Travel is full of defining moments. Growing up with a family who spent months overseas in Indonesia, these experiences marked me from a young age. There was one particular moment, however, that truly defined both my path and my passion for responsible travel. I was eighteen years old and visiting Cambodia for the first time. In the capital city of Phnom Penh I went to the former school, turned security prison, turned genocide museum of Tuol Sleng. Displayed in the former classrooms there are portraits of the 14,000 Cambodian citizens who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed during the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.
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I couldn’t bring myself to walk away and I spent hours there. I was heartbroken. Beyond that, I was startled by my own lack of education about Cambodia’s very recent genocide. This genocide took the lives of a quarter of the country’s entire population. It was a turning point for me as I realized the power of travel to educate us on global issues.
This moment also started my love affair with Cambodia and its people who are incredibly optimistic and resilient despite the lasting effects of the country’s genocide. It was this moment that led me back to Cambodia to work as a marketing intern with an NGO during my undergraduate degree. I then returned once again to write my Master’s thesis on economic and social human rights advancement through fair trade in the country. Throughout these experiences, I kept thinking about how the education we gain from travel could also support the education of those who face so many barriers to accessing formal schooling in Cambodia.
Serendipitously, when my brother came to me with frustrations about current travel backpacks and the idea to build a better option last year, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to embed this passion into a responsible travel product.
Months of brainstorming, interviewing manufacturing and NGO partners, and prototyping later, our company, Banana Backpacks, was born. We built our new enterprise around what we call our “Three E’s”: Explore, Educate, Equip. We work to facilitate exploration of the incredible places and peoples around the world, to educate on social, political, and environmental issues going on in those destinations, and to equip travellers with inspired gear that allows them to make a difference in the world before they even leave home.
Our flagship product is a full size, 60L travel backpack. We specifically designed this bag to solve frustrations travellers often have with top-loading backpacks that lack organizational capabilities or style. Social impact is at the heart of our backpacks’ design. Additionally, we also implement ethical production practices.
To achieve this, every bag supports one child’s education in Cambodia. The child’s name is embroidered in the Khmer script on the heart (left) strap of each backpack. Through our local NGO partner, each child is provided with two meals/day at school for a year. This program is imperative to tackling barriers to accessing education in Cambodia. It encourages parents in one of the country’s most disadvantaged provinces to send their children to school. Furthermore it encourages these parents to keep their children in school. This is especially important as dropout rates usually skyrocket once children reach the secondary level. Sustainably, while we have yet to make this backpack out of recycled materials, we’ve built it with the most durable fabric we could find to last travellers a lifetime and generate less waste.
We, now, also have a second product. This is a 100% organic cotton t-shirt featuring the Cambodian symbol for water. Below the symbol are GPS coordinates where a water filtration system has been installed for a family. Working with our second NGO partner, these filters are installed based on a local government needs assessment. Preventable waterborne illnesses lead to the deaths of one in seven Cambodian children before the age of five. In fact, one quarter of the country’s population does not have access to clean water. Without clean water, education is not possible.
What we ultimately hope to do through Banana Backpacks is to build a community of travelers who care about the world. Our choices when we travel, from gear we buy, to restaurants we eat at, to activities we engage in, matter. They can make a difference for the environment, for animals, and for our fellow human beings. I believe that the education we gain through travel and our efforts to travel sustainably and responsibly can make the world a better place. Other travelers that use their own defining moments to tackle global issues will always continue to inspire me.
Anika Funk is one of the founders of Banana Backpacks. Her company creates travel backpacks that are durable and strong and that give back! After traveling through South East Asia, Anika decided that she wanted to help give back to children in Cambodia. Every backpack purchased helps fund children’s education in Cambodia. Her company has now also been featured in Forbes!
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