Andres Hammerman is the co-owner of the award-winning eco-lodge Black Sheep Inn. With extensive eco-building and design experience in composting toilets, adobe structures, natural roofs, woodstoves and chimneys, grey-water systems and rainwater catchments, he built his company to help develop and create a community tourist destination in the rural Andean village of Chugchilan, Ecuador.
What was the dream when setting up Black Sheep Inn?
My wife Michelle and I first visited Chugchilán in 1993 as backpackers; we loved to travel and explore ‘off the beaten track’. There was no hotel in town, so we knocked on a few doors looking for a bed and ended up staying with a local family. After staying 2 weeks we fell in love with the area: dramatic sierra landscape, great hiking, Rio Toachi Canyon, Iliniza Ecological Reserve and cloud forest, Laguna Quilotoa, the excellent cheeses and most of all the friendly people. We had been looking for work outside of the United States, but had never considered buying land until the local family offered to sell. “If you like this place so much, why don’t you buy our land?”
We had to ask ourselves, “Was this a dream come true? An opportunity they could not pass by?” Here in the heart of the Andes, we could tread lightly and live sustainably. We could own our work. We could create a home and realize our ideals: organic gardens, friendly animals, ecological toilets, recycling waste, wastewater systems, caring for the earth and develop our creative talents. In Chugchilán we had the freedom to experiment and learn from our own mistakes. We moved to Chugchilan in late 1994 and we had our first guests in 1995 – so this year 2015, the Black Sheep Inn is 20 years old!
How would you describe the journey of setting up a business?
Often guests ask us if it was easy to set up a business in Ecuador and my response is, I wouldn’t use the word ‘easy’. Yes of course it is possible and legal to do, but it has been a ton of work and dedication, almost maniacal. If we had known everything we had to do we might not have done it, but life is like that… it is better to not know and face the challenges as they occur.
You built the Inn with your own hands along with your business partner Michelle Kirby. To what extent did you believe that all that effort would pay off one day?
First of all Michelle is not just my business partner, but my life partner. We had told ourselves that after 5 years we would reevaluate, but 5 years came and went and we just kept pushing forward. Whenever we had profits we would reinvest them in improvements to the property and for the guests. The Black Sheep Inn is a grassroots effort that constantly changes and evolves.
What is the biggest challenge that you have faced when setting up your social enterprise?
I think the biggest challenge was actually being able to let go of the business. We had built it from the ground up and had a chance to do everything ourselves, of course with the help of people from the local community. We learned from them and they learned from us. In the end we needed to step back and let the community run the entire business. Stepping back, handing over the reigns and letting other people run the place was very difficult – like watching your baby grow up and leave home.
Black Sheep Inn is now 100% community operated. We feel lucky to have found Edmundo Vega who rents the entire facility of the Black Sheep Inn. He was born and raised in Chugchilan and then worked for 30 years in hotels and restaurants in Quito. This was also his dream come true to come back to the village of his birth, to be close to his elderly mother and family, and to be his own boss running the business. He hired the entire local staff that had been working with us for 15 years+.
Michelle and I still live on the property and I dedicate myself to maintenance and building projects while Michelle volunteers teaching English in the local high school.
What impact has the Black Sheep Inn had on your local area and it’s people?
Black Sheep Inn helped to develop a sustainable tourism destination in the entire village of Chugchilan. Before 1994 there were no hotels or tourist services in the area, but now 20 years later the Inn is 100% community operated and there are 3 thriving locally owned hostels, 2 horseback riding businesses, a transportation coop, trained guides, a Public Library/Computer Learning Center, a recycling center, a native tree nursery, University scholarships and volunteers teaching English in local schools. All of this is due to organized sustainable tourism initiatives by Michelle and I.
You have also set up community library/computer learning centre in Chugchilan. What benefits has this provided to the locals?
