Interview with Geri Mitchell and Maurice Phillips from Sandele in The Gambia

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Geri Mitchell and Maurice Phillips

Geri Mitchell and Maurice Phillips are the founders of Sandele Foundation, a non-profit under the umbrella of Sandele Eco-Retreat and Learning Centre, a hotel located in Kartong, The Gambia. The Eco-Retreat is a “living demonstration centre” in terms of alternative technology systems and techniques while also offering luxury accommodation and superb guest services. At the same time, the Sandele Foundation is heavily focused on the environmental and economic development of the surrounding villages. The Foundation is independent of the hotel but implements Geri and Maurice’s vision and corporate social responsibility objectives.

TRAVINDY: What challenges is Sandele trying to address?
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Sandele location in google maps

Running the Eco-Retreat has its own challenges but we are managing these quite successfully. I would prefer to focus on the work being done on behalf of Sandele by the Sandele Foundation. Sandele is located in a rural area of The Gambia and on a coast threatened by sea level rise, beach sand mining and deforestation. There are small villages all along this coast and several are threatened by the effects of climate change, particularly global warming: quite a catalogue of problems for a hotel practising eco-tourism!. Our major task in terms of promoting sustainability and responsible tourism is to raise awareness of these challenges and then to mobilise people to take action to adapt to or mitigate the problems. As an environmentally aware organisation, we are working with the villages by running training and direct action programmes as part of our community development work.

TRAVINDY: What is the impact you are trying to achieve?
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The Ecovillage Design Education class of 2014

First, our aim is to provide a first class service to our hotel guests. Secondly, we are doing everything we can (planting trees, demonstrating permaculture and alternative technologies on site) to live up to our Eco-Retreat title. This includes being a hotel that is peaceful, relaxed and also fun. Thirdly, we are equally committed to our community service work. A major part of this is to involve local people in various training programmes. In particular the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) courses have had an amazing impact on the 70+ participants who have become “eco-warriors” in their communities. The course provides people with information about the ecological, economic, social and cultural challenges that the world – and their villages – are facing, or will face within a few years. Very practical skills are learned on the course that can immediately be transferred to their relatives and friends. Things like compost making, water conservation, adding value to produce that is grown, construction of more efficient wood burning stoves, setting up local co-operative ventures and localised businesses and so on.

We have spoken of 11 villages. Three of these are in southern Senegal, just across the River Halahein. We therefore have a transnational organisation that the 2015 EDE “graduates” decided to call “The People´s Coast Ecovillage Network” (PeCEN). This decision built on the 2014 EDE that focused on Kartong and led to the establishment, now a registered charity, called the Kartong Ecovillage Network (KEN). The Sandele Foundation organises monthly meetings of both these bodies and attendance is always very high. A “community of communities” has been formed and the commitment of KEN an PeCEN members to this movement is very impressive.

Another impact has been on the village heads. All 11 village alkalos (as they are called) have signed an Accord stating that they wish their village to be transformed into an ecovillage and all 11 Alkalos have applied for membership of the Global Ecovillage Network – the umbrella body that coordinates ecovillage development action around the world.

The main impact of our responsible tourism activity is that of changing the hearts and minds of local people to believe in themselves and to have the self-confidence to take action to generate jobs and increase incomes.

TRAVINDY: What’s special about your approach to meeting these challenges?
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The Ecovillage Design Education class of 2015

Under developed countries receive a great deal of aid but little of this aid penetrates to village level.  Ecovillage development is a grass roots, bottom-up movement that demonstrates self-reliance and the fact that people can achieve so much if they are given the right tools. The “tool” in this case is knowledge sharing and small amounts of specifically targeted training together with the funding that pays for it. We have been fortunate to receive funding over the last two years from a German charity  – the Heidehof Foundation – and this has made a huge difference to what we are able to achieve. The villages are now embarked on a 10-20 year journey that will require large amounts of money to enable villages to achieve their vision. However, the international donors have recognised that if the environmental and other challenges are to be overcome there has to be a transfer of resources from the rich north to the impoverished south. That recognition is special – and tourists – and tourism entrepreneurs like us – have a part to play in the wealth transfer. One small way this is achieved is that for every bed night we sell we reserve a sum which is donated annually to Kartong, our nearest village, for local development.

TRAVINDY: What’s the most exciting thing Sandele has achieved so far?
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Meeting with Pa Ousman Jarju, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, on a Sunday afternoon!

In a small country we are a small player; but we have begun to alert government officials and Ministers to the need for ecovillage development to become a national priority if Africa (and the rest of the underdeveloped world) is to survive. There is some acknowledgement within The Gambia that grass roots, village development using training techniques like the EDE programme, is crucial to sustained growth and development. It is very exciting that governments all around Africa are beginning to recognise this point – not least The Gambia where the Minister of the Environment himself, Pa Ousman Jarju, spent 2 ½ hours recently at Sandele talking to the EDE participants. It seems possible that what we are doing may be picked up for support nationally. Another exciting point is that the area of our local coast designated for eco-tourism has been extended from 12 to 27 kilometres so that more responsible tourism will be possible and the coast will be better preserved.

TRAVINDYWhat do you need to help you be more successful?
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A Sandele Lodge with plunge pool

This question has answers at so many different levels. Within Sandele we currently need as many guests as we can attract so that we continue to upgrade and improve our guest services. Improvements will include continued training for our staff so that guests receive even better service and there are some small, and some bigger, capital inprovements we want to make.

