Been there. And there. And there, too.
Chris Guillebeau’s travels began in 2002, when he was an aid worker in Sierra Leone, and ended in Norway in 2013. Along the way, he’s been to every single U.N. recognized country in the world: a grand total of 193.
Guillebeau, an adventurer at heart, had set a goal of visiting 100 countries, but he soon decided it wasn’t ambitious enough. So he figured, why not go to every country?
A New York Times best-selling author of books on startups and entrepreneurship, Guillebeau says there are no better examples of self-starters than in developing countries, where resources are limited and a formal economy is often missing. “A lot of the writing and research done about startups and entrepreneurship are very focused on Silicon Valley,” he tells Goats and Soda. “What I saw is that most people in villages whether they’re part of the growing middle class or whether they’re really poor, they are all entrepreneurs.”
Guillebeau, who is currently promoting The Happiness of Pursuit, a memoir of his travels, has plenty of insights to share. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define entrepreneurship?
Essentially all entrepreneurship is providing solutions to problems. And people in lesser-income countries are all about finding these crafty solutions. In some ways they’re funny to us if we look at them from a Western mindset. I remember meeting with a government minister in Sierra Leone, and her filing system was essentially to tack everything up to the wall. There was no filing cabinet. She had to get up on a ladder to pull out a file. I thought that was funny, but she had a handle on where everything was.
Why is there so much entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world?
Many don’t have jobs. In some places they’re kind of just making their own way buying and selling things. For a long time they’ve been doing this thing that everybody now is talking about in the West — being entrepreneurs and working for yourself. Of course they have disadvantages. They don’t have the same access to capital or the same kind of technology and trading partners. But this model of self-reliance is very positive and optimistic. Nobody is waiting for someone else to do something for them.
Was that true even in the poorest of countries?
I lived in Liberia for a year [as an aid worker] after the civil war, and that’s definitely one of the countries with the fewest resources. But if you talk to people on the streets, like “how are you doing,” they always use the phrase “I’m managing,” even if they’re struggling. It kind of implies a sense of navigating the struggles [and] overcoming them.
In the U.S., Uber is one of the most popular startups. But I understand the concept really isn’t all that new?
When I was in Mongolia in [the capital] Ulan Bator, it took me a little while to figure out that the public transport system there is that pretty much every single private vehicle is essentially a taxi. So this is kind of like the precursor to Uber, which everyone in Silicon Valley is so proud of. Ten years ago in Mongolia, if you wanted to go somewhere, my host [told me] you go on the street and make this certain hand signal, designating which direction you’re going. If you’re going to the airport, you make this airplane flapping signal. And then some guy will slow down and you guys will talk about the price. There’s no manual or infrastructure, but it works.
What would you say is a big challenge for lower-income countries?
Corruption holds back so many people, in particular lower income people in the lower income countries. When I was in West Africa, particularly in Guinea, someone told me that even when there is somewhat of a formal economy, like in [the capital] Conakry, potentially everyone kind of lives by this law of corruption. You can be a well-meaning teacher, but you’re not paid for a week. So you start taking school supplies and then you sell them on the streets because that’s what everybody else does.
You once said the strangest thing you saw was a cow in the back of a taxicab.
[Laughs] Well that’s pretty much the story. One day I saw this cow wedged into the backseat of a taxi with [its] head sticking out. This was in Freetown, Sierra Leone and was just one of those things you would never expect to see. I was in another taxi and said something to the driver, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, there’s a cow in the taxi.” I guess that’s how you transport a cow.
Was the cow dead or alive?
I’m not sure. I really don’t know.
What can we learn from the developing world?
In [places] like northern Europe, if you walk into a shop you just do your business. But in lots of lower income countries, there’s much more to a greeting. When you really get into rural areas it’s not just about saying, “Hi, how are you?” It’s more like “Hi, how are you and how is your family and how are things?” It can go on for seven or eight questions, and if you’re in an agrarian society that does farming, you actually ask about their livestock: “How are your children and how are your goats?” The children are important but the goats are not too far behind.
So all of these things are actually conducted before you get to what you actually have come to discuss. Those kinds of extended greetings essentially show interest in all that is of worth in the other person’s life. It’s also fun because you can go to a village that’s really, really small and you think, “How in the world can I spend a lot of time here?” But if there are 50 people in that village, you’re going to talk to most of them and the conversation will take some time. If you can adapt to that, then I think you’ll be far more successful as a traveler. And maybe it’s actually a better way of life.