Establishing WWOOFing in Samoa has been a major challenge and successful WWOOF hosting here does not fit the international standard practice. In this article we detail the unique WWOOFing conditions, challenges and solutions to the Samoan WWOOFing experience – and describe a light-commercial approach with rebates for WWOOFing services actually delivered, down to a “cost-recovery” minimum.
Samoa wants to be seen as a tourist destination but has struggled with many serious challenges, not the least being the 2009 Tsunami. The typical WWOOFer is therefore primarily a budget tourist and experience seeker, with organics featuring very low in priorities, if at all. The abundance of cheap unskilled local labour; the challenging tropical climate; a serious nationwide shortage of ready cash and a subsistence lifestyle for most rural families combine to make the traditional WWOOFing experience (an exchange of labour for food and lodgings) virtually impossible to operate here.
WWOOF Samoa has established the only WWOOFing opportunity on-island and has developed a successful working model. We charge very low “commercial” fees with rebates offered for work actually supplied, down to a minimum daily charge that roughly equates to a cost-recovery.
Samoa, billed as a “South Pacific Island Paradise”, is a small third-world/developing nation trying to present itself as a desirable tourist destination, competing in the Australasian markets with the well established Fiji, Australia’s Gold Coast, and Bali tourist destinations.
It struggles however with poor service levels, a typical third-world “poverty mentality”, and over the last two or three decades with a crippling exodus of our brightest and best. The 2009 Tsunami decimated tourism, although the government has undertaken efforts to rebuild and wishes to relegate the event to distant history.
While there are of course exceptions to a broad statement, city-dwellers are essentially the well-connected and comparatively wealthy who may have a role in government, good jobs and/or businesses, and the rural subsistence farmers who are comparatively poor and disadvantaged.
Agencies have advocated organic farming for several years and have had moderate success. The tropical climate and third world conditions certainly encourages organic farming as many cannot afford chemicals; cheap abundant labour has helped keep farming methods simple and favourable growing conditions makes it easy to grow most foods organically by default.
Initially established in 2010, WWOOF Samoa has low-volume, but high-value experiences in hosting WWOOFers from many countries. A clear pattern has emerged . . .
- Financial considerations feature highly in the WWOOFing experience. Price, money and getting value for use of their time (and cash) rate highly in our WWOOFers minds. They are generally here for a short time and want to maximise their experiences. Relaxed, long-term relationship building is uncommon. “Read” the-budget-backpacker-experiential-tourist-in-a-WOOFing-disguise, and you have the picture.
- Organics simply do not feature in the equation. A cursory interest in organics from some rapidly dwindles in the face of the excitement and challenges of engaging with a different and quite often for most, a mesmerising culture.
- Attitudes from WWOOFers toward labour offered for the plantation is viewed very differently and show a wide range of responses, ranging from, “I will sleep in and do the minimum work, party hard and just pay the full fees” to, “I’m up at ‘sparrow’s-fart’ daily and working hard [to show off my work ethic to the lazy locals OR to reduce my fees to the absolute minimum because I have to!] “
- All WWOOFers seek a mixture of cross-cultural engagement, tourism and WWOOFing plantation experiences. Most will undertake a Village Stay or Village Tour in order to maximise their cultural and tourist experiences. Others may work for a week or two then travel for a week or a perhaps a few days.
- Typical length of stays are between 7-10 days. Some last only a day or so – others, months.
Our challenges in developing a sustainable business model have been multifaceted.
1. Top of the list of course is financial.
It costs in the order of WST$5.00 – $10.00 to feed and accommodate a Western guest daily. Their typical productivity is around a quarter of a local employee due to climate adjustment, and the physical stresses of farming in the tropics. Most guests have no idea how to swing an axe, or machete (bush knife) and even if they do, they don’t have the strong Samoan physique to work productively for an hour, let alone a day or week! Add in the required training, the relatively short-term stays, and the attractiveness of beaches, socialising with Samoans, and an amazing tourism experience all tempting a WWOOFer away from hard physical work, a pretty much non-commercial subsistence plantation environment and we have real challenges structuring a sustainable business.
When incomes from production are minimal and cheap local labour is abundant, the economics simply do not stack up when trying to use the common WWOOFing model of a direct exchange of labour for food & accommodation. On the surface, offering WWOOFing in Samoa is distinctly unattractive, and just bad business.
