I recently joined The Hub Sao Paulo chapter and in that process I have started to learn about some of the interesting entrepreneurial activity in Brazil. One of the first businesses I came across was Aoka. Aoka is a small eco-tourism company that works at the nexus of intercultural exchange, community development, education and travel. With the central philosophy that people can enjoy and will pay to see the world through different eyes achieving social consciousness and environmental awareness through responsible interactions with other cultures. In addition, it is one of the first Brazilian tour operators with an operational model to effectively measure and neutralize the CO2 emissions produced by its trips. Aoka was also a Ashoka Changemaker awardee in 2009. All good reasons to learn more.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS ABOUT?
Aoka is a social travel/tourism operator and education business specialized in connecting different cultures through what it calls “experiences”. It offers two types of experiences: Learning journeys – themed itineraries focused on a single issue, for example higher education in Europe. As well as Aoka tours which bring people to experience first hand what living respectfully in beautiful but remote Brazilian communities feels like. The later typically go to places in the Brazilian Amazon like Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve or to the beautiful canyons of Aparados da Serra national park in the south of Brazil among others. Through these experiences they aim to connect different realities or perspectives on the world – taking people from Brazil and other parts of the world to see the “best” in its defined area, hoping to inspire people and business to create a more healthy, sustainable and happy planet.
HOW DID IT START?
Aoka was started in 2009 by a pair of entreprenuers with more than 10 years of combined experience in community-based tourism, marketing and sales. Together they recognized the powerful transformative potential visiting local communities can have on individuals and the incredible difficulty and deficiency of opportunities to bring outsiders into these communities to experience this transformation. With that in mind the two of them started the company in 2009 and shortly after the pair won the PRIME entrepreneurial innovation competition from the Brazilian government agency FINEP giving the pair enough resources to get started.
WHAT IS THE SOCIAL NEED IT ADDRESSES?
There are two types of social benefits Aoka aims to provide. For the travelers it hopes to raise cross-cultural and conservation awareness so that people behave in a more responsible and respectful manner. While in the communities they visit it hopes to generate new sources of sustainable income through the jobs, goods and experiences it shares with the visitors.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS MODEL?
- Value proposition is guided tours or trips in unusual less visited low-income communities in Brazil which will help one to gain exposure to new perspectives and insights on how to live sustainably.
- Customers/Channels – primarily young people from western countries who want to come and learn about Brazil and experience it in a sustainable and respectful manner. Also increasingly Brazilian travelers especially from urban areas who also want to have these experiences or the chance to travel and network outside the country.
- Revenue model – Revenues are primarily generated from the tours which have fixed prices depending on location and duration of the experience.
- Cost structure – low costs, no office, etc. Only major source of costs are employee and instructor tour guide wages as well as marketing and awareness building which is probably underfunded.
- Key partners – Partnerships are central to the business model. Without them it would not work. There are many partners involved in the model. From the local NGOs working in the communities they visit to the funding and content partners based in Sao Paulo. More info on the partners can be found here.
WHAT ARE SOME CONCERNS I SEE WITH THE MODEL?
- Lack of focus – Currently it seems to me like the company is trying to be a little bit of everything, hodgepodge of initiatives and ideas that seem more opportunistic than coherent.
- Lots of promises very little proof that model having impact, no numbers to back up that the tours or experiences are having any of the intended impact on the communities they are working in
- Overall it seems like there is a lack of business discipline – common of many NGO type businesses in how the business is run. Perhaps this is due to lack of funding.
- Market size – how many travelers with money to spend will be interested in the destinations that are being offered. How are the destinations selected anyway?
- Revenue model – not sure how it can actually sustainably make money in the long run without public/outside support.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?