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Ben Keene is a tribesman of the world
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Ben Keene is a tribesman of the world
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"Even on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific, every action has an impact."
Conversations
1 April 2010

Ben Keene is a tribesman of the world

Interview by Kate Bezar
Zosia Bellamy, Kaz Brecher, Braden Kuhlman, Paul Sloggett

Kate Bezar on Ben Keene

Ben Keene’s desire to play a part in the mainstreaming of sustainable tourism was seeded when he was just aged 18 and chatting to his Tanzanian guide as they descended Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it wasn’t until he received an email in 2006 from a complete stranger that his passion took on a whole new focus.

The email spawned the idea for Tribewanted. Tribewanted harnesses the power of the internet to reach like-spirited people, develop a community and then mobilise them offline. Tribewanted’s members all share a desire to spend time on a remote Pacific island as true members of its local community. What Ben has managed to accomplish with Tribewanted is extraordinary and we’re certainly not the first to share it with the world. ‘National Geographic’ described him as “the Sergey Brin of the South Pacific,” he has written a book about his experiences and has appeared in a major BBC documentary series. The Tribewanted project has won digital media and innovation awards and been nominated for responsible tourism accolades. Here’s Ben’s story.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

BEN KEENE: I was actually in Sydney a few weeks ago, but I didn’t get a chance to stop which really annoyed me. I was on my way back from Fiji. I flew in over the National Park south of the city and all those beaches … I could see the guys surfing, and was like, “Hang on a second, why am I transiting here?” [Laughs].

KATE BEZAR: It’s a pretty amazing approach coming into Sydney airport.

It is. So how’s Dumbo Feather going? It looks great. I’m surprised I haven’t come across your work before.

Well we don’t have extensive distribution in the UK, which might be why, but yeah, we’re around. It just spreads by word of mouth and people finding it themselves, so there’s a really nice community and a level of commitment to the mag by readers which is really beautiful.

Fantastic, that’s what you need in your little tribe isn’t it?

Speaking of tribes … Why were you back in Fiji?

I try to spend a couple of months a year there and we’ve just finished the initial three years of the project. That was the term of our lease there as well, so the main reason was to get the lease renewed. It had been offered to us kindly by the landowners last year, but negotiating it can take a long time in Fiji, so I got the bulk of that done. We also had a big party and got our new team in. The new lease is going to be for ten more years, which is fantastic. Hopefully it’s a home for a long time yet, but tourism’s tough at the moment in Fiji and the tsunami warnings earlier this year didn’t really help.

But the tsunami didn’t reach Fiji, did it?

No it didn’t, but a lot of people back here in the UK think we were hit by a tsunami and I’m like, “No guys, that was about 200 kilometres away.” No one was concerned in Fiji of course. It was the same during the coup. I said, “Guys, we’re being run by the army now,” and they were like, “Oh no problem, we’ll just go fishing.”

So that hasn’t affected things all that much …?

Well, the hangover from the coup was obviously the economic impact. It was significant, but I think on the island the education isn’t to the extent that people can really get a grip on what it means to not have a vote. Of course New Zealand and parts of Australia are putting a lot of pressure on Fiji to have a democratically elected government. When you’re sitting on the inside you feel like you’re part of the adolescent stage of a country’s political development. Socially and culturally it’s an incredible place to live, but politically and in terms of business, it’s still got a long way to go. That doesn’t mean it’s not peaceful, it just means it’s a bit … You know, those rights, like being able to vote, aren’t completely there yet, so it’s complicated. I think, for the people we live without in the islands, as long as they can get the resources there, then they’re mostly okay. The problem is of course that the impact of this and the recession is that gas prices and food prices in the markets have shot up, which then pushes up crime and that filters down … Anyway, that’s the same everywhere, but it’s still a very happy place to live compared to a lot of parts of the world, I think. Have you been over?

I haven’t been to Fiji, no. I’ve been to Tonga, but that’s as close as I’ve got unfortunately. I’d love to.

Well, we’re there for ten more years so I’m gonna hassle you annually until you come!

Fine by me. So when you say you’ve renewed a lease, it’s a lease for a chunk of land?

