Labor of love in the villages of Laos

A young entrepreneur’s services for the rural community has the potential to inspire a generation

Ehtesham Shahid
Ehtesham Shahid
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If looks are anything to go by, David Jonsson can be easily mistaken as a business executive, a budding architect or even a tennis player with a booming serve. However, it is difficult to imagine the 29-year-old Swede as a hands-on social entrepreneur specializing in construction of eco-friendly bungalows to help villagers in faraway lands. He has been doing just that, with local and outside support, with the sole objective of generating sustained income for the poor.

David routinely cobbles up a rag-tag group of college-going volunteers and travels to difficult terrains of Laos, a Southeast Asian country otherwise known for its hill tribe settlements and Buddhist monasteries. He battles through local bureaucracy to get mandatory permissions (a total of eight approvals) and then houses his volunteers among the local communities (by paying a fee for food and bed space).

Despite early challenges, David is now accustomed to the entire lifecycle of the project. His labor of love, the Eco-Bungalows, are each built at an estimated cost of around $25,000. The building blocks are made of a material interestingly called adobe, which are mud-based sun-dried bricks. These are prepared by the volunteers. The thatched roof and other construction material are also sourced locally. Once ready, these unique dwellings nestled in the mountains become models of development connecting one hill tribe to another.

Social entrepreneurs like David make significant difference to the lives of a few by adopting a simple approach but displaying immense resourcefulness. Anyone with the intention to help the poor must learn from him

Ehtesham Shahid

David took to humanitarian initiatives at the tender age of 7 under the wings of his father, a specialist in forest management. Even on the family dinner table, the two would routinely discuss development projects. Contrary to his father’s big project orientation, David somehow got fixated with the idea of small initiatives that could help the poor earn regular income.

After years of toiling in the field alongside his father, David eventually zeroed in on this idea. Prior to that he also traveled to the US to study social entrepreneurship as such a course wasn’t on offer in Sweden. Around this time, his organization, World Volunteer, was also taking shape albeit as a side project. David was inspired by people like Mohammad Yunus who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and made social business popular. Finally, in the year 2011, David was ready to embark on his journey. That is when Laos beckoned.

Maintaining the ecosystem

David observed that Laos’s limited economic progress wasn’t benefitting the poor, especially its ethnic minorities living in remote areas. The education levels were low and their agricultural produce didn’t generate much income. He reached a village 45 minutes away from Luang Prabang, a UNESCO heritage town. The place had very basic infrastructure, sporadic telecom coverage and very few cash crops.

This proved to be the perfect setting for David’s dream to take shape. Since then, the project has gone from strength to strength. “The idea is to ensure that tourism benefits the poorest of the poor. We didn’t want to revolutionize the place, get busloads of people and destroy the ecosystem,” says David.

The picturesque cottage that emerges following strenuous efforts of volunteers can fetch up to $40 per night. Apparently tourists from different parts of the world are overeager to stay in these units to enjoy the serene surroundings. The money earned by villagers in the process goes into local social welfare fund.

David’s exploits are inspiring and relevant for various reasons. He thinks big but takes small steps to achieve something tangible. He goes around the world collecting funds but invests the group’s time and resources on the basic needs of people he has nothing in common with. David defies conventional wisdom by choosing something he feels is locally relevant instead of getting into areas where global NGOs already have sizeable presence.

Social entrepreneurs like David make significant difference to the lives of a few by adopting a simple approach but displaying immense resourcefulness. Anyone with the intention to help the poor must learn from him.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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