On the community development side we need relatively small amounts of money to pay for more “mini EDEs” to which we will invite village decision makers, local and national government officials in order for them to understand ecovillage principles and practises more fully and to achieve “buy-in” for the programme at all levels.  From an environmental viewpoint we want to do a land use study across all 27 kilometres of coastline so that proper arrangements can be made for humans, animals and forests to develop naturally and peacefully with the  harmonious agreement of all concerned. This easily said but is a big “ask” as it will be quite an expensive exercise.

TRAVINDY: What does that success look like? Share your dream with us.
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Sandele beach on a busy morning!

Our dream is that Sandele will become a honey pot, attracting hundreds of tourist visitors who are interested in enjoying a fabulous holiday in a miracle setting (we have a glorious, untouched white sand beach at our back door) and that the Learning Centre aspect of the hotel will attract thousands of people, individually or in special interest groups, who wish to experience a “soft landing” in Africa and to learn about African culture and the local people. The more successful the hotel the better we can pay more employees (currently 32 and rising) and the more we can support our marine turtle conservation programme and all the other social activities with which we are involved. Success to us looks like a lot of people enjoying themselves whether they are guests of the hotel or members of the 11 villages.

TRAVINDY: If you could connect with one person, company or organisation in responsible tourism, who would it be, and why?
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The same beach in the evening

At present, I can think of no one person who answers your question but we do need the help of thousands of people who wish to support responsible tourism. In order to get the EDE message to the thousands of people in the 11 villages we currently have a crowdfunding campaign running that is aimed at raising $16,000 to buy, renovate and equip a mobile solar cinema. The idea is that the bus would be used to take our eco-warriors into villages with no electricity and show the same videos and other materials that are shown during the EDE courses. So if Travindy readers would like to be responsible tourism activists they could contact Launchgood, the US crowdfunding organisation that we are using. The link is “Flicks in the Forest” and the campaign runs until the end of August. Sorry to be cheeky!!

TRAVINDY: Which other person, company or organisation would you most like to recommend to be interviewed for this series, and why?

Up to now I have not mentioned that we also work closely with colleges and universities. Of particular mention is Ardingly College, an English public school that has brought people to us for 13 years. The 6th Form students work as “junior teachers” in pairs and teach simple science experiments to 16 year olds in four schools.  In this way they are very responsible tourists who provide a service while also having the experience of a lifetime.

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Professor Marina Novelli PhD, PgDipEd, PGDipPlanning, BSc. Professor of Tourism & International Development at University of Brighton

We also work with University of Brighton. Professor Marina Novelli regularly brings to The Gambia undergraduate and postgraduate students studying Tourism, Hospitality or Events Management. Based on her research on ways to facilitate a more equal fieldwork experience, Prof. Novelli developed Peer2Peer Capacity Building through Niche Tourism (P2P) model, which has been delivered in The Gambia since 2007. In March 2017, Sandele will host the Peer2Peer Exchange, a 10 Year P2P Alumni Reunion, during which over 100 past P2P participants from all over the world will gather and share their professional and personal life experiences, with the aim to provide further mutual capacity building and identify an agenda for the next 10 years of P2P International engagement. The unique aspect of the P2P programme is the mutual learning exchange between international students and Gambian hosts. In fact, a number of counterpart Gambians are sponsored by University of Brighton’s students to participate in the one week “Niche Tourism” module that is taught. The Gambians, many of whom lack the educational opportunities of their overseas brothers and sisters, provide a rich sub-text to the course that is very enriching. P2P is being hailed as a benchmark for responsible tourism within a university context. You can see a video of the P2P programme in the link below.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrGs-e4v56c[/embedyt]

Besides the educational experience provided by the P2P mutual learning exchange, there are some practical outcomes with impact far beyond the simple learning of niche tourism principles and practices. Amongst the many examples of P2P practical outcome is that one group of 8 Gambian P2P alumni decided to stick together after the course; five of them now run a juice bar – with an amazing range of fresh juices – as an independent side business at Sandele and one of their members is the Chairman of the emergent People’s Coast Eco Tourism Network (PCETN). This initiative at present brings together all of the Kartong based camps and lodges and will eventually be extended to include all the resorts that are within the People’s Coast area.

P2P has also had a core involvement in the development of the Turtle SOS The Gambia initiative. P2P students developed a business plan and worked towards the development of a ‘Turtle Conservation and Tourism’ concept, which is currently being implemented by a group of some 30 plus local volunteers, with support from international experts. You can see a video of the P2P programme in the link below.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbIEdXKEoac[/embedyt]

University of Brighton’s involvement has also led, in the last three years, to a Football for Peace (F4P) programme. This is a values based sports initiative that teaches children, young people and adults such things as self-discipline, teamwork, self-confidence and so on. Student coaches work collaboratively with Gambian trainee coaches on a P2P basis and, eventually, when they will be fully qualified, the idea is that F4P Gambian coaches will contribute towards the training of young learners causing a ripple effect reaching far beyond sport. During the F4P visits, several teachers and hundreds of children in 4 schools have been coached.

Since 2007, besides the 170+ international students, over 100 Gambians and over 800 young learners have benefited from the P2P and the F4P initiatives, by being exposed to a learning opportunity through which they acquired knowledge, skills and values associated with sustainable tourism and sport coaching, otherwise not available to them. The value and impact that the P2P and F4P capacity building experiences has brought to the locality are far reaching into the community and go beyond tourism development.

For all the above reasons I would like to nominate Professor Marina Novelli as the next interviewee.

To contact Geri and Maurice, or to have an unforgettable experience at Sandele, please email them here, connect with them on facebook, or on twitter.

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