That’s right. The ‘Tribewanted’ story started for me at the end of 2005. I remember it very clearly actually. It was Boxing Day, and I was here at home where I am today, in Devon in England. It was grey and winter and I got an email from a guy I’d never heard of called Mark who was up in Liverpool. It said, “I see you’re working in adventure travel and volunteer tours in Africa … I’m looking at some ideas to do a sort of travel network or community with an online network or community.” I wasn’t really sure what he was talking about – this was before Facebook hit the UK. We started to have a conversation and the example he gave me was the band The Arctic Monkeys. They’re just from Sheffield here in the UK and they built up this fan-base through MySpace. Then, off the back of that online fan base, they released a single in both the UK and the States at the same time, which went straight to number one in both countries overnight. Mark was saying, “Look, you can use this online community as a way of building a network or a group of people before you launch a new idea … You can even fund stuff.” He was interested in whether you could do it in the travel and ‘new tourism’ space, which is where I’d spent a few years running projects and trips around the world. I thought, this is kind of interesting, so we talked for a few weeks and then we eventually came up with this idea of giving an online community a base somewhere in the world.

Then we wondered, if you were going to get a bunch of people together online and then say, “This is your physical HQ, this is your home, this is your spot, this is where you can go and hang out” where would it be? Mark said, “Well, it has to be on a remote island somewhere,” and I said (laughs), “That’s the opposite of an online community or network.” He said “Exactly. It’s bringing two trends or two themes together; the idea of living in a remote place, the kind of ‘original Eden’, the remote island, or the cast-away, and the new culture of communication and networking online. If we put them together could we use the network in a positive way to develop a place and work with local people to create jobs, create business, create a new venture?” I thought it was a stupid idea; I tried to ignore it, and then the next day I found that I hadn’t deleted the email from my inbox and it had stuck in my head, so that was it.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

I was on Google searching for islands, ignoring my day-to-day business, and very quickly became engrossed in this world of millionaires, sunshine and little plots of land in the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Philippines.

We actually found Vorovoro, the island in northern Fiji, not through one of these luxury island websites, but by talking to an island broker in Australia. He pointed us in the direction of the Fijian government website and said, “Look, there’s a load of land advertised on here and I think there’s one that’s just come up with beaches. It’s right up in the north where there’s not much tourism and it’s a bit more wild. It’s certainly not an area where people have done eco-tourism projects yet, so you might wanna have a look.”

When did it become an ‘eco-tourism’ project? Was that pretty early on?

Yeah. Mark’s idea initially was about how we use online networking and my interest in travel and tourism. It was always to do with both … well, it has been since I was 18 when I spent a year working south of Sydney in a school called Glengarry in the Kangaroo Valley. It’s part of Scots College in Sydney. They take their Year Nines down to Glengarry for six months at a time and they have about ten Gappers (Gap students). I think there were three of us from the UK and the rest were Aussies and Kiwis. We were basically slave labour; no, we all helped run the school. It was an amazing thing, this idea of living in the bush, not just for a summer camp or weekend but for six months, and grow up a little bit there. They’d carry on their academic schooling, but also spent a lot of time outdoors doing all those great activities that you guys can do in Australia. That year I spent 80 nights under canvas and working with these kids. I was only 18 at the time and ever since I’ve been interested in this idea of education and adventure experiences that are outdoors and connected to a natural environment. Then, when I started doing trips to Africa and getting involved with development work, it was always about how to make this journey or trip a bit more purposeful. Of course you can volunteer and do all those things, but after a few years I got frustrated with volunteering not meeting the expectations of the local community and the volunteer. As an 18- or 20-year old, you can make a bit of an impact in a few weeks, but you’re not gonna change lives in that time. I thought, there needs to be a bit more realism in these experiences. It seemed to me that you either go on safari, or to a beach resort, or on a classic holiday vacation, or you go and do a hardcore volunteering expedition, and there’s not a lot in the middle. I was interested in saying, “Well why can’t we find a type of holiday that gives people the chance to connect with an environment and a local community and culture, but not say you’ve got to come and deliver all these skills and all this stuff?” These ideas were sort of bubbling in my head, so when Mark asked, ‘”What about this model of online networks bringing people together to do a travel project?” My response was, “Hang on, here’s my answer.” So, those were the two sides; he brought the technology and new approach and I was looking at new models of tourism. Of course the conversation about sustainability was just surfacing as well, sort of three or four years ago, to a mainstream audience. For me it was always there; it just wasn’t expressed in those terms. I’m middle-class, from England, but I’ve always liked spending time outdoors … I’d rather go out hiking than out in the city, so I always enjoyed and appreciated that. I could see when I went back to a city how disconnected the people were from it [the outdoors] and I’ve seen, through these new types of tourism, whether climbing in Africa or working in a little community, how people get that reconnection to nature and then hopefully take some of that home.

