Amy Carter James is a global leader in sustainable tourism, having won every global award of note after founding, owning, and operating an eco boutique hotel in remote Mozambique, which is now sustainably managed by the local community. Her work has lifted thousands out of extreme poverty and is a case study for successful sustainable tourism. I met Amy at our children’s school in Margaret River, where she now lives with her husband and two small children, and was immediately impressed with her humility, eloquence, kindness, and just overall being.
I’m very grateful for Amy’s time and openness to being interviewed and have transcribed our podcast into the following blog.
We aim to start our blog with the same question. The English dictionary describes intent as purpose or giving all your intention to something. Amy, what does intent mean to you?
Everything, I’d go so far as it almost feels like part of my identity now. Purpose has driven our businesses, our charities, even our move to Margaret River and in the way we bring up our children. So yes, the vision, the purpose in life is absolutely essential to everything we do.
You said that it’s innate in you, have you tapped into that ever since you can remember?
Yes. I think as a child, I wasn’t enormously confident, but I was always very passionate. I was quick to jump on the bandwagons of being vegetarian or boycotting Nestle. I always had a passion for the injustice, or a passion for conservation. I think that is where that intent and that passion and purpose comes from. My dad was amazing and realized that I was dyslexic very young so some insecurities can come from that but also an inner strength.
My parents gave me confidence. They would say “look, you might not be performing amazingly at school, but you’re smart and you’re intelligent. You really can do whatever you want.” That determination, combined with the passion, and especially my parent’s unwavering belief was critical. Sadly, we lost my dad 18 months ago, but he was a lot of the fuel behind my ability to act on my intent. He was my mentor and gave me that encouragement to just go for it; sort of that bloody mindedness. Yeah, just go for it and just follow that dream, follow that purpose.
Wow, that’s amazing, and such a good reminder for all of us parents out there to foster our children’s innate truth – to fuel their passions and foster their individuality. Would you consider dyslexia a gift?
It is, completely. I think you have to get through your challenges of the mainstream academia, the tick boxing. And when you don’t think necessarily like all the other kids, it’s a bit challenging. But once you finally get out of that fog, then it’s the biggest gift.
It’s the ability to see the bigger picture. It’s the ability to think differently to other people in your team, or people that you’re working with, which is of such value, especially when you’re an entrepreneur, or just when you’re working in any team.
I really believe that dyslexia is a gift. It just needs a makeover. People just need to view it as such, and to not look at you with sympathy when you’re saying that you’re dyslexic.
Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein. The list of famous entrepreneurs, genius’ and creatives diagnosed with dyslexia goes on.
Can you please tell us a bit about Guludo Beach Lodge and how you decided to start a world class echo lodge in Mozambique – a very remote poverty-stricken area – at the young age of 22years?
I met Neal, my husband and co-founder of Guludo, at university and I’d had this incredible gap year before that. I’d been working in Kenya in the primary school, and had seen poverty for the first time. Then I spent a bit of time here in West Australia, on a humpback whale research program that was funded by tourism … well, partly funded.
I just thought that tourism was such a wonderful vehicle to be able to relieve poverty, as well as to be a great tool for conservation. I was talking to Neal about these ideas, and then basically, it was him that said, literally on the train away from university after my last exams, said, “Why don’t you just do it?” I’m like, “Okay.”
We wrote a “for and against” list, and there was nothing on the against. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. So we said, “Right, let’s just do it.” The whole vision and dream has never changed right from that day to now.
The idea was to show the world the profound potential within tourism to relieve poverty, protect the environment, and basically, to address global issues. We chose tourism because there’s no other industry that employs more people. It’s not like you’re a banana grower and you don’t know how many suppliers. You just buy X, Y, and Z.
With tourism, you need the eggs, you need the bananas, you need the sheets. You need so many things. There are so many opportunities for entrepreneurs and enterprises. It’s just a great opportunity to engage with guests while they’re on holiday, and to be able to inspire them.
People’s, minds and hearts are open when they travel, and so tapping into them while they’re there to educate is quite simple. That sounds patronizing, but to empower them with knowledge about issues that are going on in the world, and how they can address them.
It just seemed so perfect, so yes, the idea was tourism. We decided that we would build a lodge, a relatively high-end lodge, and we wanted it to be on the coast. Basically, we chose Mozambique because it had phenomenal tourism potential.
