ESTEBAN TORBAR

Venezuela,

Esteban Torbar is bringing life back to declining rural communities in Venezuela, using tourism as a tool to improve community infrastructure, clean up the environment, and create jobs. Through his organization, Eposak, visitors are vital partners with community leaders and entrepreneurs in reweaving social fabric, in turn protecting these areas from environmental degradation and economic decay by putting them on the map.

This profile below was prepared when Esteban Torbar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

Esteban Torbar is bringing life back to declining rural communities in Venezuela, using tourism as a tool to improve community infrastructure, clean up the environment, and create jobs. Through his organization, Eposak, visitors are vital partners with community leaders and entrepreneurs in reweaving social fabric, in turn protecting these areas from environmental degradation and economic decay by putting them on the map.




THE NEW IDEA

Esteban Torbar and his organization Eposak (“achievement”) are setting a new model for the tourism industry while rebuilding waning and exploited rural communities in Venezuela. The model works inside and outside of the communities, pulling together wrap-around support to address social and environmental issues. Inside, Eposak helps community leaders draft and implement a comprehensive development plan. Outside, it finds and engages individuals, companies, universities, and government entities to provide the money, manpower, and expertise to execute the development plan alongside the community members. While the plan addresses specific issues in order to improve community wellbeing, it simultaneously transforms the community into a tourist destination to ensure a healthy economy and environment in the long term. 

To do this, Eposak first scopes community improvement projects and forms a fluid team of local and external stakeholders. From the start, tourists are engaged as part of the project team. In this way, the tourism starts before a community might normally be deemed a “destination.” At the same time, Eposak identifies, trains, and funds local entrepreneurs who have businesses that could support tourism (restaurants, hotels, and other necessary services). 

In this way, Esteban is ensuring that each element reinforces another to push forward individual, community, and sectoral transformation. By designing experiences and opportunities for visitors to get to know a community by working alongside, Eposak is targeting a certain type of tourist and building a trip that has potential to change how they see and engage in the world. Then, by enabling entrepreneurs and teams within the communities to both improve their own living situation and encounter external teammates in the process, they acquire new skills and perspectives. Finally, by working with existing tourism companies, the private sector, and the government, Esteban is drawing in partners that can provide needed support for community projects and entrepreneurs and draw tourists, but in the process realize their potential for causing wider scale change.




THE PROBLEM

There are hundreds of rural communities in Venezuela and throughout Latin America that, despite being rich in natural beauty and cultural assets, still experience great economic poverty. Due to lack of options for earning a living, many residents are routed to activities that have negative environmental and social side effects, such as mining or prostitution. Others even migrate away from home in search of work. As a consequence, these activities distance rural inhabitants from their ancestral traditions and forms of production, further loosening social fabric in the community. 

Mining ramped up in the 1980s and 90s as Venezuela became a leading extractor of iron ore, coal, and bauxite. As a result, the environmental implications of these new activities and others brought environmental effects such as deforestation and pollution. Mining is not only dangerous to the local ecosystems but also to the general health of the population living near or working in mines. Furthermore, mines require large amounts of valuable water – diverting or polluting scare sources from agricultural and general use, especially in areas that face chronic shortages. 

In regard to the social effects of mining and other nontraditional jobs, they often remove rural populations from ties to their environment. Mining has quite literally removed indigenous populations from their land; underrepresented at a national level, these native groups have no other option than to leave when their crops, livestock, and families suffer from effects of pollution, or their land is entirely ceded to a mine. As a result, the communities are increasingly losing their subsistence lifestyle. No longer able to sustain their families with what they produce themselves, they have to turn to external suppliers for food, clothing, construction materials, and other goods. 

In some cases, there are simply no jobs in the rural communities, and residents move to cities in search of opportunities. This migration further undermines community and the preservation of customs and traditional culture. For those that do stay in the communities, starting a business would be an alternative to mining or migrating. However, there are limited tools available to support potential entrepreneurs. First, access to general education is limited, and specialized training is even less prevalent. Communication channels between communities and the government, or even among communities, are blocked or nonexistent; as a result, they see little support from the public or private sectors. Furthermore, there is often no formal banking system and therefore no access to credit to get a new business off the ground. 

In this context, tourism could provide an opportunity to preserve both cultural and environmental resources by bringing attention to and sharing them with people outside the community. However, in Venezuela, these rural areas are so lacking in basic infrastructure (running water, roads, electricity), and are sometimes so isolated (both geographically and through disconnect from communication channels) that there is little way for to the potential visitor to hear about these communities. If they are aware of the natural or cultural attractions, the lack of infrastructure keeps them from wanting to visit.