But of course it’s hard to transfer it back to your life in Sydney or London sometimes. So yeah, we just thought, this is it, this is a really powerful, enterprising idea. I don’t know if anyone else will agree with us, but let’s give it a go.

And you did.

Yeah, we got out to Fiji. I put the return tickets on my credit card because I didn’t have an income. I said, okay, this is it, we either sit here in the pub and talk about it, which is what most people do … I don’t know if you did that with Dumbo Feather for a while.

Well, unfortunately, it was just me.

So you sat with yourself in the pub [both laugh]. Anyway, I said, “Look Mark, we either talk about this for six months and then realise that we’re day-dreaming, or we buy a return ticket to Fiji and make sure we can turn it into something. So while he was thinking about it I bought the tickets and went to Fiji and sat down with Tui Mali, the chief of the island. Their story really interested me. It was fascinating, it was prophesied by a Fijian family friend of theirs called Tevita that one day the world was going to come to their island. He was visiting them, staying on the island helping with the gardens and hanging out – this was in 2002. At one stage he was clearing the land right down the beach and Tui Mali asked, “Why are you clearing the land all the way down there? Our gardens are half a kilometre up the beach; no one ever comes and stays here so let’s just look after our gardens.” Tevita said, “No no, we have to get ready. People are coming.” So they cleared the land, built a couple of small bures, little Fijian-style traditional houses, and sat back and waited … and no one came. Then, about three or four years later, the chief’s nephew came back after he’d travelled and worked as a lawyer in Australia for ten years and they said, “We’ve heard this story and we’ve tried to get the land ready but no one’s coming,” and he said, “You know, if we advertised the land it might help the prophecy come true.” So it went up on the government website and then we were the first to find it.

Ah, brilliant.

We got lucky. Although they don’t think it was that; they say it was all part of the story.

Just the natural evolution of things.

Yeah.

Right, so did you decide that you needed the island before you developed the online community, or were you doing both at the same time?

What we needed to do was find somewhere this project could take place and the ideal spot was on that remote island. Firstly, it was adventure, it’s everything about the island that people are drawn to anyway, but, secondly, my thinking was that the great thing about an island is that you can see the whole cycle of living in a small space.

I wanted to get across through this project, that even on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific, every action has an impact.

Whether it’s your recycled waste, your energy, or whatever, it has a knock-on effect beyond the beach; you can see that there. If we can make a statement about that in a remote island through learning about the local Fijian culture and the way of life there, then hopefully people will make more connections when they go home. So those were the reasons, but as much as anything, it was about the adventure. Trying to build a company, flying to an island and renting it … We didn’t have any money ourselves; we weren’t millionaires! It was an interesting first three days when we first got there in March 2006, ‘cause we’d sit down with the chief and he’d say, “Okay, you’re young boys … so, why do you want to come here?” You’ve got to remember, for him this is a much bigger risk than for us, because while we were risking our reputations in some way, he was risking his ancestry, his family and his indigenous heritage.

No one had done anything on this land except the family for three or four generations and in Fijian culture, as I’m sure you’re aware with people from the South Pacific and indigenous communities, they’re very connected to their ancestors. As we’ve learned, they believe that a lot of what you do today on the islands and in your communities is about communicating with the people who came before. It was fascinating, because what he was actually trying to decide at the time was not only, “Is this right for me, my family, the wider community that I’m responsible for and the neighbouring islands?” but also, “Is this right for everyone who came before? Do they want this?” So it was a big decision.

Absolutely. If the wrong people had come along, it could have been awful for them.

I think so. We agreed with a handshake and they said, “Okay you can come and stay for three years and we’ll give it a go, now go and negotiate with the government for the actual lease of the land.” Interestingly, two weeks later a seaplane landed right next to the beach and two producers from Hollywood walked up and said to the chief, “Ah, hey man, how much?” He said, “Well, I’ve already agreed a lease with these two young Brits, I’m sorry.” (Laughs) It was the producers from a show called Survivor, which I don’t know if you’ve come across …

Of course, yeah.