The library started in 2003 with a multitude of donations from guests: computers, a printer and over 1000 books in Spanish. The more that developed world moves ahead with information technology the more places like Chugchilan get left behind. In order to bridge this gap we opened a Public Library/Computer center. The library now has approx 2000 books and 10 computers with free internet access and is open 5 days a week. Students can research and print and also play games and post on their facebook pages.
What is the one thing you wish people had told you before you started your entrepreneurial journey?
It is common to hear that owning, operating and creating your own business is overwhelming and you never have a break. Hospitality complicates that because you have to work 24 hours a day. But we also had bigger complications, such as: being in a foreign country (Ecuador) with ever changing and shifting laws; being in a rural community where we had to train people from scratch for cooking, cleaning, service, guiding, etc; being in a rural location 3 hours from the nearest telephone, gas station, post office, hardware store or bank made logistics difficult. But I guess that if someone had even told me back then how challenging it would be, I wouldn’t have believed them.
In your opinion and based on your experience, what does it take to set up a successful business?
Black Sheep Inn’s success is based on some very basic principles. 1st of all we had a great location, which is everything. I wish I knew more about this when we started, but maybe I did. We chose Chugchilan because it was one of the most beautiful locations that we had seen while backpacking. Within a small radius there were several unique environments: high altitude Andean humid forest (cloud forest like jungle), paramo high altitude grass lands, canyons formed by the Rio Toachi and the biggest attraction Laguna Quilotoa, a huge volcanic crater lake. There were also several local indigenous markets, a great European style cheese factory (cooperatively owned by the community), and an artisan wood working shop making fine furniture. Even though we chose a rural location, we were only 5 hours from Quito, Ecuador’s capitol – which is close compared to 12 or 20 hours! Location is everything. But truthfully we had NOT been looking for land and in many ways we consider choosing Chugchilan to live and start our ecolodge as an accident. Sometimes the best things in life happen as accidents.
The other principles were simple but extremely important: provide a comfortable bed, a hot shower and delicious food at an affordable price. From the beginning we exceeded peoples expectations and our reputation grew.
Other benefits were that we had personal conservation convictions about how to care for the environment and property such as: composting toilets, organic gardens, foresting with native trees, building out of renewable natural local materials, recycling, erosion control, grey water systems and so much more. We did not advertise ourselves as an ecolodge until we realized that we had done far more for the environment and community than other advertised ‘ecolodges’ around Ecuador.
Do you believe age has an influence on the change you can create?
I fully recommend being young and naive and a good problem solver. As I get older I have become more cynical. But the reason for doing good deeds for the community, the environment or yourself is not based upon getting results and return for your good deed; you just do it anyway because it is the right thing to do even when it feels hopeless. This is my cynical ideal.
Business sustainability – what exactly is it?
I feel that business sustainability is a triple bottom line: benefits for the community, benefits for the environment and profits to make it all happen. Look at it this way: un-sustainability would be exploiting the local community, degrading the natural environment and loosing money – that would be horrible.
You took what some of us would say is a big leap of faith when you left the USA to travel off-the-beaten-path, where you happened to fall in love with Chugchilan. What advice would you give to a young social entrepreneur who may want to do the same but lacks the confidence to do so?
I don’t know where I gained my confidence nor ability and talents. I graduated high school and refused to continue my education, even though it had been offered to me. I didn’t like school. But I do recommend school to the majority of people. I needed to work and learn on my own. I am a do-it-yourselfer. I am fiercely independent, yet I have managed to work closely with lots of people. When we started building the Black Sheep Inn we learned from books, because there was no internet. We invited people (travelers) who had the talents we lacked to volunteer here. This is how I learned design, cabinetry, plumbing, electrical work, accounting, etc. Our ability to experiment and learn from our own mistakes has been fantastic. Going to school has the benefit of learning from the society’s collective mistakes – that is education.
Now I realize that I am better at the creative side and other people are better at the service/hospitality side. For instance I feel that Edmundo, the renter of the Black Sheep Inn, gives better attention to the guests, but he is not capable of the building and the maintenance. It took me over 17 years to learn that…