Can Galápagos businesses be eco-friendly and profitable at once?

In an effort to try for this, a group of Penn undergrads led by doctoral student Jesse Hamilton partnered with five small enterprises on the islands. Even amidst a global pandemic and local civil unrest, the pilot was a success.

ernesto and students
Ernesto Vaca (right) guiding a group of local students. He and his daughter Fabiola (not pictured), who recently completed culinary school, plan to open a sandwich shop soon. It’s one of five small businesses on the Galápagos the Penn team consulted with this past summer. (Pre-pandemic image)

For those who live and work on the Galápagos, tourism represents both a crucial economic lifeline and a threat to the very ecosystems that make it a desirable place to visit. Yet small tweaks to business models and practices can create enterprises that are sustainable for the people who run them and for the local environment, even amidst a global pandemic and local civil unrest. 

At least that’s the theory Jesse Hamilton, a first-year philosophy doctoral student at Penn, aimed to test with an initiative he led this summer. Supported by philosophy professor Michael Weisberg, Hamilton helped eight Penn undergrads guide five businesses on the island of San Cristóbal, including a pair of already-running tourism outfits and a soon-to-open sandwich shop. 

“Protecting the local environment is easier said than done. It’s complex, and many factors are in play, especially in small communities like the Galápagos,” says Hamilton, who also completed his master’s at Penn in 2019. “Our vision was to develop a program that helps Galapagueños establish, grow, and maintain economically sustainable and environmentally friendly small businesses.”  

Our vision was to develop a program that helps Galapagueños establish, grow, and maintain economically sustainable and environmentally friendly small businesses. Jesse Hamilton, a first-year philosophy doctoral student

It’s the type of project that Weisberg, who has co-directed the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance since 2017, has been thinking about for some time. COVID-19 shelved a planned May trip to the Galápagos that had intended to help the group create a more formal strategy for the green consulting. But Weisberg felt there was still a path forward—virtually. 

He enlisted folks at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center to get the word out to Penn undergrads. Students like seniors Alison Millman and Alexandru Zanca responded, along with six others whose interests ranged from climate change to business. Hamilton put out a call to businesses on the Galápagos and five soon answered. “Our client base grew so quickly that I handed off numerous responsibilities to the undergraduates sooner than I expected,” he says. “Within a few short weeks, they were leading engagements on their own.” 

fausto tour group
Fausto Rodriguez, originally from mainland Ecuador, has been a naturalist guide on the islands for more than two decades. Several Penn students worked with him to improve his tourism company, Galápagos Best, which offers boat and land tours.

Millman, who hopes to focus a future career on the role business can play in environmental stewardship, ran the team that worked with Fausto Rodriguez. His tourism company, Galápagos Best, offers boat and land tours around the islands, but when the pandemic struck and tourism dried up, he took a huge financial hit. He asked for help in better positioning his business for the time when tourists return. 

The Penn students met with Rodriguez weekly via Zoom and WhatsApp. “He’s so in love with the islands,” says Millman, a philosophy, politics, and economics major. “He’s so connected to the community and he cares really deeply to help where he can.” 

With that in mind, Millman’s team focused on prominently displaying on the Galápagos Best website all that the company was already doing. Green business certification—too cost-prohibitive now—may come later. Rodriguez, who beyond his tourism company provides logistical support to Penn and other universities with educational programs in the Galápagos, opened up to the students, too. “He’s really interesting,” says Zanca, who is a business economics and public policy major. “He knows everyone on the island, and he has fascinating stories to tell.” 

The “smoking bird” sandwich: Smoked chicken, roasted bacon, and turkey ham in wine with pategras and provolone cheeses, tomatoes, and alfalfa—one offering from Fabiola and Ernesto Vaca’s soon-to-open shop.

That was also true of Ernesto and Fabiola Vaca, a father-daughter duo aiming to open a sandwich shop in the coming months. Zanca worked on Millman’s team consulting for Galápagos Best and also led the sandwich shop team. “Fabiola just graduated from culinary school,” he says. “They want to start a shop that’s organic and uses local products as much as possible. They have many measures they want to put in place to make it easier for people to access food that’s better for the environment.” They also hope to expose locals to different cuisine and flavors. “They want a place that’s farm-to-table, but that can also diversify the food culture on the island,” says Zanca.  

Unlike Galápagos Best, which was already up and running, the Vaca’s sandwich shop still needed to lay some groundwork, like creating a business plan and applying for loans. “We would ask them questions about what they wanted to do and narrow down the details,” Zanca says. “Our job was to second-guess everything to make sure it was all doable.” 

wide aerial of galapagos
Small businesses, particularly those affiliated with tourism, are crucial to the Galápagos economy. Through this consulting project, one of several Penn has conducted on the islands the past five years, the focus was on making small tweaks to business models and practices to create enterprises sustainable for the people who run them and the local environment.

The Penn team also compiled a list of microlending organizations as possible alternatives to borrowing from Ecuadorian banks, and created a financial projection model to help the Vacas set prices. The business owners next plan to conduct some on-the-ground market research into which sandwiches and price points work best for their community.

“They’re not rushing,” says Zanca. “Opening in December will depend on how things are moving. They plan on starting small scale because like a lot of businesses on the Galápagos, this one will depend on tourism as an important source of income.” And with COVID-19, that’s not currently a reality. 

Zanca and Millman both say they plan to keep in touch with the Galapagueños they met. And the initiative itself will likely continue, thanks to the success of this summer’s pilot, even after its need to pivot because of the coronavirus. 

“The pandemic was a blessing and curse. On the one hand, it created a really tough economic environment on the islands. On the other hand, the lack of economic activity created plenty of free time for the business owners to meet with us,” Hamilton says. “They’re in a really bad economic situation right now and we strove to help their businesses survive. If they do and are more open to environmentally friendly practices, that’s better for the local environment and economy—both positive outcomes for Galápagos and its citizens.”

Michael Weisberg is professor and chair of the Philosophy Department in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He has co-directed the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance since 2017.

Jesse Hamilton is a first-year doctoral student in the Philosophy Department in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his master’s from Penn in 2019.

Alison Millman is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a Philosophy Politics and Economics major minoring in sustainability and environmental management.

Alexandru Zanca is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a Business Economic and Public Policy major minoring in history.

Homepage photo: Species like this Pacific Green Turtle, viewed by a group of tourists on Las Bachas Beach on the central Galápagos island of Santa Cruz, make the Galápagos an appealing tourist destination. (©Walter Perez)