My journey to KiliGATE
Dear Kili-GATERS, Partners and Friends,
Have you wondered who is that person founding KiliGATE? Would you like to know how KiliGATE came into being, seemingly overnight? Perhaps you know a bit about my professional background and are wondering: Why would someone living a very comfortable life in Switzerland leave a cushy career in corporate finance in order to promote fair porter treatment on a mountain in Africa? My former me would be asking exactly those questions.
Back in early 2015, I had not the slightest notion of KiliGATE. In fact, I had never even been to Africa! I literally stumbled upon KiliGATE, step-by-step, over two years. It was an intensive process of learning and reflection, of aha-moments and personal growth, with a fair share of frustration—not least about the status quo. Once the idea of KiliGATE finally emerged, intuitively and logically, it was so compellingly powerful that pursuing it seemed one of the easiest decisions I had ever made.
Let’s start from the beginning . . .
Seeing from the eyes of a tourist
Early 2015, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro sneaked into my new year resolutions. Why? I didn’t know—it was simply an intuition, an idea stuck in my head. I had never been to Africa, I had no climbing experience, and I had never slept in a tent. But my biggest worry back then: no shower for over a week! You see—I was still a fairly normal city chick, more concerned about the way I looked than having a real impact with my life!
Too dangerous, too difficult, too this and that, my well-meaning friends all politely rejected my invitation to join me for my Kilimanjaro climbing adventure. The more valid reasons against it were brought to my attention, the more I truly wanted to conquer that tallest of all freestanding mountains. That’s when my little nightmare started:
How to even begin? Hundreds of companies, thousands of different opinions, no easy way to compare different offers, . . . The age of transparency, ratings and review platforms, and online bookings had not yet reached Kilimanjaro. And that which was available online was often quite obviously misused to manipulate unsuspecting tourists, increase confusion and obscure the truth. How frustrating!
Like many other tourists, I had been tempted to give up straight away, not because of Kilimanjaro per se, but because the whole booking process was just so terribly confusing and time-consuming. It took me almost four months of research until I eventually booked my climb! And that’s how my little innocent new-year resolution started to take over my entire life . . .
She who learns, teaches —African proverb
To ensure a truly authentic wilderness experience away from the crowds, I had booked myself a tour following a then little-known hiking route, the so-called Northern Circuit. As expected for a little-known hiking route, little had been written about it.
That’s when another simple idea emerged: Why not write a short book about the Northern Circuit, to let others know what it’s like? And why not also share everything that I had researched already, and that I am learning about organising and preparing the trip?
Responding to the edge coming from within, I simply started writing. Again, I couldn’t explain why. I had never wanted to be an author, and there were yet again many reasons against my venture—let alone the demands of an already busy career and private life.
As I was writing about my experience, this journey led me to look deeper, research the market thoroughly and reach out to industry insiders for a more comprehensive understanding of what I had committed myself to. Throughout this process, I learnt about the occurrence of irresponsible tourism and the exploitation of porters on Mount Kilimanjaro. The more I researched and wanted to know, the more frustrated I became about the status quo and the lack of transparency.
As I would also learn, writing a book turned out to be an unexpectedly long and time-consuming process. It meant getting up early (for weeks as early as 4am!) to write before going to work. In hindsight, I don’t know how I managed to summon up the energy to see this project through to completion. It probably was a combination of not knowing to start with what I was getting myself into, and being pulled by something bigger than me: I felt compelled to change the status quo. This became the very motivation of my writing—Kilimanjaro Uncovered.
Authenticity and the power of vulnerability
The process of writing turned into an unexpected exercise of self-reflection and personal growth. People don’t want to read facts. We want to read authentic stories and emotions, don’t we? In order to connect to my readers, I had to learn to open up and become comfortable with my own weaknesses. Or, in the words of the renowned researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown, I had to learn “the power of vulnerability”.
This was not an easy process for me. After all, I had spent over 12 years in banking and finance—an industry known for its privacy and discretion! However, getting comfortable with my own vulnerability was—I think—one of the most important steps in my personal growth and preparation for KiliGATE. After all, being an entrepreneur is all about being authentic and daring to fail. If I wasn’t going to “lean in”, as female leader and Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg so rightly recommends, how would I ever launch a successful enterprise? But I’m jumping ahead.
At this point, I would like to address one more question that you might have: If I’m all about transparency and authenticity, why did I publish Kilimanjaro Uncovered under the alias of Alexandra Tanbai rather than my real name?
