly. So some processes need a long time and sometimes changes in policy. This is also why we are here for the long term and not for a short period, so we can correct things when problems occur, or things appear to be different compared with our expectations. We mainly try to initiate projects, and from there automatically new questions are appearing and projects also can grow.
ECOCLUB.com: Through which mechanism have you built trust with the local community and to what extent is it involved in decision-making for your tourism operation and your voluntary/community programs?
HE & MN: In the first five years we met quite some opposition from the corrupt leaders and their friends since they were annoyed that we did not join their bribing culture. But the majority of the villagers were happy since all of a sudden things were moving. Now the village leaders are also happy since they are pushed by Magufuli to perform, and our project is supporting many of their projects. On the other side, it is not always possible just to follow the community's wishes. For example, concerning the rainforest, most would prefer to cut it down for firewood and logging, but we are doing the opposite and pushing to protect it since we believe that in the long term this is in the village's interest. But as long as you are poor and think only of tomorrow this is hard to envision. We can understand this. Also, we noticed that there is no culture of good training and real discussion yet. This is also why we believe in increasing economics first, since, in the long term, it will automatically create interest in other issues like birth control and the environment.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you focus on cultivating social/green/ethical entrepreneurship among the villagers, or any form that meets demand from tourists and other locals?
HE & MN: Interestingly enough our villagers are genuine social entrepreneurs, as long as it is within the family and the extended family. The last one grows in line with the income of someone. This is the nature of social security in developing countries like Tanzania. Although this is at the same time a huge holdback for entrepreneurship to develop further since most family members consider their family members business as theirs and also think that turnover is the same as profit and they feel free to grab from the treasure box. Privately-owned local business can really suffer from this. A social behaviour over the border of the family, however, is less existent. Therefore our community and entrepreneurs initially have to think about how to build a better social system. Once governance improved it also will be time to think about social entrepreneurship towards the community as well.
ECOCLUB.com: What are the main lessons you have learned from operating your volunteer/voluntourism program, for example, how to choose the right volunteer for the right programme and, conversely, how to avoid unsuitable volunteers and projects?
HE & MN: This was one of the unexpected negative surprises for us. It appears there are too many people wanting to “do good” in “poor Africa” for the wrong reasons. They cannot cope with the believed richness and wisdom people here think they have or they think they will find the solutions for their mental problems in Africa. Luckily most volunteers are genuine and have a better understanding. Nevertheless, nowadays we have a better filter since these “doing-good” people, mostly without any self-reflection, are really disastrous for our project and our community. A good initial interview and exchange and clear expectations from the volunteers and us are very important. Sometimes we felt ashamed that we brought the wrong people here.
ECOCLUB.com: Often, ecolodge projects in the Global South suffer or fail when the expat founders/managers depart. Have you made any contingency or succession plans, including passing over ownership/management to the local community or a local entrepreneur?
HE & MN: We had a three phase plan. 1: To establish the project. 2. To make it self-running by local staff. 3. To make it continuing after our departure or death.
After eight years we have to recognise that, for the time being, especially the management and ownership need to stay in firm non-Tanzanian hands. There are too many examples of business which went totally wrong due to greedy managers or shareholders. Quite often this is not even the manager or shareholder himself rather than their family who is pressuring them to deliver. Also due to the disastrously low education level, the staff needs a constant guidance. So, for the time being, we will need a western manager and a foreign ownership to make it survive. Once Tanzania is transformed into the promised industrial state, corruption is at an acceptable level, and education is at the right standards in the future it is thinkable that the lodge can be local managed and owned as well. This means that we have no plans to depart and also after us the ownership can be with our foundation who can employ a manager. If the changes in Tanzania are positive, even during the time we are still around, we can change to the original schedule, and we will be happy to hand over the project to local owners and management.
ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what would you describe as the key elements of the "MamboViewPoint Model" and the main pitfalls to avoid if one tries to replicate your model in other parts of Tanzania, or of the world?
HE & MN: In the first place to create a self-sustainable business as a stable base. Try to be as much as possible independent, from donors as well as from local shareholders or land owners. It is important to create a separate foundation for the projects; currently, any business will not have enough profit left to be social. It is important to work with skilled, self-sustaining and screened volunteers only. As long as the corruption is rampant be aware that there is also no justice, so try to avoid as much as possible contracts and agreements since they are less worth than the paper on which they are written. Also, it is important to solve conflicts as early as possible on a low level without going to court. Take time, do not expect sustainable results in the short term. Many things need a lot of talking, discussion and education. If you think you can make a profit or to earn back your investment or even if you are afraid to lose your investment: Do not start. Do not start if you are not persistent and not able to swallow now and then. Think of possibilities and not in impossibilities. Always remember: You will meet many problems, but there is always a solution.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much for your informative and candid replies! You have our full respect in relation to what you have already achieved and what you aim to achieve in the future.