The beach is incredible. It’s 12 kilometres, white sand. You’ve got humpback whales cruising past for four months of the year. You’ve got pristine reefs. You’ve got islands. You’ve got elephants stealing our mangoes.
It’s such a beautiful place. It’s got all of those assets that you need for tourism, but the backdrop of it was literally the poverty that would just take your breath away. The children weren’t going to school because the food security was so poor. There was no safe drinking water pretty much in the whole region.
Life expectancy was 38; that’s how old I am now. It’s crazy, and infant mortality, one in five children who survive childbirth wouldn’t get to their fifth birthday.
So we thought, right, this is just perfect. We wanted to go there. This is literally desk-top research, based on research.
So you hadn’t been to Mozambique before?
Did you have a number of countries or locations?
We wanted the coast. We wanted the east coast of Africa, and so we whittled it down and just thought this was the spot. The whole dream was to do something a bit commercially minded. We had to show that this can work commercially because otherwise, it’s just another NGO doing some nice stuff with communities.
We developed the property, the lodge, with an incredible architect, Richard Nightingale, who we learnt so much from. The design of it was, if we had to leave, then we wanted nature to take over and not leave a mark on the ground.
But it was more than just green architecture. It was about empowerment of local people, skills development just in the building process, and adding value to local culture, local heritage in that whole building process. Then, through the operations, to be able to create employment, create opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Then, the extra dimension was to have a foundation. We decided to have it operate independently, so we could fundraise separately. A minimum of 5% of our revenue goes to the Nema Foundation we established, and that works with all the communities and with an array of projects.
I’m just amazed that at 22 you and Neal shared the same vision, and you just went for it…..and it worked. It has been hugely successful. Were you married at that time?
No. We got married 11 years ago, so no. We’d been together a couple of years, maybe two and a half, three years. I can’t remember. I met Neal when I was 19, and he was a couple of years older.
So courage, a lot of courage, a lot of faith. Financially, how did you manage it?
All friends, family, everything that we had went into it. So that was another dimension that it had to succeed on just so many levels.
You worked primarily with the local people as resources, or you had ex-pats working with you? Once you had the building and the vision how did it evolve?
It took a while. If you can imagine, the community didn’t even really know what a knife and fork or different cups and glasses were. And so to get to be able to deliver close to a four/five star experience, it was quite a journey. So we started off having a local workforce completely, but having ex-pats to help to manage and train the local team.
It was Neal and I to start off with, with a few people helping here and there. But it was very Faulty Towers, if I’m honest. Then as we grew, we had more ex-pats to help to manage the teams and to train the teams. We went from, at one point up to seven, eight ex-pats. Now we have zero.
It took about 10 years to be able to train up the local team, a majority of whom are still with us. We employ about 31 people through the business. Our operations manager was a security guard, and he is just the most incredible person.
We’ve built five schools. We feed, this year it’s about 1,250 children a meal a day at school, which literally just triples school attendance. We’ve built about 49 water points – or rehabilitated or built new water points. That’s given access to safe drinking water to over 21,000 people.
We’ve got probably about 300 or so kids that had secondary school scholarships over the last few years. We’ve got 107 this year who have just enrolled. Yes, so cooperatives, agricultural work, loads of pottery. Yes, it ’s a very diverse and varied project.
That’s because what we believe very passionately about is that the most effective way of helping communities lift themselves out of poverty is to, A, create an economic stimulus, which the tourism does. And then to help them help the communities address their own issues.
If you don’t just be polarized and look at one thing, or just building schools, or just water. When you look at the whole community, look at all of the issues that lock them into poverty, when you tackle all of those issues, they overlap, reinforce each other. Then the community can grow more sustainably with stronger foundations, working with the community structures.
Also, participation is really important. It’s not just a case of our ideas, our dreams, and putting it onto them. It’s, “Right, but what do you want to do? Okay, you want to build a school. What are you going to do to build this school? Okay, we could help with this. What are you going to do?”
Then they say, “Well, we could dig the foundation. We can get the rocks. We could make the blocks if you help us with this.” Every project is a partnership, whether it’s a malaria or agricultural program.
Then it’s working with health volunteers, help to capacity build those volunteers. Then they can go and run workshops to be in their own communities and distribute mosquito nets – which are also great fishing nets, which is a bit of a challenge. You have to make sure they don’t end up in the sea.