To tell you the truth: at the beginning of my writing, it was all about NOT wanting to have my book associated with my professional persona. Publishing a personal story full of emotions and feelings simply didn’t seem to go down well with being a corporate finance advisor to top decision-makers in the financial services industry.
So I came up with my pseudonym Tanbai. It is Mandarin Chinese and derived from the combination of the first character for Tanzania (坦, pronounced tăn) as well as my Chinese surname (白, pronounced bái), which also means white. Incidentally, the two characters in combination (坦白, pronounced tănbái) have the meaning of being frank and honest. And that’s exactly what I also hoped to reflect in my writing.
Long before publishing Kilimanjaro Uncovered, I had become comfortable with my vulnerability and no longer saw the need to hide behind a pseudonym. By that time, however, I had fallen in love with the varied meanings of the name Tanbai: Tanzania, myself and authenticity. How fitting! It so accurately reflected my story that I didn’t have the heart to let go.
Be the change you want to see —Mahatma Gandhi
While climbing Kilimanjaro, I happened to met a lot of wonderful people who were doing something deeply meaningful with their lives. Seeing the spark in their eyes when they narrated about their work had a profound influence on me. I also wanted to feel that passion, and I also wanted to contribute and have a real social impact.
By coincidence, I stumbled upon an online course in social sector leadership provided by Philanthropy University in cooperation with Berkeley-Haas. The course required students to work on a real life case study. Help! I didn’t know any real life cases and was about to drop the course before it had even started.
Hang on! Why not come up with my own case study? Why not come up with a sustainable solution to stop the exploitation of porters on Kilimanjaro? A solution that increases transparency among tourists and makes it easy for them to book with responsible tour operators who treat their porters fairly . . . Because it’s ultimately the collective action of tourists that has the power to enforce transformative change for the porters on Kilimanjaro . . . We ned to create a reliable and transparent online comparison and booking platform—
KiliGATE!!! The solution emerged instantly and intuitively.
Over the course of few weeks, and with the enthusiastic and supportive collaboration of course participants from all around the world, KiliGATE evolved from a simple idea into a full-fledged social business case. The need for such a solution, the feasibility of its implementation and its economic sustainability all seemed obvious. That very same month, I resigned from my career in order to found KiliGATE.
In the words of the renowned author J.K. Rowling, “There’s nothing better when something comes and hits you and you think ‘YES’!”
It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. —Sir Edmund Hillary
In between my career and launching KiliGATE, I embarked on another personal project: Cycling all the way through Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. That was another intuitive idea that sneaked into my head and that I couldn’t explain rationally. I won’t go into details about this adventure here—it would fill an entire book by itself! If you’re interested, you can read all about it on my personal blog—Alex Cycles Africa. I would only like to make a few points here, in order to conclude my complete journey to KiliGATE:
Impossible, too dangerous, you don’t have any cycling experience, you don’t and can’t and won’t, well-meaning friends and acquaintances once again had tried to bring me to my senses. They had all the valid reasons to try stop me from cycling into my own disaster. Who did I think I was? Why would I be able to cycle over 11,000km all the way from Cairo to Cape Town? No Austrian woman—that’s my nationality—had ever accomplished such a feat. And I was no athlete by any means. However, I had one big advantage in my favour—I believed in myself.
To cut a long story short, I reached my goal and—after four months on my bike—safely and happily cycled into Cape Town mid May 2017. This experience has taught me a few important lessons for KiliGATE:
- Nothing is impossible: By combining action and hard work with our unsurmountable belief, I fully trust that we will reach KiliGATE’s mission in the foreseeable future. I don’t know yet how many years it will take to reach our end goal, but it has become a question of when rather than if.
- Seeing is believing: I had a lot of wrong—often negative—preconceptions about this beautiful content, while the reality of my travel experience has been overwhelmingly positive. We want to encourage more people to visit Africa, including its more remote corners. The more we see with our own eyes, the more we understand, the more we think of our world as one.
- Think big: Africa has tremendous tourism potential. In order to maximise our impact, we will build a scalable and replicable solution that we can use to bring more responsible tourism to the entire continent. We start with Kilimanjaro, but our vision has become far bigger. We want to connect the world to Africa—efficiently, sustainably and with transparency.
I now look forward to travelling this new journey together with you! Please join our Kili-GATERS community, like us on Facebook and hashtag #KiliGATE. I also welcome you to message me directly here or on social media in order to explore ways of collaborating and supporting each other to build a bright future for all of us. Let’s get started!