The challenge was to create a “tribe” — a global online community to run a very real village on a remote South Sea island in an ambitious venture billed as part eco-tourism, part social studies experiment.
Four years on, not all has gone exactly to plan for Ben Keene, founder of Tribewanted.com, designed to marry the powers of the internet and green tourism to set up an eco-community on the palm-fringed Fijian island of Vorovoro.
But, after the threat of bankruptcy, a cyber conspiracy, cyclones and a military coup, Keene is now about to extend the project to an even more challenging location — Sierra Leone in West Africa.
The 30-year-old British entrepreneur aims to transform the country’s reputation for blood diamonds, AK-toting child soldiers and brutal civil war to a destination offering paradisical white beaches, lush rainforest and fishing boats laden with glistening local catch. But, as he launches Tribewanted Sierra Leone, the fast-changing nature of the internet has dictated this will be less cyber experiment, more “volun-tourism”, it seems.
The setting will be the white sands of John Obey beach, 32km from Freetown, the capital to which former prime minister Tony Blair deployed British troops to prevent the Revolutionary United Front rebel army from overunning the city, thus rescuing an elected govenment and ending Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2002.
Blair, officially made a paramount chief in 2007, has since spearheaded a campaign to promote tourism as a vital source of income for one of the world’s poorest nations. The Western tourists who used to visit its beaches defected to nearby Gambia as war ravaged the country for 10 years.
Now Keene’s vision is for “tribe” members working with a local fishing village, population 352, to build the first sustainable eco-community resort from scratch in “Sweet Salone”, as Sierra Leone is known.
When he first launched Tribewanted, the site became a media phenomenon.
The idea was that for a membership fee of a minimum of £120, potential tribe members could buy the right to live on Vorovoro for a few weeks each year and help build a village — or just sunbathe. All the decisions, such as what to build and who to elect as monthly chief, would be voted for online by the rest of the “tribe”.
The upfront money would pay for building materials and wages to local people from whom the island was leased. The huge media attention it received globally ensured the tribe quickly grew to 700 members from 35 countries.
Then trouble struck. “Facebook,” said Keene. “When Facebook hit the UK, which was about six months after we started, 90% of our members stopped chatting on our site, and moved to Facebook, so it was much harder to keep track.”
Then false internet rumours that it was a scam “almost killed us”.
“The internet can make you, and break you. And it almost broke us,” he said. “This 19-year-old blogger in California started rumours, and of course it’s exactly the type of conspiracy theory that fuels traffic online. So we suddenly got hit, overnight. We went from taking £5 000 a day in membership fees to under £500. And we never regained that momentum.”
Vorovoro has survived, with the financial battle to keep it going chronicled by the BBC in the documentary Paradise or Bust. Today the lease has been extended for another five years.
Since 2006 it has had 2 000 paying tribe members, with 1 100 visiting and staying for an average of two weeks, and more than 10 000 following the project online, said Keene who estimates the project has contributed £600 000 in total to the local community.
So has it been a success? “I think 50-50. Did it create a complete decision-making community online running the fate of a village on the other side of the world? No. But did we actually get people engaged with a place, a culture and its characters before they went on holiday? Yes. And that is already happening with Sierra Leone.”
This time there will be no “crowd-funding” the project through upfront contributions. People can become tribe members by donating a minimum of £20 to the local non-profit community organisations working in partnership with Tribewanted, or by paying £295 for a week’s stay. It opens in October when building work will start on creating a beach village of eco-domes. “Be warned: for those coming in the first six months it will be BYT — bring your own tent,” said Keene.
He disputes criticism that, stripped of its original concept, the project is little more than another “adventure” for young backpackers. “Tribewanted is not volunteering. Nor is it resort tourism. It’s something in between, I guess.” —