Guest Articles

August 15

Héctor Gerardo Ibarra

Boosting the Social Impact of Food Tourism: The Keys to a Collaborative Model

I have had many opportunities to share my experiences as a social entrepreneur, in talks and workshops on topics ranging from project management to administrative tools and more. But without a doubt, the most complex and difficult conversation I have conducted has been in front of a surprising audience: children in second grade.


A simple formula for creating a new social enterprise

How should one approach the idea of ​​social entrepreneurship with such young people? After trying to design suitable material involving elaborate stories and examples, I ended up with a simple formula that, to this day, remains really useful in problem solving and promoting the development of new ideas and projects.

This formula starts with identifying a specific problem, something I do not like in the world or in my community. The next step involves looking for something I like to do, or something I am good at. The final step combines the first two: developing an idea to solve the problem, while putting into practice the activity that I like.

When I present this to schoolchildren, many of them react immediately to the formula, and start to generate new ideas – often very specific ones – about the things they don’t like, such as pollution, animal abuse and others. The conversation then flows naturally toward ways they could leverage their skills and interests to address these issues, and make a difference in the world.

It may seem like a very basic technique, and it is. But that’s why it works.


Route of origin: Making an impact through tourism

At Ruta Origen, a social enterprise founded by my partner Rodrigo Trujillo and myself, we applied this formula to solve a specific problem in Mexico: the lack of recognition and unfair payment of Mexican producers. And we solve it through something we really love to do: traveling and eating.

Ruta Origen is dedicated to promoting fair trade and the responsible consumption of Mexican products like mezcal, cacao and coffee, and Mexican traditions like “El Día de los Muertos” and “Guelaguetza” as well, through unique and meaningful travel and gastronomic experiences. We offer our services to independent travelers interested in the different experiences available through alternative tourism, and to enterprises and schools interested in giving their workers and students a broader understanding of responsible consumption. We aim to impact Sustainable Development Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Our goal is to encourage the development of family economies and make a positive impact on Mexico’s emerging productive sectors, like the specialty coffee, traditional cuisine, artisanal mezcal and specialized cacao industries. We promote the recognition and valuation of these products, the processes used to create them, and the people involved in making them. We generate direct purchases of the products from the tourists we work with, and from other partners. We also contribute to the promotion of the projects and brands of the small business owners who produce them, creating links between our travelers and other selling points, and producers and their rural communities.


A collaborative model to maximize impact

Ruta Origen operates with a collaborative model in which we seek to work with local people who share their experiences, their talents and their services with travelers. The majority of our clients are young travelers aged 24 to 35, with around 50 percent coming from Mexico and the other half from foreign countries. Through this model, we offer them a unique experience, which impacts local communities and generates genuine connections among our partners.

Ruta Origen and its staff serve as a kind of companion that takes clients through educational journeys in which they discover the origin of the food products they’re enjoying, the work of the people who produce them, and the culture and traditions that surround each dish. This information comes from the local producers, who share their knowledge, experience and products with our clients.

The collaborative model allows us to generate a positive impact on our partnering producers. It also allows us to reduce the risk of making a big investment in our own training and infrastructure costs, by having partners’ specialized and multidisciplinary teams already in place, without the need to spend excessive resources. The resources, talent and experience of these partners complement the products they provide, while reducing the cost of these journeys to our clients and generating value for our business.

This model allows these producers to continue their main productive activities while generating alternative sources of income from their own talents and resources. In addition, it helps them to make their land and production centers profitable, even outside of their typical productive seasons, which makes these resources profitable throughout the year.

After three years of work and, above all, a lot of effort, we have consolidated Ruta Origen as a social enterprise that works in five different states, with a network of more than 40 partners, including chefs, local service providers, guides, brands, grassroots producers, civil society organizations, academia and other social enterprises.


The keys to the collaborative model

There are four key elements to our collaborative model:

Transparency: It is essential to maintain total transparency with all partners, regarding our processes and intentions, and the establishment of agreements. From the beginning, this has been the basis for forging successful alliances. One way to accomplish this is by starting the first conversations with a partner with an open question: What do you want to obtain from this partnership? For us, it is vital to be able to generate mutual value in which all parties obtain a benefit.

Trust: Working with such diverse partners and in such different situations and contexts adds a degree of complexity to the establishment of alliances. However, one common factor in any partnership is the construction of relationships based on trust. You must fulfill agreements, be clear and punctual, and generate a relationship of trust before finalizing any agreements. This approach has saved us from many bad outcomes.

Fairness: We all deserve fair compensation for our work. One of the simplest ways to establish fair payments and agreements is to openly put on the table the work that will be carried out, and to trust the different partners to establish initial amounts. From there, market research into local salaries and costs helps us determine the fair payment for each partner. On the client end, our responsibility is to share with our customers the importance of fair payments, the equitable distribution of resources and the value of the experience. Through this approach, we’re able to ensure that both sides feel they’ve gotten fair value from the exchange.

Capacity development: The successful implementation of our client journeys requires a wide range of services, and sometimes our partners do not have the skills or knowledge to respond immediately to these needs. Our collaborative model generates work among partners, encouraging them to develop new capacities, ranging from cost analysis to product design and hotel and tourism skills.


A paradigm shift

Ruta Origen’s journey has been long and unpredictable, but also full of satisfaction and great moments. The relationships we build together with travelers and partners are the best reward for our work.

Although it is important to have design and management tools for any venture, we must never lose sight of the fact that the success of a project depends mainly on the people we work with, the trust they have in each other and the work they perform.

We are convinced that social entrepreneurship is an effective way to reduce social problems. Recognizing and rewarding a person’s work through fair treatment generates a paradigm shift that allows new attitudes to be formed about the significance of work – and of life itself.


Héctor Gerardo Ibarra is co-founder of Ruta Origen where he serves as the strategic director.


Images courtesy of Ruta Origen.



Agriculture, Environment, Social Enterprise
business development, social enterprise, tourism