THE STRATEGY

Esteban Torbar has long seen sustainable tourism as a tool for social transformation, employment generation, and improved quality of life in rural communities in Venezuela. In his travels to many remote places in his native country and globally, Esteban noticed both the potential that tourism has to improve wellbeing in local communities but also how many remote places that attempt to develop tourism fail. He also noticed how some tourist destinations are in areas whose local communities are suffering from enormous social and environmental problems. So in 2001, he began the Esteban Torbar Foundation (FET) as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of sustainable tourism in rural communities in Venezuela. The new idea for transforming entire communities through tourism came in 2010 as project that FET presented to Changemakers’ Geotourism Challenge, sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank and National Geographic. The Challenge drew more than 400 projects from across Latin America and the Caribbean, and Esteban’s initiative, Eposak, was chosen as one of seven winners. 

Eposak means "achievement" in Pemona-Kamaracota, the language of tribes indigenous to the Kamaracota Valley in Venezuela. The Eposak process begins with the identification of potential tourist destinations. The majority of the communities where Eposak operates are economically depressed, with very low levels of banking, and where there are almost no formal property systems of land or buildings. The populations range in size from 50 to 3,000 inhabitants, but all have some type of asset -- rich cultural traditions, natural beauty, or relaxation space – with potential to draw visitors. Ideal Eposak communities also have ripe human capital, meaning there are residents that have ideas and hopes for their community and want to entrepreneur, but their projects have not come to fruition due to lack of infrastructure and training. Eposak is particularly looking for entrepreneurs inside the communities with ideas for developing a tourism-related activity. In many cases, these entrepreneurs have overcome resource barriers to launch a business, but have stagnated due to lack of customers (tourists). 

After selecting a community, the next step is working on a Sustainable Development Plan (SDP). The goal of the SDP is to build a tourist economy that is environmentally sound, socially just, culturally enriching, and contributes to solving local issues of poverty and exclusion that result from a lack of economic activities. Through partnership with community leaders and strategic external partners, Eposak builds a plan with two main pillars: community-wide projects and “tourism entrepreneurs’” projects. The community projects fall into the categories of environment, culture/society, economy, and governability, and address issues particular to each locale. The support for these projects, both funding and technical, comes from multilateral organizations and private companies. More specific operations and implementation support comes through allies that specialize in each of the project areas. Local stakeholders in the projects include community leaders, advisory groups, or other teams, varying according to what makes sense in each community. The tourism entrepreneurs are local entrepreneurs whose activities support the economy that develops around tourism. 

One unique part of the model is that Eposak does not prepare the destination in advance of receiving tourists; the visitors, tourist volunteers, are involved from the beginning. The SDP addresses local deficiencies that are not only a detriment to a local community but also a deterrent to visitors, as opportunities. For example, the absence of running water, electricity, and roads; trash management and pollution; and lack of education and healthcare, are scoped as projects that will be tackled by a team of local and external stakeholders, and serve as a concrete opportunity for visitors who want to contribute to positive community development. The profiles of potential visitors are considered with each phase of the SDP, so the ideal type of visitor evolves according to the phase of development in which the community finds itself. This community/visitor relationship is designed to be mutually beneficial, transformative for both the locale and the traveler. 

The second component of the SDC is the selection and training of entrepreneurs with viable tourist projects. A key criteria in the identification of these entrepreneurs is their ability to achieve results despite the barriers to education, training, and other resources that they have faced. Additionally, Eposak is careful to be very objective and sensitive to community politics in the selection so as to avoid conflict within the community. Important considerations for selection include: projects that improve living conditions (of the entrepreneurs themselves and the community as a whole) and that can be clearly elevated through tourism and projects that preserve the local environment, culture, and traditions. Additionally, projects must have at least 50% female employees; be at least 50% owned by the entrepreneur applicant; and rely on local sources for at least 80% of its goods and services. The candidates fitting these criteria must present a business plan for approval by both FET and the World Tourism Organization (OMT), a branch of the United Nations devoted to promoting responsible tourism. 

Once selected, the entrepreneurs begin receiving support in four main areas: financing, human resources, logistics, and commercialization. The financing comes through one of two channels for crowdfunding, peer-to-peer or business-to-peer lending, facilitated through Eposak’s online site. The webpage, similar to a Kiva model, profiles each entrepreneur, their project, the total amount of financing required, and progress towards the goal amount. Eposak facilitates loans starting at 50 Bolivars ($8 USD), which can either be repaid to the lender or to a general Eposak fund to support future tourism entrepreneurs. The terms of repayment vary depending on the entrepreneur and project, and Eposak’s webpage shows the progress of each entrepreneur’s repayment. 

