Travel entrepreneur, Portia Hart, charts her journey to becoming a sustainability pioneer
Meet Portia Hart, the travel entrepreneur who started out by launching a beach club, but became a sustainability pioneer, building her own waste disposal plant, creating eco hotels and attaining B Corp status
Tierra Bomba island lies a few minutes’ boat ride from the Colombian mainland. For all its Instagram-worthy beauty, it’s also an incredibly impoverished part of the world. Around a mile from the village of Bocachica, on the southern shore, is a stylish restaurant and bar called Blue Apple Beach, owned and run by British-Trinidadian Portia Hart. She has dedicated herself to making her business as ethical and sustainable as possible.
Hart may have started out as part of the international jet set, selling yachts in glamorous Monaco, but these days you’ll more likely find her wading through waste disposal – and feeling a sense of profound fulfilment. “The biggest luxury in my life is to go to bed at night knowing I’ve had a positive impact,” she says. “Not just on the environment, but on people too.”
Her journey began after a friend invited her to Colombia, on a “bit of a sabbatical… I wanted to see something of the real world,” she says. “I just thought, ‘If I don’t leave now, I’ll play it safe until the end of time.’” In Cartagena, on the Colombian mainland, she fell in love with the energy and vibe of beach living, but found the existing bars and restaurants lacking, with the nicest beaches an hour’s boat ride away. She had the idea of starting a beach club of her own: “A place where you could drink a decent bottle of rosé, listen to good music, have wi-fi and eat with a knife and fork.”
So she did. “I had no idea how to run a beach club,” she admits. “I didn’t know how to cook. But I knew what clients wanted.” Pooling her savings, she rented some land, and within six months her new bar-cum-restaurant and hotel, the Blue Apple Beach House, had earned itself the ultimate badge of honour – “It was full of Colombians!” She had achieved this without investors, and by essentially making it up as she went along. And all this on an island without paved roads, running water or even, some of the time, electricity.
Hart’s next move would solidify her environmental credentials: launched in 2017, her Green Apple Foundation is a not-for-profit social enterprise using trash to create job opportunities for locals. “We just didn’t feel anyone was taking recycling and sustainability that seriously,” she says. Under the scheme, waste is sent to be recycled, which helps to forge a virtuous circle: sustainability jobs are created, which in turn encourages entrepreneurship and, ideally, inspires big suppliers to take some responsibility themselves. Since launch, more than a dozen local businesses have contributed to Green Apple’s efforts.
Among other initiatives, the foundation crushes broken glass and turns it into sand – which can be sold to villagers and hardware stores, or to the construction industry for concrete and mortar. Meanwhile, a pair of sorting centres have been built from more than 6,000 empty bottles and 1,100 coconuts. It has diverted 51,000kg of glass or organic waste from landfill; converted 1,100 litres of cooking oil into biofuel, and planted 10 kitchen gardens, using organic waste that has been turned into nutrient-rich compost. Within a year of its launch, the financially self-sufficient vehicle was able to employ five full-time workers. “If you don’t give people the opportunity to have a good quality of life, you can’t expect them to care about the environment,” she says. Thanks to Green Apple Foundation, employees have been able to get passports to travel, received university educations for their children – and some have built their first house.
Riding the storm
Speaking of houses, Hart’s other success is her boutique Townhouse Cartagena (what she calls her “hostel for grown-ups”), with staff recruited via word of mouth. Employees receive English lessons – and interest-free loans “if they want to do something to their house or send a kid to school”.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing: in 2016, Hurricane Matthew forced it to close for two weeks. There was no water and a cow wandered into the property and tumbled into the septic tank. “The tank is now repaired,” she says. “We now have an even better wastewater management system than before – and the cow lived!”
Even more challenging for her tourism business was, of course, the pandemic. “It was hard,” Hart admits. “Blue Apple Beach House was closed from March to September 2020. A fundraising campaign and government subsidies meant we could keep staff fed and on healthcare. Every day we set tasks, which included admin, client relations, staff fundraising and welfare – they made a series of videos and had local artists design face masks made from recycled sheets and we organised food parcels for people on the island. It was a pretty creative time.
“I guess I kept sane by keeping busy. My biggest lesson was that none of my achievements are down to me. Everything you think you’ve earned can disappear overnight. I also learned what strong leadership looks like and that I thrive in a crisis.”
Hart also used that time to read about B Corp, the stamp of approval confirming that a company meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. And, in 2021, Blue Apple Beach received its certification. In an era of climate change and pandemics, with a new generation of consumers demanding more transparency and ethical engagement, it’s a recognition that is increasingly prized. The certificate is, intentionally, hard to attain, taking about 12 months to complete with further verification processes undertaken every three years. Hart initially began the process as “an exercise of self-assessment rather than anything else”, while also feeling it could reassure stakeholders that her eco-credentials weren’t (literally) built on sand.
“As an owner, I am completely aware of the risks of well-intentioned greenwashing, and the difficulties of making what is in an owner’s head a reality across an entire business,” she says. “B Corp was a useful tool to get all of our managers onboard and spread good practice throughout our operation. Of course, the fact that it is an internationally recognised certification, and one that is notoriously difficult to achieve, helps. We hope it will impact our sales and marketing, as well as our operation.”
Blue Apple Beach House achieved its B Corp certificate for the following: it implemented a company-wide minimum wage 15% higher than the Colombian standard; it initiated an in-depth supplier review (in the process discovering the hotel’s coconut supplier had one of the best incomes in the village); 65% of its energy source now comes from solar, and a full energy reduction and carbon review programme for 2022 has been embarked upon.
The business has also committed to zero waste, and by the close of 2021, was diverting 80% of waste from landfill. It is publicly aligned with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. It ensures all meat is ethically sourced, that the animals have enough space and proper facilities and that they live with others of the same breed. Meanwhile, 60% of its spending is with micro-enterprises and 30% with minority-owned businesses, while more than 85% of its annual expenditure remains in Colombia. To secure full buy-in, the whole team was included in the B Corp application process.
“We have to find ways that appeal to people and we live in a world where economic motives matter,” says Hart. “I don’t think social justice or environmental responsibility should ever only be in the hands of people who can afford to lose money doing it. You suddenly go, ‘Wow, this creates jobs and prevents waste limits and environmental damage – why aren’t we all doing this?’” Well, why indeed?