It’s incredible, Amy. You must feel very pleased. When you look back, and you’re employing 31 people. You’ve built five schools. You feed 1,250 children a day. It’s quite remarkable. Did you always know that you could do this? Has it exceeded your expectations?
We never capped it anywhere. It always feels like more is needed to be done. So you never feel like you’ve arrived there, or you’ve done better than you thought because there is so much more that needs to be done, and you want to do.
You don’t ever feel like you’ve reached the end point and give yourself a pat on the back because there’s so many more things we need to be working on and doing in supporting these communities.
Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the purpose of life is not to be happy; it’s to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you’ve lived and lived well. I just think you could almost leave this world and have already achieved that. What do you think about that sentiment and its relevance to your work at Guludo and the Nema foundation?
That’s so beautiful.
I think this almost comes into the discussion when you’re talking about challenges because it is so tough. It sounds all rosy and beautiful and amazing, what we’ve done, but it has been so, so difficult.
We’ve had times when you’re just like how are we ever going to get out. Not get out of this. We’re not trying to escape, but how are we going to get through this challenge? Challenges with the government, and the corruption, and then some difficult people in the community.
The team that we had initially, they had no idea what it meant to have a job, so they thought that we were exploiting them. We were, “No, we’re coming to help you guys.” There were just so many challenges.
You mentioned getting their cooperation was difficult because there was so much prejudice. They were quite scared of you?
Not scared, but Mozambique’s history, they had the Portuguese, or the Arabs before, then the Portuguese. Basically, all the foreigners that came through were trying to exploit them, so they thought why would this young couple be any different?
They liked us, but they were also wary, and so it took time. There’s no substitute for time … to develop their trust, and for them to understand that we’re in this together. We’re not trying to rip you off. We’re not trying to exploit you. This is the whole purpose of this entity, is to help and uplift you and your children and your grandchildren, and your grandchildren’s children.
So that took a lot of time, but it was a fun journey. Going back to the challenges, you get to this point sometimes when the government are holding resources. Just a few years ago we had these wonderful little motorbike ambulances with the sidecars. The government wouldn’t release them because they wanted a ridiculous amount of tax for them.
We said, “Well, no, this is for your health service, and you’ve already said that we wouldn’t have to pay tax.” So those frustrations and those challenges could sometimes get us down.
But then when you see clean water flowing in a village for the very first time, and an old man with tears running down his cheeks, and you’re just like this is just so worth it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else, ever. That goes beyond the happiness that your quote by Ralph Wardo Emerson references.
The achievement, it carries you and lifts you through all those turbulent times, and all those times when you think can I really do this? You doubt yourself. You doubt whether you can succeed. I don’t doubt the vision. You doubt whether you can actually achieve what you want to, but all these things just keep carrying you through. When you’re driven by purpose, when you’ve got your mission that it’s so strong.
And I guess then to start with, it almost feels like part of your identity. Then you just find a way, and you just keep going, and it fuels you. Those little wins along the way, those moments of connection where you connect to what you’re actually contributing to these people’s lives, your intension is pure. When you connect with that along the way, it’s almost like it fuels you.
What is it that you learnt the most from the locals about their ability to live in the moment, and their acceptance of their situation?
I think one of the most beautiful things I’ve learnt from the communities is that tragedy happens. It strikes so often that the people are so present in that moment. I learnt to do the same, to feel present.
I talk to the team most days. When you’re talking to them, and the challenges they’re facing, it gives you such incredible gratitude for everything that you’ve got, from having a soft bed to sleep on, to being able to give your children the food with all the nutrients that they need. And to be able to give them the education that you can only dream of.
It makes you so incredibly grateful and living in gratitude just gives a whole new perspective on everything. I think that living in the moment and being so grateful is definitely something I’ve learnt from the communities in Mozambique.
What a gift. You also mentioned their acceptance of their situation, and their belief system around that.
Yes. There’s too many losses. People die far too often. I remember Iziana a lovely lady, one of the first people we employed. She works in the kitchen, and she lost her son who was about 15.
Just going to see her the day after, and that raw grief, that pain, it was just something I’ll never ever forget. People say that life is cheap out there, and you couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not the case. People deal with the facts. They deal with what’s happened, because they say it was God’s plan.