What distinguishes this lending element of Eposak’s work from Kiva and other microlenders is the other support that the entrepreneurs and their communities receive. Entrepreneurs can receive human resources reinforcement through Eposak’s network of national and international volunteers, found through crowdsourcing. These volunteers also assist with entrepreneur capacity building workshops and other training. For example, in the community of Birongo (a community of predominantly Afro-Venezuelans in the mountains near the country’s northern coast), two Eposak partners are leading an 8 week-long workshop series called “Entrepreneur.” The Institute for Superior Administration Studies and the Italian-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce are running the workshops for local tourism entrepreneurs, each of whom is developing their business plan during the sessions. Additionally, per their own recommendation to the instructors, all of the entrepreneurs are working together on a plan to increase signs to make Birongo more tourist friendly. 

For the third aspect of support, both Eposak and FET continue to follow up with the entrepreneurs and help with anything that might arise down the road. Additionally, they continue to support and monitor the community projects that were designed during the SDP. 

The fourth and final aspect of support is in “crowdselling” or promoting the community as a tourist destination. In this phase, Eposak attracts tourists interested in experiential and volunteer-based travel, where the purpose of the trip is to learn about the destination through meeting and working with community members. It is aimed toward two types of tourists: the tourist who seeks a personally transformative experience and the volunteer tourist who wants to get to know the community and help with a specific project. 

Eposak will work with tour operating companies to coordinate the actual tourist visits. They have already contacted tour companies, both nationally and internationally, who can help promote this type of tourism. Eposak is also working with the Maso Group, a Venezuelan tour company and co-sponsor of Eposak. The plan for the future is to convert the volunteers and tourists that go to these destinations into "sellers" who can promote the destination within their network of friends and acquaintances to redouble the crowdselling. 

Along with his team from FET, Esteban has identified and supported more than 38 tourist entrepreneurs in 5 rural communities in Venezuela so far: Kamarata and Santa Elena de Uairén (Bolivar), Birongo and Mango of Ocoyta (Miranda), and los Pueblos del Sur (Merida). To date, the Eposak platform has raised more than USD $100,000 and 18 entrepreneurs have repaid 100% of their funds. FET has given more than 100 workshops to tourism entrepreneurs. Esteban is already working to scale, and public institutions that could help spread the model are interested in helping. The Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) wants to support his project in the Bolivar state; the Governor of Miranda is supporting the projects in Birongo, and Esteban is currently in talks with the Ministry of Tourism to expand the scope of this project across Venezuela. Outside the country, he is in discussions with Sustainable Amazon in Brazil, with the private company Carvajal in Colombia, and is looking for partners to bring Eposak to other countries such as Panama and Ecuador. Within the next 10 years, Esteban anticipates operating in at least 100 communities in the region.




THE PERSON

Esteban has always been entrepreneurial and mature, beginning with helping his mother support the household and raise his younger brothers after his stepfather abandoned the family. At the age of 15, he was already earning money cutting grass and as a guide in summer camps. He was also a leader in his community from a young age; he led sports teams, wrote in the university newspaper, and founded an NGO to clean beaches at 18. He also showed an early interest in social engagement beyond his family and community; at the age of 21 he organized gatherings for friends and acquaintances in his house with specialists to discuss current events in Venezuela. 

Esteban has founded and led number of initiatives, and has always looked for how these might generate social impact. In his first professional job, with Procter & Gamble, he conceptualized and launched “Mission: Future” a joint collaboration among 11 P&G brands, IBM, and the Venezuelan Government to provide computer labs in schools throughout the country. It was the first time in the history of P&G to have brought together this number of brands in support of education. Then, in 2007, Esteban assumed an active role in the direction of the Chapter of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) in Venezuela. An educational program that he developed during his period as Education Officer was recognized as the best program in Latin America in 2012-13, and one of his related events was recognized at the global level. 

Tourism has always been present in Esteban’s life. It was a passion he shared with his father, who also worked in the sector. So in 2001 when he started the Foundation Esteban Torbar (FET), it was in honor of his deceased father. Currently, Esteban is also president and CEO of the Maso Group, a leading tourism company in Venezuela. He feels a great social vocation for contributing to the development of his country. He is very focused on promoting entrepreneurship at all levels - especially at the base of the pyramid - and in turning tourism into a tool to address the social problems in Venezuela, especially in the communities of lower resources. Esteban frequently participates in forums, radio and television programs, and gives lectures on entrepreneurship and tourism. He has also been a professor of entrepreneurship at the MBA program the IESA and works actively from the Directive of CONSETURISMO (Superior Council of Tourism) to promote social responsibility in tourism and the development of sustainable tourism among all the companies in the industry. Esteban dreams of seeing hundreds of communities located in destinations with potential for sustainable tourism grow and achieve better living conditions, and he does not plan to rest until he sees this vision realized.




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