Rating: 5 out of 5
Reviewed by David Gorvett
Co-authors of On the Up, co-founders of their own social venture (READ International) and generally inspirational characters, Nikki and Rob Wilson embarked on a trip in 2011 that would take them through 11 countries as they travelled over 8000 miles from Cape Town to Cairo. Their mission? To put the spotlight on change-makers throughout Africa, highlighting some of the amazing things happening across the continent - a refreshing alternative to the bad press that Africa often receives in the Western media (famine, civil unrest, disease and political instability being a few of the common themes).
‘Social entrepreneurs’ themselves, Nikki and Rob were awarded funding by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, (Randolph Churchill, Winston’s great grandson, provides the foreword to On the Up) to complete the trip. To satisfy their funders, family and friends, all of whom challenged them on the reasons behind their journey, the Wilsons boiled their motivations down to three key goals: '1. Inspire others to make change ...; 2. Showcase social entrepreneurship...; [and] 3. Demonstrate that Africa is "on the up"'.
The result is a truly fascinating collection of short stories about 18 of the most inspirational entrepreneurs they met on the way (they found space for the remaining entrepreneurs who weren’t featured in the book on their blog). The initiatives range from children’s playground roundabouts doubling up as water pumps, to giant rats being trained to sniff out landmines (providing an extremely cheap and efficient alternative to more traditional landmine clearance methods), to the hygienic pay-as-you-go toilet that doubles as a community hub and meeting point. The entrepreneurs featured are as varied as the projects they have initiated, from a Belgian Buddhist monk, to a group of students from the US, to a war child turned international rap star from Sudan - each protagonist has their own motives for having started up their social venture (be it ‘to make a difference’, an abundance of creativity, or pure profit-seeking(!)), and the authors are as open to each as the one before.
On the Up is an incredibly easy book to read: the writing style is fluid and easy-going; the stories are sequenced geographically, so the reader follows in the footsteps of the authors as they wind their way up to Cairo; and each story is limited to four or five pages in length - even though the authors could doubtless have dedicated an entire book to the achievements of some of the people and projects they profile. On top of all this, the content is fascinating - Nikki and Rob Wilson may argue that they had a plethora of inspirational projects to choose from, but they obviously have a nose for hunting them out, too.
One final beauty that stems from the diversity of the people featured in On the Up: they’re all just ‘normal’ people - not necessarily coming from privileged positions or privy to exceptional circumstances that facilitate their desire to make a difference - in fact, they come from such a wide range of backgrounds that I’m sure most readers will find at least one person they can identify with - and you are sure to find more than one project that will stay with you long after you’ve put the book down.
David Gorvett, originally from the UK, now works for Lonely Planet in its Melbourne office, and has been a keen traveller throughout much of the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific. Africa’s one continent he’s keen to get to soon!
Read more travel literature reviews here.