They accept it, and they deal with it, and they don’t question the situation. It’s not a case of well, why did this happen? Why, why, why? I don’t understand. It’s like no, you accept it because that was God’s will. That’s what was planned. That was always going to happen on this day at this time, so you just accept it.
That makes the grieving, that makes dealing with challenges, problems, so much easier because there is that acceptance, which is really powerful.
Was the Nema Foundation part of your intent before you even decided on Mozambique as a location?
You were always going to have a Foundation?
Well, we looked at various models, but fundamentally, we felt that having the business and the charity side by side, but separate legal entities, would enable us to leverage some of the good will of our guests.
And be able to apply for funding from other organizations to increase and amplify our work, which has worked really well. So, it was always part of the vision that the mechanisms we decided, as we created the business plan, then decided how we were going to implement everything.
It’s worked really well. Our biggest supporter is a maternity chain, called JoJo Maman Bebes. It’s U.K. It’s just moved to America. It’s amazing. Laura, the founder, came on holiday, and she had adopted and embraced charity. Now they do loads of support. They do loads of fundraising. They’re amazing, and yes, it has worked.
And the money from these fundraising efforts goes to the foundation which is them applied to the communities in Mozambique?
Yes, and 100% of any donation given goes directly to that project. Our business will cover the admin. Also, now JoJo supports some of the administrative, like accounting and so on. So, if someone wants to donate $5 for a mosquito net, it really does go to buy a mosquito net and a workshop for a family, the mother with a child under the age of five.
I understand that that model you set up at Guludo is now highly sought after? You’ve had a private meeting with the British Prime Minister to discuss your achievements with Guludo and the Foundation?
Yes. That was quite surreal. When they were talking about trying to promote social entrepreneurship in the U.K, they invited a few of us who were … well, they termed us social entrepreneurs, to meet and discuss various ideas. So yes, it. has opened up an awful lot of unexpected doors.
How you allow insight…. do you seek it? How do you allow that insight to come so that you know wholeheartedly that this is what you want to do, and you need to do this now? And in your words, how do you filter through the noise to allow the insight?
Fundamentally, it’s always what resonates, what feels right, and is aligned with our vision. Neal and I work really well together on this front. I’ll have a crazy idea and get distracted, and he’ll be like, “Hang on. Why? Come on, let’s refocus.” So we use each other to refocus each other.
But fundamentally, it’s always what is aligned with our skills, experience, and our overall goal, which is fundamentally to use business, predominantly tourism, to address global issues, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s use of plastics. Whatever it is, we want to use the vehicle of tourism or business to achieve positive change in the world.
So, if that’s aligned, if whatever it is that we’re doing is aligned with that, and feels right, then we’ll go for it.
Yeah, and that feeling, tuning into that feeling, that’s always been innate in you and fostered?
Yes, I think so. We were so young when we started. It has just become part of who we are. Without that intent, it doesn’t feel right. So I think it’s conditioned and innate, I think. It’s a blend of the two.
Your official title in your business rippl., formerly Beyond Sustainability that you co-founded with Neal, is Chief Purpose Officer. We know that you’re serious about living with intent, and in this case, your business’s intent with such a title. I understand since you’ve had children you’re now even more focused on how entrepreneurs can create a more balanced and sustainable world. So how are you using your experience with Guludo to influence other entrepreneurs?
We work with quite a diverse group of entrepreneurs, brands, groups and help them to define and articulate their purpose. Then turn that purpose into actual tangible action.
So, for example, to help a business think right, what do you want to achieve? Okay, we want to have xyz, … And we want to engage with our guests. We want to inspire them. We want to get them as passionate about our location as we are. Okay, well, how can you do that?
You can demonstrate this through supporting local initiatives, specific initiatives that your guests would also engage in, whether it’s to do with coral conservation, or it could be do with engaging with local communities, with an indigenous group. So looking at ways they can connect and amplify their impact for their quadruple bottom line.
Quadruple bottom line is people, planet, profits, and of course, purpose. Often, people get so … Well, it’s normal. People get so focused on their financial bottom line that they let everything else get pushed to the periphery.
Whereas research, everything is showing us that when you actually pull your purpose to your core, and you actually have your KPIs, your key performance indicators, as not just your profits, but looking at your impact on the people, planet, and on what you deem success, what your purpose is, your business will grow stronger.
