A Month in Africa with Xavier and Erin

“Xavier, you need to come, it’s going to be incredible.” Henry’s a convincing guy, a skill that’s clearly served him well in building a successful software company, and he had a willing prospect on his hands. “Come visit my friends in Malawi, tour the schools I’ve helped build in Zululand, South Africa, and we’ll check on all kinds of Books For Africa recipients.” I suggested that we visit Better World Books Zambia (more on that later) as well. Henry countered that if we were doing that, it would be a shame to not see Victoria Falls. Sold.

I know Henry through my work on the Board of Books For Africa. It’s a collection of truly dedicated and passionate professionals who come together on their nights and weekends to help end the book famine in Africa. Henry’s a traveler after my own heart, preferring backpackers’ hostels to any hotel that brags about its star rating. He invited a number of his friends and business associates along on the trip, and over the weeks, they quickly became new friends. Although I normally abhor group travel, it made a lot of sense for this trip. The logistics of all the school visits and book recipient visits would have been daunting if we had not banded together. Another unexpected benefit was that I got to drive a rental 6-speed Mercedes mini-van on the left side of the road all over South Africa. Fun! I hate cars for the damage they do to the environment and culture… but I love to drive, especially in unfavorable circumstances. Consider it a guilty pleasure.

I blocked off what was easily my longest stretch away from the office since we founded Better World Books five years ago. The whole month of November I would be largely offline, with the exception of a few phone calls and email checks. A trip like this would have been inconceivable a few years ago, but thanks to the incredible team we’ve built at Better World, I didn’t sweat it in the least. I knew the ops would keep humming under Kreece’s leadership, BetterWorld.com would keep getting better thanks to Dale, Geoff, and Justin, and on and on. I think everybody was glad to not have to humor any of my crazy ideas for a whole month.

Speaking of crazy ideas, I had high hopes of being able to live-blog this trip from a OLPC, the $199 laptop designed specifically for the developing world. Sadly, the OLPC people didn’t have pre-release laptops available, and at any rate, Africa’s low Internet connectivity wouldn’t have permitted much blogging other than a few quick posts. So, loyal readers, you get the next best thing. Think of this as a time-delayed live-blog. We’ll be blogging with videos and photos and get as close as we can to bringing you along on the trip.

Also speaking of crazy ideas – we’ll be launching a customer loyalty system for Better World in 2008. Rather than give away blenders, coffee mugs, and similar rubbish, we thought that a few loyal customers should come to Africa with us to visit the literacy projects in person. After all, it’s customers that make this whole thing possible. Why should Better World employees have all the fun? This idea deserved a beta test. My friend and longtime Better World customer Erin Fleming agreed to join me and help document the trip. She’s typical of our customers – well read, globally minded, socially conscious, (and cheap!). Her perspective will really bring the trip to life for you.

Keep tuning in over the next month as Erin and I travel Zambia, South Africa and Malawi.

To whet your appetite, I’ve attached a few Youtube videos. These are from Erin and I hitchhiking in Malawi. Don’t worry – our traveling companions took a lot of convincing to leave us by the side of the road in Malawi.

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