I never consciously chose to become an advocate for responsible travel. In my early years on the road, it seemed just as likely that I would advocate for volunteerism. But as the years bled into each other, eight at last count, I have come to understand that we have a skewed modern narrative about travel. We portray travel as equal parts transformative for the traveler and impactful on the destination. We talk as though it’s a given that our work in developing communities is a good thing. Travel, service and social entrepreneurship have many positive aspects. But even so, the narrative around these three topics needs rewiring. The tone we take in our work makes a difference. Our attitude has a profound impact on the people and places we meet in our work as social entrepreneurs.  

During my first weeks in Thailand, I met a fellow expat for coffee at a cute café tucked into a backroad of an up-and-coming neighborhood. The owner of Akha Ama was a charming, twenty-something Thai man named Lee. In my early visits, I knew little about his business model. I only knew that he wanted to create a fair trade coffee pipeline from his Akha hill tribe village to the touristy city of Chiang Mai. Over the next two years, I would see both sides of the pipeline. I sipped brewed coffee on artfully weathered tabletops and later plucked coffee cherries from the mountains of Northern Thailand.

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Lee’s coffee shop became my favorite spot in the city. It had a good mix of locals and fellow expats, paired with a rich, flavorful coffee that I had come to love. With each visit, I could see Akha Ama’s rapid growth. Lee had a clear vision for the coffee shop, and he put in countless hours working toward it. That year, he held the first annual Coffee Journey. His idea was that a small group of Thais and expats would spend a weekend in his family’s village, Maejantai. Intrigued, I signed up. For three days, we learned each part of the complicated process of growing and picking coffee. In the evenings, we learned about the meticulous care that had gone into Akha Ama’s business model. Working as a coffee collective, the villagers could set fair rates and standards. Together, they created a way to improve their quality of life.

Changes over the past several decades have moved Lee’s village from a barter system to cash. Thailand’s compulsory education law mandated school attendance for all children, and while the country’s hill tribes welcomed the chance to give their children an education, villagers struggled to pay even modest school fees. Beyond education, demand for conveniences like cell phones also necessitated the move toward a money-based system. Without a strong local economy, the farmers had long struggled to provide local opportunities for the young adults in their community. Now, Akha Ama sustains the families of Maejantai with a steady stream of cash revenue and new employment alternatives.

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In the days after we returned to Chiang Mai from the Coffee Journey, I felt a slow and subtle shift in my perception of the traveler’s role in responsible tourism. It’s trendy to use the term “fair trade” in marketing materials on our grocery store shelves. But that doesn’t mask the truth behind the need for awareness. The Coffee Journey is a story that could compel consumers to learn about the human faces behind a cup o’ joe. By coming to know the people behind Akha Ama’s coffee, I realized the impact of my spending choices.  But Akha Ama taught me more than a lesson in purchasing habits. It made me look at my role as a traveler, an advocate for the communities I’ve visited, and a social entrepreneur.

The Coffee Journey to Maejantai had altered my understanding of responsible tourism. Lee is the face of a carefully crafted business model, as nuanced as anything taught in a graduate school classroom. Lee’s collective created a strong social enterprise using tourism to impact its community. Even more remarkably, the community has set the terms of that impact. The community has developed a business to preserve its culture and traditions, and also achieve its own goals.

The mental shift needed is minor, but the difference is manifold. Redefining our roles and moving away from the label of “changemakers” allows travelers to better support the communities our presence impacts. Most often, being of service means understanding our function as the learner. These communities don’t often lack the ideas; they lack the resources. They have the intricate cultural knowledge to create a business sympathetic with their development goals. We have the ability to support and lift those voices.

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For social entrepreneurs, impact best comes through taking an attitude of learning, service, and curiosity. It’s only by creating deep connections that we can support the communicated needs and goals of our communities.

Textbooks and development models often miss the delicate nuances of culture brushing against culture, and gloss over the messy work of integrating real people and communities into empowering, at-scale businesses. Businesses with underlying social missions run in every corner of the world and support a gamut of causes and issues. These social enterprises are in the trenches every day figuring out what a modern responsible business model looks like when paired with a growing and thriving, multitrillion-dollar international tourism industry. It’s our job to serve those visionary leaders. It’s our job to see their ideas and offer them the support they ask for, not the support we think they need.

Even more, our role is about having the hard conversations and accepting the answers. Lee has no need for me to change his business, his model, or his community. What Lee needs is travelers, entrepreneurs included, to accept that sometimes buying a cup o’ joe is the best way to be of service.

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Interview with Shannon O'Donnell of A Little Adrift | Advice from Sustainable and Volunteer Traveler | Advice for Traveling to Social EnterprisesMeet Shannon

Shannon O’Donnell is a full-time traveler, speaker and writer who shares the message of service-based travel and global citizenship. She has authored the book The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and is the founder of Grassroots Volunteering, a website that helps travelers connect directly with social projects around the world.


© All photos courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.
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