Photo & video courtesy of Kwepunha.com
The Ocean draws in all kinds. It’s part of the reason we go there for coffee and brainstorming regularly. You never know who you’re going to meet or what thoughts the waves will inspire. On a recent morning coffee break at a small park overlooking the beach & the Pacific we met Daniel Hopkins.
Daniel seemed interesting guy with a cool looking van & a little dog racing around the park so we decided to say hello. Hello led to another beach coffee a week or so later.We covered a lot of ground including backgrounds, graphic design, van life (#vanlife) & the power of the ocean. We also discovers that he spends half of his time in the van traveling SoCal which is pretty cool, and half the time running Kwepunha Retreat in Liberia which is infinitely cooler.
Kwepunha is a surf resort based in Robertsport, West Liberia that Daniel co-founded with his friend & business partner Sean Brody. They’ve been written about everywhere from the BBC to Time Magazine to The Surfer’s Journal. Robertsport is lauded as one of the great point breaks by the surf world. But more than that Kwepunha is striving to be a sustainable surf resort that doesn’t just bring in tourism, but partners with the local community to create an opportunity and bring a sense of civic pride to the area. In addition to creating job opportunities, Kwepunha offers an array of community development opportunities like youth mentoring, swim & surf lessons, small business skills clinics and more.
Daniel was gracious enough to do answer about his home away from home, why sustainability & community devolopment is important at Kwepunha & what it meant to take a chance following his passions to open this place in the first place. Once you’re done here make sure to check out www.kwepunha.com for all kinds of updates, photos & videos.
SoCal Sessions: What does “Kwepunha” mean & why choose that as the name of your retreat?
Danial Hopkins: Kwepunha is a Vai word (one of the 16 tribal dialects spoken in Liberia) that means “Ocean Waves.” We first heard the word kwepunha when we were visiting Robertsport on a surf trip in 2009. One of the first Liberian Surfers, Benjamin McCrumada paddled out, began splashing the surface of the water and shouting Kwepunha at the top of his lungs. Within a minute there was a bombing set of waves stacking up outside and Benjamin explained that the Vai are fishing people and there are certain Vai men that have been gifted the ability to call the waves. Benjamin is one of the people with that gift. It sounds crazy but once you are out there and witness him do it time and time again, you become a believer in Kwepunha.
SoCal Sessions: You have to be a little crazy to pursue this project. What was the inspiration for a surf retreat in Liberia? What brought you there in the first place?
DH: Crazy for sure! We initially went to Liberia for a surf trip. We knew there would be world-class waves and we wanted to surf for a month with no crowd and in a remote, less traveled part of the world. Sure enough when we got there it was everything we imagined and more. The locals were amazing, the culture is beautiful and to hear their stories of suffering and tragedy made us want to find
a way to help. People in the community begged us to get some land in Robertsport so after a few weeks of being shown various properties we signed a lease on a property that was merely a ruin and hadn’t been lived on since the late 1980’s.
Our plans were minimal, maybe down the road it would be a cool spot to build up and go on surf trips with our friends. Anyways, the plan changed when I was laid off from my job 6 months later and had little desire to hit the job trail and start that painful cycle of sitting in an office, grinding over stuff that didn’t fulfill my passions. 6 months after losing my job I had a plane ticket to Liberia and a rough plan to start a sustainable surf retreat with my good friend Sean Brody.
DH: We try to encompass sustainability in all aspects, environmental, social, educational and cultural. We harvest rainwater from our roof, we have invested in solar, we employ only locals, we support health, education and sanitation projects in our community through profit-sharing and we educate our guests on Liberian culture via cultural immersion with our community. It’s a lot of stuff but it all goes hand in hand.
SoCal Sessions: How do you handle the overlap the affects of war & impoverished communities surrounding you? Does that make Kwepunha a target for crime or violence?
DH: I mean, their civil war ended in 2003, that’s a long time ago. Most Liberians are pretty tired of being stigmatized as a “war-torn country” so in all honesty, it doesn’t feel like we have to handle any kind of overlap. The local people have moved on and so have we. As for crime, we haven’t had a problem with that. There is petty crime anywhere you go in the world including Liberia but our community is so small and we have fostered such strong relationships that we have never been victims of any kind of criminal activity.
We never told them what needed to be done but after living with them over the years we have slowly integrated into being Robertsport locals rather than business owners or investors.
SoCal Sessions: Kwepunha seems to be involved in many aspects of community building. Why have the locals accepted your company considering you were initially an outsider?
DH: We weren’t always embraced. In the beginning we had a small number of people in the community that fully understood what we were trying to accomplish and the rest saw us a the white people looking to exploit their home for financial gain. I think that perception only changed as the community saw us living with them, not above them and the way we have worked with them supported them and listened to them has helped us foster a relationship that has become quite special.
You see a lot of big NGO’s coming into the country opening up a project and then leaving. This is the perception a lot of Liberians have about whites, come in, tell them what needs to change, start a project and then leave. I think this was the first time they had people come in, listen to their needs and begin working alongside them to help accomplish those goals. We never told them what needed to be done but after living with them over the years we have slowly integrated into being Robertsport locals rather than business owners or investors.
SoCal Sessions: This seems pretty far from an all-inclusive resort where the local community & resort goer’s are segregated. We think that is a good thing. In what ways do guests at Kwepunha & the community interact?
DH: In what ways don’t our guests interact with the community would be a better question! Our guests are constantly interacting with community members ranging from our team of local staff to the local surfing community, local business owners and more. We encourage guests to go immerse themselves in the community, go for a walk, get lost, start a conversation. If you want to learn Vai, we have someone that can teach you! If you want to go to church and check it out, go ahead, they will welcome you with open arms. There is a lady down the street that makes amazing donuts and meat pies, go check her out! You need a sim card for your phone, go down the street and get one from one of the market owners. Want to learn how to set snares and traps? We have someone that can take you into the jungle and teach you. We embrace everyone in our community as each of their stories and ways of life is unique and interesting. You will never understand that by just hanging around our properties all day and feeling afraid to venture into the community.
SoCal Sessions: Is the surf as good as we hear?
DH: The surf is world class, hands down. Have you ever surfed a mile long wave by yourself?
SoCal Sessions: What’s next for Kwepunha?
DH: Over the last few years we have been working really hard on getting group retreats out to Robertsport. This does several things but most importantly a retreat with 20 people visiting for 10 days would provide an income for over 75 people for an entire month. It might not seem like much but considering that a majority of Liberia is unemployed and each person who is employed typically supports 5 to 7 family members with their income 75 people being given a job for a month carries a lot more weight. Group retreats would also make Robertsport a viable tourism destination. Sure, it is already, but it’s currently in the realm of “adventure tourism” we want Robertsport to grow from there and become adventure, experiential, social and even mainstream if we can achieve it!
SoCal Sessions: Anything you’d like to add?
DH: If you want to learn more about us give our website a look, check out the various videos, documentaries and press articles about our efforts or better yet, book a flight and get your ass out there! Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Ebola took a toll on Kwepunha Retreat & Liberia everywhere. In 2014 the retreat was forced to temporarily shut down and turn away several large groups of visitors. That dramatically affected their ability to continue making such a positive impact on the community. Last September they started a GoFundMe campaign to help get things back up to speed now that the region is recovering. If you want to learn more about how they were affected, how you can help & where the money is going on a local level check out the campaign here.