2. The next has been to balance the work/holiday requirement of our highly desirable tourist destination.
Recognising that our WWOOFing guests have more than WWOOFing on their minds requires a mindset shift from the WWOOFing host norm. Watching WWOOFers struggle with what is probably quite naturally seen as “slave labour” when they know that Paradise awaits them “just out there” has meant that we as WWOOFing hosts must adjust the business model to accommodate the real desires of our WWOOFing guests. More on how we do this shortly.
3. Lastly, cross-cultural issues are huge in the South Pacific
The Pacific culture and values are so different to the Western world that is is rare for Palagi guests (Westerners) “get it” when engaging with Samoa. It often takes weeks (even for the experienced third-world traveler) to slow down, understand the way things are done here, and then start to enjoy the uniqueness of the Polynesian experience. Our role as WWOOFing hosts has had to be much more than just enabling a straight labour exchange.
After we started to properly understand the dynamics of the Samoan WWOOFing market our first step was to develop a financial base-line.
1. A minimum income
We require a minimum income of WST$10.00 per person to cover our costs. Labour offered by WWOOFers may improve our facilities, increase the area of land available for production, prepare for future guests, generate goodwill, and so on, but we needed income to cover basic costs of chicken, soap, toilet paper, Cash Power and so on. In a commercial situation, where WWOOFing labour can be converted into cash value further down the chain, this may not be necessary. In the third world, especially in a pretty close to subsistence environment, subsidising the cash costs of hosting WWOOFers is not sustainable. The successful business model we developed ensures at least a cost-recovery.
2. Offering Flexibility
We invite WWOOFing guests to write their own deal, day by day and we deliberately remain ultra flexible to accommodate rapidly changing circumstances. Health, weather, psychological, social and financial issues to name just a few require extreme flexibility from us as WWOOF hosts. We look at any productivity as a bonus, not an expectation. We expect our guests to succumb to the tropical lurgy and be off-work for a day or so. We expect some WWOOFers to struggle with working in a tropical climate. We expect our guests to take a while to adjust to early morning rising and sleeping in the heat and humidity of the afternoon. We expect them to hook-up with other guests and disappear into the beaches and city attractions at a whim. We are ready for sudden changes as WWOOFers take on another voluntourism project or find another more attractive way of spending their precious days in the sun!
A daily charge of WST$30.00 with daily rebates for work provided (calculated at $5.00 per hour, down to the minimum $10.00 daily charge) allows WWOOFers to easily for example “skip work and pop into town for the day”. Being able to skip work entirely for a day removes any stress on either the WWOOFer who may feel the expectation to work OR us the host, who may be frustrated with erratic productivity. In the event that we receive a full day’s work, we still receive a cost-recovery. In the event that there is no work provided for a day, we receive additional income. Either option or any mix is acceptable to each party.
We understand our guests’ desire to explore and experience our country. Offering value added services, such as tours and Village Stay experiences has helped us benefit commercially from our visiting WWOOFers.
We give substantial discounts to our WWOOFers which benefits both parties – we gain new commercial business but they get real tangible benefit from being a WWOOFer, enabling them to maximise their experience in Paradise.
4. Encouraging cross-pollination with other programmes and opportunities
One of the real successes in running WWOOF Samoa alongside of the SWAP voluntourism programme and Camp SAMOA (a Samoan backpackers and small commercial camping ground) has been the ease of cross-pollination between the various programmes and opportunities. When WWOOFers learn about the opportunity to blog, or undertake a Village-based marketing project, they sometimes jump at the chance to expand their horizons.
This has benefited both parties as SWAP has had a ready supply of usually very willing labour (who would not want to have free accommodation at a private beach resort in Samoa in return for photography, interviews and blogging?) and WWOOFers can expand their experience beyond the plantation!
5. Dealing to abuse
Unfortunately there have been some who abused our generosity and hospitality. Granted, the abuse may not have always been deliberately designed to defraud, and may have been more opportunism and self-interest but systems have to be carefully designed to work all the time in a low-margin, low-income environment.
For example, simple breakages and even increased wear and tear can cripple an operator in a third world country. Even a lost hammer, or a broken axe handle can cause a difficult financial situation for a non-commercial operation, a situation not readily understood by someone from the Western world.
Our systems have tightened and expectations on our WWOOFers have needed to be lifted in order to have a happy balance.
We initially attempted the traditional WWOOFing business model and found it unsustainable. We then introduced a small cost-recovery fee, yet still found that it was abused as WWOOFers often failed to deliver, for many reasons, some perfectly understandable, others perhaps a little less charitable. Our current, and successful business model is to charge a low commercial fee, with rebates available for services actually delivered, down to a minimum level that equates to approximately our costs.