You’ll be able to have a far greater reaching impact. Your guest, your clients, your engagement will be more, and you’ll create more of an army of brand champions, as well as retaining your staff.
The benefits are so many, and like I say, we help our clients to implement better sustainability, better purpose driven businesses.
And so sustainability meaning environmental sustainability?
No … Well, yes, of course, but also it’s about your social impact. It’s about your cultural impact. I always use the mantra think global, act local. Understand the global issues and global challenges, but act locally. If everybody on the planet did that there’d be a revolution overnight.
Is the quadruple bottom line, is that something that you and Neal have coined, or is it an actual term?
Well, people have been talking about the triple bottom line for a long time. There’s the three Cs, or four Cs; the commerce, community, culture and conservation. There’s lots of these little terms around.
Most people concentrate on three things; environment, people, and the profit, your commerce. But we really like to encourage people to focus everything and hang everything off their purpose.
Do you have many businesses that say their purpose is to just be profitable and make money?
Some. It can be challenging, but when that is the case, and we’ve had a couple of clients where the CEO is more commercially driven. Actually, what you do is you ignite with the senior management team who are not just focused on the profitability – you focus on the purpose of the senior leadership team, and go in that direction.
Do you find that you do need a self-care program, other than your vision and work?
Yes, but it’s something that I’m shockingly bad at. I think having children forced us to pause. Instead of working crazy hours, and not having holidays for years on end, we’ve had to stop and pause, and focus on our children.
That was the best thing ever for me personally, to be able to focus on something that wasn’t just work. That changed my life, obviously, as the children do. But no, it’s something I’m really bad at.
Previously, the only way we would pause is when we had malaria, and you had to go to bed for a few days. Then you’d be back up and running. So, no, we’re not good examples for self-care, but we’re trying.
I’ve just started this 30-day yoga program, which I’m loving. I don’t know why I didn’t do it years ago. It’s continuing to evolve. I’m on a journey to be a little bit, perhaps kinder to myself.
What has triggered that? What has triggered the need to do a 30-day yoga trial?
Well, I was always very active, and loved sports as a kid. I just haven’t ever carved any time out for that. I feel like the yoga, it’s a nice step in the right direction; a bit of time just to refocus, yeah, and to feel more connected with your body and your mind. I’m really appreciating that, and it was well overdue.
Well done. What did you observe of the local Mozambique community, and their ability to care for themselves? Do they have rituals?
Oh yeah, they’ve got plenty of rituals, but I think they’re more traditional ceremonies. When you say rituals, I think of ceremonies. They’re very devout … well, relatively devout Muslims. They’ll go to the mosque and they’ll pray regularly, which I think is quite cathartic in itself. Apart from that, people are just always just…..Surviving.
Surviving, and laughing, and enjoying moments, as we all do, with their children or whatever is bringing them joy.
Now, final question, what do you dream about, Amy?
It depends on what day you ask me that question. I think I probably dream of being successful in our purpose, to be able to have a bigger, greater, more profound impact on really important challenges facing our planet.
And through that success, inspiring my girls, and our next generation of children. I think having children does add another dimension to your intent, so it’s not just about wanting to achieve things during my lifetime. I want to be able to live by example, and want to be able to inspire my girls and their friends to make a difference.
It’s a possibility. You don’t have to necessarily go down a specific well paved track. You can make your own rugged bumpy road, and do whatever you want. And just to try and ignite that passion for changing things that need changing.
Are you seeing similar passion and strong-willed behaviours in your daughters?
Well, Myra’s only two and a half, so it’s early days for her, but she’s very strong willed. But India, definitely. She made my heart soar when she said “Mum, I want to …” What was it? “I want to change the world. I’m going to stop people cutting down the forests.”
She says things like this, and it’s like, oh, gosh, yes. So, yeah, I hope that they will follow their path, not my path, their own path.
I think that these younger generations are more conscious and socially aware.
It was innate in you. I think it’s definitely innate in this younger generation, so it’s very exciting to see. Good luck. I’m so grateful to you for sharing yourself with us today, and really amazed by what you and Neal have been able to achieve. Wishing you the greatest success with rippl., and your dreams. It’s been an honour. Thank you, Amy.
Thank you so much.
For more information about Amy’s work please visit: