Albert Teo: How to Sustain Community Building in Ecotourism

Going from mere charity to community-led social enterprise, practitioner Albert Teo shares with Gaia Discovery a few learning points from his ecotourism development efforts of Sabah, East Malaysia. By Mallika Naguran.

Trust, rapport and persistence in community building is important, says Albert Teo. Courtesy: BEST

Trust, rapport and persistence in community building is important, says Albert Teo. Courtesy: BEST

Albert Teo is no stranger to the ecotourism industry. He has championed the causes of rural Sabahan villagers in many ways, and this interview with him traces a journey of sustainable tourism that he undertook for nearly 25 years.

Here he describes the success factors as well as difficult moments in shaping community-based social enterprises in East Malaysia. Albert Teo is the CEO of Borneo Eco Tours (most recently it clinched the PATA Gold Award for Corporate Social Responsibility and MATTA Best Responsible Tourism Operator) and Sukau Rainforest Lodge (Charter Member of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World). The recipient of numerous awards and recognition is also the Founder & Director of Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies Society, an NGO that is dedicated to raising rural communities from the vicious cycle of poverty. More recently, he has enabled a research centre to be set up in the heart of Borneo to help scientists and students monitor wildlife movement and threats for the purpose of animal conservation.

You’ve achieved much headway in conservation, community building, poverty alleviation, health improvement of Borneo residents and more through your work in ecotourism in Sabah. Can you describe how you began to be involved with community work?

In 1995, Borneo Eco Tours adopted a 20-room Bavanggazo Longhouse in Matunggong, Kudat for the Rungus community in northern Sabah. We provided some funds to improve their rooms and toilets facilities. More importantly, we helped to package the tours, and pricing and promote the tour for them and sent our tourists to them and helped them to take off the ground. One project led to another and pretty soon, we were engaging with them to conduct training and upgraded their skills.

Also in 1995 when I opened our 20-room Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River of the east coast of Sabah, it was done at the invitation of one local Orang Sungai Kari bin Ongong to create job opportunity for his family members and to help alleviate poverty among the locals.

Rice farming projects and bamboo making facilities keep rural villagers busy and smiling with the extra income earned. This is also an ecotourism venture at Kiulu Farmstay in the Dusun community of Sabah, Malaysia. Courtesy: BEST

Rice farming projects and bamboo making facilities keep rural villagers busy and smiling with the extra income earned. This is also an ecotourism venture at Kiulu Farmstay in the Dusun community of Sabah, Malaysia. Courtesy: BEST

How did the ecotourism projects grow from there?

Pretty soon, it was obvious to us what the needs of the Sukau community beyond wanting jobs. But we could only employ that many staff at the lodge! As the villagers were collecting yellow silt laden river water for drinking, we thought about helping them with treated water. The most obvious thing to do was to raise funds to purchase water tanks for households without water tanks. We also started to organise medical camps with volunteer doctors from Rotary Clubs in partnerships with other service organisations like Skycommunity to do free treatment in exchange for free stay, meal, and tours at our lodge.  

After ten years, the original objectives with our companies to work only in Sukau around the Kinabatangan area had outgrown itself as our own experience and confidence grew.

We decided to register our own non-profit organisation NGO named Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies or B.E.S.T Society and extend our footprint to the rest of Sabah. 

We did get occasional funding from other corporations to do CSR including implementing supplies of water tank projects in seven villages in Pitas, and organic farming in Sikuati area in Kudat, and conducting medical camps in Kiau and Mantanani island. However, to ensure their sustainability, the majority of our projects and overhead expenses was internally funded by our own companies.

 

(middle) Deputy Chief Minister & Minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture YB Datuk Christina Liew launched the Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre or SERC on 28 May 2019. To her right is Albert Teo, CEO of Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Borneo Eco Tours. Courtesy: BEST

(middle) Deputy Chief Minister & Minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture YB Datuk Christina Liew launched the Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre or SERC on 28 May 2019. To her right is Albert Teo, CEO of Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Borneo Eco Tours. Courtesy: BEST

What are a few important considerations to have before beginning work within any community especially in remote places to ensure its success?  

We began to realise that even though we were very satisfied with the outcome of the water tank and medical camps projects, the community were beginning to depend on us and take us for granted. Neither were they making any headway up the economic ladder! After reading many books on poverty eradication, I realised that we were engaging in toxic charity, which made them even more dependent on us. We were not providing them with skills to lift them out of poverty through social entrepreneurships.

In one of our projects we had to work very hard to convince the communities to contribute 10% of the total cost of the supply of the water tanks to make them understand that nothing is free in this world. And they had to transport and install the water tanks themselves.  Having the right local champions working through village heads increased the rate of success.

The danger (in community building) is constantly engaging in charity and welfare projects and not moving beyond needs based to development projects. 
— Albert Teo

In one project, we decided to discontinue work when the village chief was caught cheating and misappropriating funds. Supervision and monitoring while building rapport and giving technical and management advice together with the local team when the project is in progress helped reduced the failure rates. This was to impart our decision-making skills to the local team.

In spite of all the precautions, not all our projects were guaranteed for success. Many could not be foreseen and that is the nature of implementing social entrepreneurship projects.  

A classic example was when we were invited to implement a jungle eco-camp in Kiau at the foothills of Mt Kinabalu with an original budget grant of RM70,000.00. The project eventually increased to over RM307,000.00 due to high labour transport charges to carry materials, equipment and furnishings to the site,  the balance of which was subsidised by BEST Society. After the project was completed and opened for business, the camp was destroyed by rocky landslide following heavy rain after the 2015 earthquake that hit Mt Kinabalu. It was our most successful and spectacular “failure” to date. As a consolation to the community, we were given a grant of RM70,000 by a local bank for our post earthquake recovery plan to build a more basic jungle camp for them. To date, we are still promoting these tour packages on our website.

