Nice to have a chat with some old friends at gapyear. Great to see the community evolving.

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“Google ‘islands for lease’. Send some emails. Fly to Fiji. Negotiate lease. Set-up crowd-funding website. Write a compelling press release. Hit send.”


PHOTO: Ben Keene with members of Tribewanted, Sierra Leone.

FOUNDER OF Tribewanted, social entrepreneur, speaker, writer, nomad and described in National Geographic as “the Sergey Brin of the South Pacific,” Ben Keene’s quest in 2006 to create a new cross-cultural and sustainable community on a Fijian island via a social network captured international attention. Five years on Tribewanted and its Fijian partners have built their community, welcomed over 1,000 tribe members and invested over FJ$2m into the local economy. In 2010 Ben launched his second tribe in Sierra Leone. Gapyear.com caught up with the tribe-builder to talk social media pre-Facebook, front-line community-founding and why he took the Tribewanted model to Africa…

Hi Ben. So, ‘The Sergey Brin of the South Pacific’. Does this sum you up nicely or is there a better description nowadays?

I think the journalist might have had too much kava when he wrote that! (Kava is the narcotic root that is presented, pounded and drunk from coconut shells by the Fijian islanders).

You captured the zeitgeist of the social media explosion in 2006 with your project Tribewanted. But you also captured the public imagination as we watched you ‘guts and all’ on the BBC programme Paradise or Bust, read the book and followed the blogs. What was it like launching a pure social media business in the days before people were really using Facebook in the way it’s used today?

It was bloody exciting and almost impossible to manage. People loved the idea of participating online in a project that they could visit in the real world – an island in Fiji. But with the engagement came argument and confusion – there were no real rules, it was a genuine experiment in community-building online first and then on the island itself.

If you were to do Tribewanted Fiji again, but in 2011 with social media used how it is now, how would the outcome be different?

I think the model would have to change a lot. BF (Before Facebook) it was much easier to engage a niche community on your bit of digital real estate or dotcom. Now, PF (Post Facebook) we all live in each others virtual back yards and Facebook is our town (for now). So, seeing as the vast majority of our audience are on Facebook, I’d build a large part of the tribe there. Zynga did it.


PHOTO: Tribal huts underconstruction in Sierra Leone.

You were feted at the time by commentators for persuading a real Fijian tribe to lend you an island for what was really a brand new social media experiment. Not bad for someone in their late twenties at the time. Are you an ‘ice to eskimos’ guy, or was there a bit more to it? i.e. How the hell did you do it?!

Google ‘islands for lease’. Send some emails, fly to Fiji, negotiate lease, set-up crowd-funding website, write a compelling press release, get a goodnight sleep and hit send.

It was one of the biggest media sensations of the year in all the major English speaking countries. I gather you even blagged it onto Good Morning America and the Today Show! ‘Eccentric, energetic Englishmen seeks a virtual tribe for a real island’. Did people get it?

I think if people completely got it we wouldn’t have received so much press. Two things got people excited: First it was a genuine experiment mixing trends (travel and social networking), and second, it asked some big questions; Can people live together on an island? Can we really build sustainable communities?

And did such a mass media profile bring instant commercial success?

Not commercial, but that wasn’t the goal. We recruited our tribe, built our village, positively impacted lives and kick-started an exciting conversation. But the business model with a real world community hasn’t turned us (in terms of scale) into the next Twitter or Facebook, but then again, I’m not sure Zuckerberg and co have had the chance to live and learn in the places I have.

So you’ve moved Tribewanted to Sierra Leone. A new beach, a new tribe, in a country with a well-known recent barbaric history that probably wouldn’t feature in the Top 100 tourist destinations for any English-speaking country. I guess the question is: Are you nuts? Or do you simply like tough challenges?

I like being on the front-line. Not of the battlefield, but where positive change is happening. Vorovoro was a remote island in a well-travelled destination. John Obey is an accessible beach in a rarely-travelled destination. Sierra Leone has been at peace for almost 10 years, it needs responsible investment to aid its recovery process and it has some of the beaches I’ve ever seen. That’s why we’re here – for the experience, for the impact and for the moment of change. And the occassional lobster.

So what does success look like for Tribewanted Sierra Leone?

From my view on the solar deck today it looks like a new village of eco-earth domes, fishing boats, and people working and lazing together in the afternoon sun. Online it’s sharing this story – the ups and the downs.

You’re passionate about your social entrepreneur work and involved in a few other live projects here and there. Anything exciting going on at the moment?

Yes, I’m also involved here in West Africa with a brilliant new model of education, sport and leadership at Craigbellamyfoundation.org and in Ghana at righttodream.com plus I’ve helped set-up fairtradevolunteering.org as a movement to do for volunteering what fair trade has done for coffee and chocolate.


PHOTO: Ben relaxes with some challenging literature in Sierra Leone.

Social media is clearly your thing. I’m sure it’s fair to say ‘all-consuming’ as far as you’re concerned. As an expert in this field what’s your view on the future, in particularly a decade on from now. Will improved ‘virtual’ experiences mean we’ll have less need to physically go into shops, meet people and travel the world?

The opposite. Geo-location, augmented reality apps, and smarter smart phones are going to allow a lot more of the big challenges to be tackled socially – by all of us. As consumers and citizens we’re going to have more control, more choice and therefore, more responsibility in shaping our world.

Who is getting social media right just now?

Funny question to ask someone on a beach in Africa but…in travel exodus & kayak – great apps – and @benjilanyado is the best twi-tripper I follow, as well as @escthecity for post-gapyear career networking. There still isn’t a killer gap year app yet, although @gapyah is amusing to follow and without broadband I miss Spotify & TED the most.

And who is getting it wrong?

People who aren’t sharing their story online. The Times paywall may make money but it’s stopped me engaging with good journalism.

Who is inspiring you?

Alaistair Humphries, Amy Carter-James, Ben Saunders, Dale Vince, Tom Vernon, Mark Zuckerberg (if he turns Facebook into the gargantuan force for good it could be).

Lining up this interview you mentioned the view from your hammock. Sounds like quite an office! The best office in the world, maybe?

I tend to find the gentle breeze and rocking sensation perfect for extended periods of concentration.

So where next for Tribewanted? I know you like your challenges – have you considered Afghanistan? Lack of beaches I guess…

I hope that’s a serious question because I have a serious answer that’s not far off… but you’ll have to follow us online to find out.


PHOTO: The beautiful coastline view at sunset, Sierra Leone.

Go further

Ben Keene is currently leading @tribewanted in Sierra Leone. Join him on the beach or, at the very least, by visiting the officialTribewanted website.

Follow Ben on Twitter at @benkeene and @tribewantedsierraleone.

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