Translating Tourism into Local Life with Georgie from Cafe Footprints in Siem Reap Cambodia

12 Feb 2021

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Phanganist meets Georgie who has set up an inspiring project in our neighbouring country Cambodia...

Hi Georgie, so tell us your Koh Phangan story...

I first came to the island in 2010, all of my family are travellers and we were meeting together for Christmas. We decided to come to Thailand as one of our last family holidays was here so we decided to meet and celebrate here together.

From that my Mum started coming here most UK winters from October to April and my brother started living in Phuket. I moved to and lived in Cambodia so Koh Phangan was a middle place for us to meet up, it became a place for family.

And you still live in Cambodia, what’s it like?

I went that same year and fell in love with the culture there and the way people view life, I ended up volunteering there.

Most people who go to Siem Reap spend 3 or 4 days there. They stay at a very nice hostel or luxury hotel and see the temples, party in pub street, have a good time and go on their merry way but through volunteering and staying a bit you realise the tourist’s lives and the people living there’s lives are incredibly different. As tourist it’s easy to think that because tourism is thriving the local community must also be thriving but it’s certainly not happening in Siem Reap. It’s a strange situation where Siem Reap is the top tourist destination in Cambodia and still growing yet it’s the second poorest province in Cambodia, it seems strange that the prosperous tourist industry is not translating into local life.

So tell us what you’re doing to help this...

I started a cafe back in 2012 with a business partner, the idea was to donate 100% profits back to the local community to be used as grants for educational projects. It went really well and we did it for a year together and then after I decided I really loved it, it wasn’t just a one off for me I wanted to do it again and again .

I then applied for business school as my background is in politics, working and building up the cafe showed me that it’s fun but I needed to learn more business skills.

I applied to Cambridge Judge Business School to study to be an entrepreneur for a year, you have to apply having a business already in mind.

Did you study remotely or back in Cambridge UK?

It’s part remote and part residential so I moved there for a year to do it. The team at the Judge were very supportive and helped me put together a mini fundraiser where we turned a Cambridge cafe  into a Cambodian cafe fo the night.

The event really helped me to make contacts in the community such as ‘Angel Investors’, people who put money behind businesses.

We put the evening together and were incredibly fortunate that an investor called Darrin Disley really loved the idea. We were looking for a start up of 5000 pounds to start a charity in the UK, this was a realistic goal. As part of the evening however we did outline how much it would cost for one cafe and Dr Disley agreed to sponsor one, then 6 months after he agreed to sponsor 4!

He’s now committed to 300,000 Dollars which is three to four cafes and is one of our trustees.  Once we are established we will try for an investment round of of 1.5 million dollars.

What happens at the cafes?

The cafe is a mix between a restaurant and a book shop. The shelves are lined with donated books from Cambridge and London, people were happy to give to us as they knew the sales will generate grant money.

Our philosophy is ‘People, Planet, Profit’. With ‘People’ we take care of our teams and pay a fair wage, invest in training and careers development and support them generally with life needs.

For ‘Planet’ we do everything we can to look after our planet our sub philosophy is ‘reduce reuse recycle’, examples include metal straws, converting used cooking oil into biodiesel, giving our coffee grounds to a farming co-op to be used for compost, our food waste goes to a pig farm. The team are always coming up with ways to do different things.

With ‘Profit’ we unashamedly want to make a large profit as that is reinvested into the community by the community, we believe that the local community should decide how they develop, our model is about empowering communities to help themselves.

We opened the first one in November 2016 in Siem Reap, we are now ranked number 9 on Trip Advisor for coffee and teas. As well as selling books in the cafe to generate money, we have started a book donation programme, giving children’s books to NGOs who have English language programme. Cambridge University and surrounding businesses donated a number of academic books which we are going to use to create a free reference library for Cambodian University students.

How is it having this big responsibility?

I like to come to Koh Phangan to relax from it, I think as it’s peaceful and I associate it with family time, I really love the live music scene here.

You’re surrounded by beautiful beaches, diving and I feel like I’m coming back to a community rather than a holiday island.

What are the plans for the future?

We are going to turn upstairs into a centre for enterprise and innovation to start bringing together like minded charities and businesses who are also hoping to have a positive impact in Cambodia. We’ll nurture an environment to create networks and support. This year we will expand to Laos also as on paper it looks like it will work there too.

Do you enjoy living in Cambodia still?

Yes now even more than ever. At first I was struck by the poverty there and how it contrasted with the wealth of the tourist industry but the friends I have there and the team we have built helped me to find perspective and their resilience is really refreshing and inspiring. They’re a group of people with few resources but an immense amount of talent.

What do you get up to when you’re on Koh Phangan?

I go to the Jam nights a lot, being here is down time so I do a lot of reading, swimming, snorkelling and there is Sail Rock dive site. I have been to The Dome this time which I liked and I’ve been eating lots of fruit.

And leave us with your life philosophy...

I guess the one we have at the bottom of our menu ‘not associated with any faith other than the power of kindness, opportunity and good coffee’.


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