While there has definitely been a small reduction in initial enquiries following the introduction of fees, most WWOOFers in Samoa well understand and accept the unique commercial realities that exist here. This may happen before their arrival, but if it hasn’t then a couple of days seeing the realities of a third-world existence the penny certainly drops!
The proof of concept for us is that ALL WWOOFers have reported back that their enormously rich experiences in Samoa were definitely excellent value for money.
This article was written by Dennis A. Smith, founder of WWOOF Samoa and CEO of the SWAP Foundation (a Samoa based voluntourism organisation established to assist with post-tsunami tourism recovery). It follows a request from WWOOF International for WWOOFing hosts in developing nations to share with others their experiences in running their WWOOFing programmes.
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am a junior majoring in Political Science at *** College, and
I am currently working on a research paper about WWOOF. Yesterday I
stumbled upon your article about WWOOF hosting in Samoa
and found it very thought-provoking and helpful in my analysis of the
potentials and pitfalls of WWOOF in developing countries. It also left
me with a question about third-world WWOOFing which I am hoping you
might answer, if you have time:
If foreign WW0OFers in developing countries are significantly less
productive and significantly more expensive than hiring local
unskilled laborers, do you believe there is anything to be gained from
hosting them? Would it be more beneficial for third-world organic
farms to simply hire local workers (to maximize productivity and boost
regional employment) and bypass WWOOF altogether? Or is there still
something to be gained by creating WWOOF branches in the developing
Thank you for taking the time to read this message!
Thank you [name withheld] for your reply and further questions.
- First, you are welcome to quote me but please ensure that I speak as only one WOOFing operator and others may have alternative viewpoints and experiences.
- The answer to your questions has to be set in the context of what the purpose, intent or objectives are – from your political viewpoint, or a non-commercial WWOOFing host, or a commercial WWOOFing host or from the WWOOFers perspective. They are very likely to be different.
- Comparing the two options as you have and asking a binary decision between employing local of WWOOFing is not in tune with my way of thinking. It is like asking the question, “What is the colour of two plus two?”
- We do not run a commercial farm and not all WWOOFing hosts are commercial businesses either. You appear to assume a commercial operation and thus focus an outcome on productivity i.e. what is the best way to “get”. This approach is quite materialistic and runs contrary to the spirit of WWOOFing which is inspired much more by the concepts of mutual benefit, free exchange and the gift economy.
- I think that most WWOOFers want to give, and to help others but that the primary reason for most is (if they are honest about it) a cheap way to travel.
- The natural self-interest that we humans all have is accentuated in a tourist destination like Samoa. Furthermore the Samoan culture is one of hospitality, even while the focus on money things has certainly increased over the years.
- Both options of employing WWOOFers and locals have benefit, and gain – not necessarily financial or productivity gain, but it may not always be an either/or.
- My own personal approach is to ensure a sustainable, scalable business model so that when our actual cash costs are recovered, it matters not how much an individual WWOOFer generates value. This approach frees us to enjoy life more. In fact even many of our WWOOFers have to be taught to slow down and enjoy the experience and in time really appreciate this relaxed approach – the “Island way”.
- At an economic level you cannot compare the benefit to the country of a WWOOFer to a local person. ANYTHING that a WWOOFer brings by way of foreign funds – air travel, taxes, foreign funds and WWOOFing fees is a net gain to the country. A local worker generates no foreign funds, even if the goods they create are exported because the exporter or the businessperson, not the worker, creates the economic benefit.
- In answer to your question whether there is ‘something to be gained’ by WWOOFing to mankind as a whole is, “Yes, unquestionably”. Cross-cultural interchange, broadening of the mind, greater understanding, person growth, while all soft benefits, are very real. Where the economic benefit goes to is another question though. To my mind the system of WWOOFing is highly effective; the benefit to the participants is huge; and there is always some economic benefit to someone resulting from human labour but it is people in power (like you!) who will establish whether or not the primary benefit goes to the WWOOFers or to the local workers. I consider both to have value.
- I have found that the shorter stays and the greater management costs give a lesser ROI from WWOOFers in productivity or cash terms than locals, but that there are often commercial tourism benefits with WWOOFers who choose to add experiences onto their stays, so that there is probably much more benefit to having WWOOFers in my country than employing local.
- You might want to consider additional factors in your assessments of value. Overall, my advice would be to consider WWOOFers to generate primarily the soft benefits such as personal growth and goodwill with a bit of foreign earnings; local labour (in commercial situations) in general creating more hard cash profits but mainly within the local community, simply helping redistribute wealth to the local business owners.
I hope this has helped increase your understanding.
Dennis A. Smith