They’d discovered the island online as well, but hadn’t got there in time. When I got the phone call from the chief’s nephew who said, “Oh and by the way, Survivor stopped in today,” I thought, that’s it, the dream’s over; we can’t compete with them in terms of money. But the chief turned around and said, “No. I’ve shaken hands with two backpackers from England who’ve got no money. It’s their land for the next three years; we’re working with them.” That moment was when I knew we had to make sure it worked and we were committed. We negotiated the actual lease with the government. For the first three years it was worth about 150,000 Fijian, which is around just under £50,000, around $100,000 Australian. 85% of that would go back to the land-owners and to the local community/development work, and 15% to the government. Now, having en there for three and a half years, I reckon we paid about 20% too much, but to be honest, it was important that we got it right at the start. At least we paid too much rather than too little. But of course, I didn’t have a penny of that when we agreed on it. So Mark and I wrote the Tribewanted website and basically said, “Okay guys, this is it; this is the deal. We’ve negotiated a lease on this small island in Fiji and the plan is to go over there and, with a small group of people at any one time, work with the chief, his family, and the local community to develop a traditional, small, Fijian-style village using local ways of living whether fishing, farming and so on – and new ideas for developments in remote places, like renewable technologies – and so on. It’s going to cost £120 for your membership and that will give you a week on the island, but you can stay for up to three or four weeks, who’s in?”

Brilliant.

And so we threw that up online with a PayPal button and found a PR guy in the UK who was willing to work for free for a couple of months because he thought it was a good story. So our actual spending before we launched online was the return flights to Fiji and the £200 getting the website ready, so it didn’t cost a penny to get to day one. And then we launched and the next day we got a big article in the London Metro, which is a free newspaper that gets handed out [to commuters], with a nice big picture of the island and the chief saying, “Who wants to join the tribe?” and by all accounts quite a few people did. Within a week we’d had fantastic press, not just in the UK, but in Australia and America.

Before I knew it, there were American TV cameras in my back garden here in Devon and as soon as we got on American TV it kind of kicked-off and in three months we’d had about 800 people sign up and had £100,000 in the bank.

That meant we could pay the lease, which was great, so the landowners knew we were committed, and it meant we could invest in a really good online community platform, which, a year later I regretted because Facebook landed and suddenly all these social networks that we use every day now were free. We spent probably about £40,000 building the virtual community – voting booths, chat rooms, booking system etc … you know? It was just crazy when you look back on it and think, man, most of that stuff is free now. Now everyone in Tribewanted pretty much hangs out on Facebook and you just move your content to wherever they are rather than bring them to you. So there we go, that was what happened. We didn’t predict that. That was how we got going. The initial surge of interest and the fact that people signed up really brought us a lot of confidence in what we were doing. When a lot of people are backing your idea it’s a huge buzz, especially when it’s such a sort of dream-like concept; but it didn’t last forever and we ran into all sorts of problems. The first one being an online one where a 19-year-old guy in California, a blogger, insinuated it was a scam, and what’s amazing is the power of the internet because we were stars online overnight, but as soon as this guy wrote his blog, everyone bought into it. We went from turning over £500 a day in membership sales, to less than £50 and we never recovered that momentum. That was July ‘06, three and a half years ago; yeah, so there you go.

What works for you can also work against you, right?

Exactly. When I talk to people now about marketing I say, “By all means get excited about spreading ideas online, but also be wary. There are people out there who can say whatever they want, because it’s an open playing-field now, especially if it’s a conspiracy theory, everyone loves to buy into that. It was devastating for us …

It was probably because it sounded too good to be true that there would have been an element of disbelief there and so what he said had some credibility. It does just sound like the most, you know, out there, fantastical …

It sounds too good, yes, that was the problem. So that knocked us back and the only way I thought we could deal with that was just to go and prove that this was a real thing. So I got out to Fiji, we built some compost loos, and then we invited people to come. On the first of September 2006, 14 people who called themselves ‘first-footers’, from our online community literally landed. They stepped off the internet, grounded on the beach and life began on the island. Since then we’ve had a thousand visitors spending an average of two weeks on the island, and invested a couple of million dollars into the local community and created a lot of local employment. Financially it’s been very tough, it still is, but we’ve survived. We’ve built our village and a lot of people have learned about sustainable living in a remote place and we’ve tried to connect that online to lives at home. We’re also starting to build a market place that gets people being more proactive off the back of their experience on the island, and so on; but what’s been really great about the project, and a thing that motivates me and, I think, everyone else involved, is that we’ve been able to connect with a local community and culture in an authentic way.

