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Scott Wilheim, the founder of Vayando

Vayando: linking travellers with Rwandan entrepreneurs

By Joseph Oindo

Promoting cultural tourism and cultural synthesis is the driving force behind a model website that seeks to link travellers with local entrepreneurs to learn from each other.

www.vayando.com is the brainschild of Scott Wilhelm and his partner Jason Seagle. It offers an opportunity for Rwanda entrepreneurs cross-cutting every sector, and with motivation and interest in sharing local experience, skills and local activities, to directly market and connect with travellers who visit their areas and business locations.

Born in Chicago, Wilhelm first came to Kigali in January 2015 and says he fell in love with the country at first sight and decided that Rwanda was a perfect rat lab for experimenting with innovative ways by which cultural tourism may be promoted.

He says: “Travel to developing countries is growing at double the rate of established northern markets and by 2030 will account for nearly 60 per cent of the tourism sector, or over 1 billion travellers annually. For nearly 50 of the world’s poorest countries, tourism is ranked first in terms of contribution to their economy.”

Wilhelm, having found himself working in remote villages in El Salvador as a Peace Corps volunteer, where most of his time was spent on interacting with the rural community, he says he desired to utilise his experience to link tourists and local entrepreneurs, providing income generating opportunities to local businessmen and “really cool and authentic experiences for travellers.”

Cultural tourism is deeply taking its root in Rwanda. In places like Red Rocks Intercultural Exchange Centre in Musanze, tourists and visitors, and locals are encouraged to intermingle, whereby you find tourists taking part in activities such as brewing of traditional banana beer, Urwagwa, being taught art and craft by the locals, and sitting by the fireside in the evening where people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds share their respective stories.

Through the Vayando model website, travellers can browse through the profiles in the country they wish to travel to and book to spend a day or two with a local entrepreneur, or the cooperative which they are members of.

All the entrepreneur requires is a basic mobile phone to both confirm and manage bookings, and receive their mobile money payments. Travellers get a secure local experience while entrepreneurs get the opportunity to sustain their livelihood or build their small business.

Wilhelm says that one of his proudest moments so far was when a group of Danish travellers visited a Seamstress in a remote, rural location outside Kibuye and invited him to tag along.

“The travellers booked a visit with a seamstress named Mama Prince and they invited me to join them. Mama Prince was thrilled to have guests come from so far to learn about and watch her showcase her work.

“The travellers were really engaged in learning and were quite surprised to learn how much work goes into making a traditional skirt. They also got to see a beautiful part of the country they otherwise would not have seen, so that’s a bonus.

“At that time Mama Prince was pregnant so it was great to know that the significant income she earned that day would go towards helping her fend for her family. And through it all, we managed to laugh an awful lot. It was fantastic!”

He adds that developing a thriving tourism activity around mountain gorillas has been a brilliant strategy and no one can question its positive impact.

“But as a compliment to the gorillas, why not learn about some of Rwanda’s micro-entrepreneurs? Our experiences aren’t shows or acts, we feature everyday people showcasing the work they do every day. It’s the type of people I like to meet when I travel, and our customers really enjoy the experiences as well,” he says.

According to Wilhelm, gorillas, national parks, and the other main attractions could be complemented by Vayando’s offerings.

“There are many skilled entrepreneurs who could benefit from tourism, but oftentimes don’t. Additionally, travellers sometimes find it very difficult to find something unique.”

He adds: “When you travel, it can be difficult to confidently step off the plane or bus and connect directly with local people not in the traditional travel guide, and know that your tourism dollars have a positive impact in the area you visit.

“Inversely, local people often have a valuable livelihood skill, trade, or micro-enterprise to offer – and are looking for opportunity – but can be excluded from the tourism sector and lack ways of marketing their services to travellers online. Vayando is changing that­­­­­­­.”

To identify entrepreneurs, Vayando partners with reputable field partner organisations. These partners help identify entrepreneurs in the communities in which they operate and support them in creating an on-line profile.

Apart from Rwanda, Vayando also operates in Costa Rica and Wilhelm says that they are planning to create more networks in more countries.


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