It seems to me that everyone in the developing world is an entrepreneur. Even in the US and Europe, working for an employer in a corporation is a relatively new invention, and most people in SE Asia and Africa, with the exception of desk jockeys (and even then we still met lots of those who sold Amway on the side!), do lots of small things to earn money. It’s not unusual for our neighbors to sell bread from their front doorstep or wash cars from a water tank in the empty lot nearby. We’ve grown accustomed to utilizing services in this Informal Economy on a regular basis.
KC is fascinated by entrepreneurs; one thing I have enjoyed about him as a travel partner is his curiosity about business ventures: it’s so strong that he sends off introductory emails with a few questions, and soon we have the rather unusual opportunity of meeting local business owners and visiting their workplaces. You might enjoy learning about some of them that we visited:
Orange Tree Furniture
On our way to refill a gas (propane) tank in Tzaneen, South Africa one day, I noticed a storefront with beautiful wooden furniture, so we stopped in on the way home to take a closer look. As it turns out, Johan Barnard is an orange tree farmer with a strong philosophy regarding his local community and the environment. When he couldn’t find anything to do with his retired orange trees (they only produce fruit for about 20 years), he started playing around with his woodworking hobby. The result is beautiful handmade wooden furniture with a striking grain; 10 years later he’s promoted 30 of his farm laborers into skilled woodworking tradesmen/women and they recently expanded to a new workshop to keep up with demand. For a short 2-minute video of the factory we toured when we met Johan and his team, watch here:
Laser 3-D Greeting Cards
In Vietnam, we became fans of a certain type of greeting card sold throughout the major tourist areas by entrepreneurs (many of whom were multi-tasking as our waitresses). We bought several and sent them home as Christmas cards, to rave reviews. Eventually, KC tracked down one of the companies in Hanoi and asked if we could come see their production facility. We spent an hour touring the small “factory” in a 2-story office about an hour’s cab ride from our apartment. The fledgling company (about 2 years old) was run by a young couple who’d purchased 9 specialty laser printers and have expanded their staff to include a full-time designer, a marketing and catalog graphic designer, and 15 ladies who assemble the laser-cut cards by hand.
KC has long wondered whether the invasive Russian Olive that grows along river banks in the western US might be a viable bio-fuel source. When we learned that a cheetah conservation organization in Namibia was doing exactly that with scrub brush that’s encroaching into cheetah territory (if they don’t have wide open spaces, they can’t build up enough speed to sprint/hunt), he had to see it for himself. And so on a Wednesday morning we found ourselves interrupting a weeklong camping trip in Etosha National Park to head 2 hours south to Otjiwarongo for a tour of the Bush Blok factory. We also used this product for our cooking fuel and nighttime predator deterrent during our camping trips for the rest of our time in Africa. (Click on the photos below to start a slideshow with captions)
In the mountains of southern Vietnam, an hour’s flight from Saigon (or 11 by bus), KC and I rented a home from Hester, a former teacher, and her Dutch husband Jonas, an international sales professional who’d both quit their reliable jobs to pursue their coffee problem… err, passion. In the plush green mountains cradling the small city of Da Lat, Jonas and Hester seek out small family coffee farms where pesticides aren’t used, and process the coffee beans in the front yard and first floor of a 50-year-old colonial style country house. (And when people like us rent their condo in town, they sleep on the 2nd floor.) At their invitation, we visited this miniature processing facility; it was early in this year’s harvest season, and we ran our hands through coffee beans drying an inch deep in table-height screen racks. The beans, actually the pit of the coffee berry, had only been pulped a few days prior and were still damp and sticky. A month later, we visited one of Shalom’s coffee cafes in Saigon and tasted the end result of last year’s harvest.