Startup Founder Connects Rwandan Micro-Entrepreneurs With Paying Tourists for Authentic Experiences

· @anneodengo ·

The next time you go on holiday, as you pack your bathing suit for the white sandy beaches or boots to hike the mountain, how about making a difference in the community you visit? How? Simple. Vayando it!

Vayando is a social enterprise with one thing on its mind: to provide tourists with a unique opportunity to explore indigenous cultures in developing countries and also support local micro-entrepreneurs.

It’s pretty simple, you log on to the Vayando website, select your country of choice, read up on the location, select your micro-entrepreneur of choice and schedule your visit. Voila! Rwanda here we come!

On the flip side, if you’re an entrepreneur in Rwanda, you can boost your income and showcase your business to interested visitors through Vayando’s platform. For instance, Poppin Chris offers hip hop and dubstep lessons. Grace teaches traditional basket weaving, and Yakubu educates travelers on the art of street photography.

Vayando was founded in 2013 by Jason Seagle and Scott Wilhelm, friends who worked together in the Peace Corps in El Salvador. Their experiences meeting local micro-entrepreneurs and mixing with travelers passing through Central America planted the seed for Vayando. They quickly realized that their friends and acquaintances were willing to pay for immersive experiences in local communities. 

Vayando’s entrepreneurs earn an additional US$24 for each session they conduct with tourists, with an estimated two sessions a month. So, if five people want to learn how to cook a traditional Rwandese meal with Aminatha, for example, and make a booking, Aminatha will bring in US$120 in addition to her regular income. Vayando also earns revenue by charging tourists a separate booking fee. It’s a win-win.

Three years on, Vayando is changing the lives and incomes of 40 microenterprises in Rwanda and Costa Rica. And they are not stopping there. In 2015, Vayando surpassed its Indiegogo crowd-funding goal of US$15,000 to keep the ball rolling. Ultimately, Vayando hopes to positively impact microenterprises in 100 countries across the developing world.

AkilahNet had a chat with co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Scott Wilhelm on their growth and expansion plan across Africa and the rest of the developing world.

What made you pick Rwanda and Costa Rica for your pilot countries as opposed to El Salvador where you had volunteered in the Peace Corps?

There were a few factors — who we knew at the time, where we wanted to reside, what the tourism market was like at the time, etc. We’ll eventually be in El Salvador — there are a lot of talented micro-entrepreneurs, and I look forward to visiting again.

How long did it take you to set up shop in Rwanda?

Setting up a business in Rwanda is remarkably easy. It’s also a small country, and everyone seems to know everyone else. We were able to get started very quickly. Once we found our entrepreneurs, it was just a matter of spreading the word about the product — that’s the hard part.

Were there any difficulties in approaching your first set of micro-entrepreneurs?

It was quite a painless process. Business owners and small-scale entrepreneurs must know a good deal when they see one. It doesn’t cost entrepreneurs anything to be on our platform, so there isn’t any risk associated with being a part of Vayando.

“It doesn’t cost entrepreneurs anything to be on our platform, so there isn’t any risk associated with being a part of Vayando.”

What kind of vetting process do you use when seeking the ideal microenterprise?

Many of our entrepreneurs are referred by trusted partner agencies. We identify folks that incorporate innovative approaches to income generation and will offer a direct tourism service to travelers. The important thing is that they are motivated and will maintain a professional, respectful relationship with travelers, Vayando, and our partners.

How many visitors have you had over the past three years of operation?

I’ll just say that our growth already in 2016 has been significant. We’re looking forward to the peak travel months.

Which countries are these visitors mostly from?

Mostly from the U.S. and Northern and Western Europe; we’re hoping to get more nationals of the countries in which we operate.

You are targeting 100 countries; how many of those countries are in Africa?

We’ll have a very big presence in Africa. I don’t have an exact number, but I’d say you can count on us eventually being in over 30 African countries.

What made you choose crowd-sourcing over conventional grant seeking or venture capital injection for your operations?

We have a strong network of friends and family who have always been really supportive. We figured by having perks made by small-scale entrepreneurs [as gifts in exchange for donations], the crowd-sourcing campaign would be a great way for folks to start engaging with the entrepreneurs we’d be featuring on the site. It was a real success, and contributors got some great perks.

We’ve received some grants along the way as well, and we’re always looking to connect with the right social impact investor.

What are some of the things that you wish you’d known when you were setting up shop?

As a social enterprise with the potential to have significant impact on the lives of entrepreneurs and their families, we assumed we’d clean up in competitions, mentorship contests, etc., and have no problem landing seed money. We’ve done really well in everything we’ve applied to and are proud of what we’ve been able to do, but we haven’t taken the gold medal … yet. We’re finding that a lot of social impact competitions are focused on the newest composting toilet, solar lamp, or water filter.

What makes your job super exciting every waking day?

It’s really an honor to meet so many talented entrepreneurs and hear them react well to what we’re doing. I also get to meet travelers from all over the world and, hopefully, help make their travels great.

I really enjoy connecting people who might otherwise not have met. I love reading blogs written by travelers who enjoyed their Vayando experience, or seeing pictures online, or hearing that entrepreneurs still communicate with travelers they’re had visit them.

Tell us what you think in the comments!