My name is Inge De Lathauwer, I am the founder of Sumba Hospitality Foundation. However, on Sumba, everybody calls me ‘Ibu Inge’.
I first set foot on Sumba back in 2013. Instantly, I was charmed by its beautiful landscapes and captivated by the Sumbanese people. Their unique culture happens to be one of the purest animist cultures to exist nowadays. It was amazing to see how deeply connected Sumbanese people felt to nature and the amount of respect they had for their heritage.
Although I completely fell in love with their way of life, I was saddened to see their poor living conditions. I realized that Sumba was in desperate need of jobs and investment. As the island already became increasingly more accessible to foreigners, tourism seemed like the most obvious answer to this problem.
However, the population lacked the necessary knowledge and skills to welcome such a competitive industry and was therefore unlikely to reap its benefits. Sumbanese people could barely speak any English, a fact that not only limited their employment opportunities, it also made them highly vulnerable to speculators trying to buy their land. The clock was ticking.
As a lifelong charity worker, I had previously witnessed the disastrous consequences of poorly planned charity.
Ten years ago, a well-known, organization approached me to help raise funds to provide cesarean operations in a remote region in Africa. I was very keen to help. Having delivered all four of my own children by cesarean section I had always been saddened that women and babies still die for lack of the right care at birth. Without that option, I would not have four beautiful sons “and would likely have died in childbirth”.
A year later I traveled to Africa to visit the clinic and see for myself the difference it was making to women’s lives. I was shocked to discover a building filled with all the right equipment, but all of it still wrapped in plastic covers and with the doors firmly closed. What was the problem? It turned out that the organization had not secured permission to recruit a gynecologist, without whom the clinic could not open. What started out as a good idea ended up being a huge waste of effort and money.
Women and babies were still dying… It was at that moment that I realized that giving money is just not enough. I have always loved traveling and knew there was no shortage of communities in need of funding and support. I now recognized that the only way of ensuring these people benefited directly, was to start my own organization and work with local people to bring it to life.
To better understand the dreams and aspirations of the Sumbanese people, I decided to spend more time listening. Not only to their stories of hardship and struggle but also to their hopes and ideas for the future.
Their community wanted an efficient way to address their current social and economic needs by attracting visitors who not only cared about their culture but also about the environmental impact of their stay.
How could I help? Most of my observations kept leading me back to the same conclusion: sustainable development begins and ends with local communities. Not much later the idea was born of building a hotel school that would teach young Sumbanese people the hospitality skills they needed to contribute to the tourism development on the island. As someone who has always valued the importance of education, this visionary school could offer a long-term solution to their socio-economic problems by helping them enter the hospitality industry and secure a rewarding career.
The aim was for them to be able to do all of this whilst still preserving their culture, environment, and heritage. This vocational hotel school would thus project a strong vision for responsible tourism in the region and ultimately improve the lives of the people this industry tends to neglect.
Starting up the school turned out to be a much bigger challenge than I had imagined. I faced multiple setbacks, but I kept going until I got the project running a year after I initially pitched my idea.
Probably the most difficult part of the process consisted of gaining the trust of the Sumbanese people. It was essential that our relationship was based on mutual trust and understanding. Despite my good intentions, not everyone was as willing to cooperate. Their reluctance was due to the fact that the island was divided into four separate regions. They were worried that one of them would profit more than the rest. We consequently agreed to enroll an equal number of students from each region.
As we moved closer to the school’s grand opening day, we decided that we would be picking our candidates according to the following criteria: 1) they had to come from an underprivileged social and economic background, 2) they needed to have at least a high school diploma, and 3) they had to be somewhere between seventeen and twenty-three years old.
Finally, I wanted to make sure that everyone got an equal opportunity to be accepted into the program and consequently chose to make its male to female student ratio 50:50.
The Sumba Hospitality Foundation opened its doors on July 22nd, 2016.
These new students embarked on an eighteen-month journey that prepared them for their future by teaching them hospitality skills, providing them with careers, and ensuring they could benefit from eventual tourism development on the island. The students quickly learned to apply theoretical knowledge to real-life situations, and I was inspired by how deeply committed they were to their studies.
Meanwhile, we keep earning the trust of the Sumbanese people. Their children are working in a safe environment, they are building careers and sending money home to improve housing and school for their younger siblings.
Every year we receive more than 800 applications for 60 available places. The foundation is fulfilling its purpose and helping young ones achieve their dreams. It is an honor to be a part of such a meaningful project and witness professionals and volunteers from all over the world come together with locals to ensure that tourism development in Sumba is both inclusive and sustainable.
It has also been incredibly rewarding to see our small eco-resort thrive as the number of visitors increases. All of the proceeds are, as always, used to sustain the program, which continues to offer short courses and daily English classes. The latter is free and open to all so that the wider-community can also benefit from the school’s resources.
In addition to their hospitality training, students are also introduced to a range of permaculture and sustainable practices. The campus is built entirely out of bamboo, the most environmentally friendly local building material, and has a solar farm as well as a biogas installation. It is therefore 100% off-grid and reuses about 90% of wastewater for plant irrigation. Our goal is to help students understand this technology whilst also nurturing their sense of responsibility towards their environment.
They can then share these teachings with their respective communities, and by doing so, become green ambassadors for their beautiful island. I find this to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of the job, and work hard to ensure that future investors and developers on Sumba share this same vision.
We truly believe we have created a blueprint for responsible tourism development, not only for Sumba but for other yet-to-be-developed regions.
We would love to share our knowledge with anyone interested. It’s true that we still face many challenges: how to become more financially sustainable, how to find volunteers and professionals willing to share their expertise, and how to solve the waste problem.
We are happy our students are themselves becoming green ambassadors, changing the mindset and habits of their families and communities. I encourage everyone to travel and explore the world for many years to come but to pledge to do more to break the cycle of poverty in the communities you visit. You don’t need to start your own foundation, just get involved! Small, individual changes can create a large impact and prove that sustainable tourism can be a force for good.