Can you describe a social enterprise involving remote villages and what it takes to go from nothing to something in ecotourism? 

In 2014, we were invited to develop ecotourism and adopt three villages in Kiulu, which we branded as Kiulu Farmstay. They are the following: Kampung Mantob, Kampung Dumpiring and Kampung Pinagon Baru .

The Fig Tree made of bamboo and local materials is a popular choice of stay at Kiulu Farmstay, a social enterprise in Sabah ecotourism. Courtesy: Kiulu Farmstay

The Fig Tree made of bamboo and local materials is a popular choice of stay at Kiulu Farmstay, a social enterprise in Sabah ecotourism. Courtesy: Kiulu Farmstay

To add variety to the local homestay, we put up self-contained two bedroom bamboo chalets designed by local social enterprise Akitrek To create more synergy, we introduced Borneo Quadbiking assets together with a building to accommodate facilities including toilets and shower, office and refreshment area. We had also set up organic rice farming projects and bamboo straw making facilities with the locals.

To the original three villages in Kiulu Farmstay, pretty soon, we added another 10 villages that wanted to join the programme. Together with 13 villages, we helped them form an NGO under the name of MUKEST Society, which were again funded by RM10 for every tourist we sent there from Borneo Eco Tours. The funds were managed by the local committee for the building of footpath, bus stop and other training organised by MUKEST. BEST Society and Borneo Eco Tours helped to bring volunteers from local colleges, hospitality institutes and overseas to conduct training from accounting, culinary, hospitality to bamboo house treatment and making.  

We organised bamboo chalet competition with the winning chalets selected for homestay and the winners to go to Bali to learn advanced bamboo chalet making skills.

We are now looking for funding for MUKEST to engage in fund generating businesses by setting up MUKEST Farmers Market and bamboo processing factory in the coming years. 

When dealing with conservation, what are a few pitfalls to avoid in potential people-wildlife conflict? 

Beehives are a way of deterring elephants from straying into agricultural plantation, an on-going elephant conservation project at Sukau Eco Lodge.

Beehives are a way of deterring elephants from straying into agricultural plantation, an on-going elephant conservation project at Sukau Eco Lodge.

While we are not in the business of conservation, we did successfully implement tree-planting project on a 64 acres site, which is now done and fully rehabilitated. More recently we thought the best conservation strategy to prevent human-elephant conflict was to help start a bee farm project with the local community in Sukau. It has met with failure for the last three years due to lack of maintenance of the hives and persistence. But with an MOU with University Malaysia Sabah, there is more hope once the project takes off in late 2019.  

As a long term strategy, we have decided to purchase a 7.7 acres forested land under our Borneo Land Conservancy BLC and put up a building named Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre (SERC) at a total cost of RM500,000.00 which was officially launched by the Deputy Chief Minister cum Minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture YB Datuk Christina Liew on 28 May 2019. We will be doing MOU with local and international university to conduct research on ecotourism and impact on wildlife.  

The Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre along the Kinabatangan River will attract students to conduct wildlife research in Sabah.

The Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre along the Kinabatangan River will attract students to conduct wildlife research in Sabah.

More recently in 2018, we also adopted a local fisherman who wanted to conserve his five-acre forestland and engage in eco-tours to his land at Rasig. In 2018, we managed through guests staying at Sukau Rainforest Lodge to generate over RM7,000.00 for him. This figure is expected to increase over 50% in 2019.  

What does it take to build a strong sense of community when working with a village or an organisation?

It is hard to work with community especially when the local leaders may not always be of the same mind or when they are changed every few years.  But when the trust and rapport is established and strengthened, a lot can be done if we are persistent and set aside funds for the purpose of developing businesses. The danger is constantly engaging in charity and welfare projects and not moving beyond needs based to development projects.

You’re involved in the Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) and sit on the board as Vice President. Can you describe its importance to the ecotourism industry? 

Over the last several years, I was a board member and Vice Chair of Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN), a grouping of 17 countries in Asia. AEN is a subgroup of the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN) based in the USA of which I am a founding board member and where memberships are from around the world.

Both GEN and AEN were set up when the full advisory board resigned from The International Ecotourism Society for their lack of transparency over financial matters.

GEN and AEN continue to champion ecotourism globally and provide cutting-edge solutions to global issues on the environment, climate change and community. 

The 7.7 acres forested land that houses the Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre or SERC (right) is part of a long-term strategy on understanding ecosystems better including people-animal conflict. It is close to Albert Teo’s Sukau Rainforest Lodge (to the left).

The 7.7 acres forested land that houses the Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre or SERC (right) is part of a long-term strategy on understanding ecosystems better including people-animal conflict. It is close to Albert Teo’s Sukau Rainforest Lodge (to the left).

What’s your personal focus for 2019 and beyond?

The immediate focus for BEST Society is to raise funds for pay off the loan for the purchase of the 7.7 acres of forest at Borneo Land Conservancy BLC and the implementation of MOU of SERC with the various universities and promotion of voluntourism packages to raise funds for SERC.

Secondly, we are working to raise funds to implement two major social economic projects at Kiulu Farmstay. This is to enable the local 13 villages of the Dusun community to become more self reliant and move out of self subsistence towards a market economy by buying and selling among themselves and to organise themselves to supply their produce to the markets in Kota Kinabalu.  

 Photos courtesy of Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies Society