It hasn’t become a kind of line where the tourists are on one side and the locals are showing off their culture and their way of life so they can earn an income on the other. At the moment, and this is what I’ll fight to protect as long as we’re there, it’s very much about this genuine living relationship between a group of people, effectively tourists from around the world, and a local family and community that have welcomed us. You know, we live and we work together on an island and it’s incredibly idealistic, but it’s actually the reality of what happens out there. If you read the blogs and the stories from the people who have been there, whether it’s on tripadvisor.com or tribewanted.com or whatever, a lot of people talk about how it’s one of the few places they’ve been on holiday where they feel home-sick when they leave, which is a really great compliment to the community that lives there. They’re just so fantastic. Fijians and people from the South Pacific are great hosts anyway, but in this set-up, and it’s been recognised a lot locally in Fiji, it’s the empowerment of their culture and saying, “We want to learn how to spear-fish, how to sing your songs, how to serve kava properly, not just like we’re having fun at a resort.” What it’s doing is getting a lot of local communities excited and motivated about their heritage and passing that on in a living way, not in a museum-style. So that’s exciting stuff, but there’s been a lot of problems along the way and there are every day [laughs].

So the place is obviously built, it obviously functions, and obviously operates. What do the visitors do there now?

If you arrived on Vorovoro today you’d be welcomed to the beach by whoever’s there, the tribe-members, the Fijian family, the community there, between 10 and 40 people at any one time. Then you’d find your little spot to live in the village and be shown around and welcomed to the community. Then it’s literally up to you how much you get involved … collecting firewood, foraging for food, collecting coconuts, cleaning, maintenance, going out to the reef and spearing fish, going to the local school on the neighbouring island and teaching, doing art projects, making little films, going trekking, swimming, or down to the other end of the beach with a book and lying in the sun. That’s what’s quite nice … if you do want time out then you can go and chill out down on the beach. What a lot of people find is that they come with their two or three books thinking, yes, I’ve got two weeks on the beach, and they don’t even open them because they’re running around or they’re hanging out with people. A lot more building went on the first few years, but now it tends to be running the community and the village, and it seems Fiji’s as busy as ever, so … (laughs) that doesn’t seem to be an issue, finding stuff to do. In terms of projects, we’re now focusing more on supporting community development on the neighbouring island which is only just ‘across the road’ across the water. We’ve already helped in the wiring of the local school and made funds for that, and we’re helping with other projects: water tanks, compost toilets and that kind of thing. So that’s Fiji; the goal is just to roll on for another ten years and live their life … and hopefully set up little co-operatives for honey and coconut and the kind of natural resources they have, and bring different sources of social enterprise into that region. Beyond Fiji, it’s now about taking this idea and saying, can this be, not replicated exactly, but can we do it in other parts of the world … like up in the Northern Territory of Australia? I’m talking to Borneo about doing it up in the rain forests there. I’m talking to people in Sierra Leone in West Africa about doing projects there, so it’s exciting. I’ve got to work on the business model a bit, but there’s lots of interest out there.

Great. Tell me, how has creating Tribewanted changed you?

It sounds cliched of course, but starting this project has given me a real belief that what seem like distant dreams can be realised. It’s given me confidence to think big, not listen to the constant nay sayers unless their criticism is genuinely constructive. It’s also given me belief in people to do the right thing when you give them a chance to participate – we’ve had very few problems with visiting tribe members – but probably most importantly, it’s educated me. The solutions to the local and global problems we face can be found in those places – that’s why I love both the beach life and the internet.

I live simultaneously in a global and local village. It’s not turning me into an overnight millionaire, but it’s a lifestyle I love.

What opportunities has it opened up for you?

I’ve met amazing people – successful entrepreneurs and celebrities, but my favourite encounters have been with our Fijian friends and visiting members. Watching their interactions motivates me to keep going when the project is struggling. For good or bad, I don’t think I could ever work full-time for someone else.

Is it still a full-time concern for you? Is anyone else involved in its administration? What happened to Mark?

Mark and I worked together for the first year of Tribewanted before he left the business to go and start new projects – he’s very much the media creative. We have a small team in Fiji and a couple who help out online and me, but that’s it! Managing and developing the Fijian project takes up a third of my time and then I also work with an old friend and his brilliant football academies in West Africa called Right to Dream. Then, with the rest of my time, I explore new projects. 2010 is going to be a big year for me and Tribewanted. I can’t wait.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Zosia Bellamy, Kaz Brecher, Braden Kuhlman, Paul Sloggett

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