Vanderful: An African Adventure for Education

The Vanderful team plans to bring education and adventure to West Africa, after it captured their hearts during time spent teaching and living in Namibia.

words Sally Fox, photographs Karin Retief and Vanderful

Six weeks ago, Silent was terrified of the ocean. Not that you’d know it to see him now, poised on his surfboard, eyeing the approaching wave over his shoulder. As it swells beneath him, he begins to kick, surging forward, triumphant, cutting a bold figure in the foaming wave as they reach shore together. His classmates cheer as he flops happily onto the sand.

Young African boy paddling a surf board, being picked up by a rising wave
Silent taking to the waves for the very first time.
Photo credit: Karin Retief Photography

It’s to Silent and children just like him that teachers, and passionate advocates for the arts, Francesco and Vikki have dedicated most of their adult lives. Their new project, Vanderful, is an 18-month journey up the west coast of Africa in a Volkswagen Kombi. They will be holding drama, craftsmanship and surfing workshops for children, aiming to create lasting change in the seven communities they visit. With support from Federico, Tom, Christiana, and the team’s mascots, Rhodesian Ridgeback Bronzo and chilled out cat Zuzu, their extraordinary journey begins in May 2019.

The Vanderful van at the beach, the sun low behind it
‘Syncro-nicity’ Vanderful’s beloved VW Kombi at the Lagoon Walvis Bay, Namibia.
Photo credit: Vikki Farrell

West Africa captured the hearts of the Vanderful team during their time spent teaching and living in Namibia. It was here they recognised the west coast’s potential as a destination for surf tourism, thanks to the world-class waves and unspoilt natural beauty, whilst identifying opportunities for growth within communities hampered by outdated education systems and in some cases years of political unrest. By sharing their passion for the expressive arts and their love of the ocean, Vanderful hopes to uncover skills that will boost the lives of participants and their communities for generations to come.

Tourism across Africa is soaring. In South Africa, one of the continent’s top destinations, 8.6% of overall economic activity is generated by the industry, as travellers flock to the country’s dramatic nature and fascinating culture. Formerly war-torn Rwanda, a country that was until recently off-limits to holidaymakers, has seen monumental growth in tourism, up 13.8% from last year. Now, 13% of jobs in the country are linked to travel.

Tourism is a powerful tool for growth in developing countries. The arrival of tourists feeds the construction, service, transport, telecommunication and food industries, as well as boosting light manufacturing and craft production. Jobs are created and quality of life is improved for local people. Amongst the potential limitations to this opportunity, according to the World Bank Group, is underdevelopment of “tourism skills”.

Much state education along the west coast of Africa contains little arts and sports, subjects which are vital for building confidence, as well as developing teamwork and critical thinking skills. Often lack of funding, training or even the fear of the water which is common in some West African cultures, means that kids don’t have many opportunities to play, create, and enjoy nature.

The van on train tracks in Namibia
Vanderful Kombi in Omaruru, Namibia.
Photo credit: Francesco Gigli

Vanderful’s project will support development opportunities in coastal West Africa. During the pilot project in Swakopmund, Namibia, children have created and staged a drama production, crafted eco boards and learned to surf them, emerging with improved decision-making, communication, empathy, self-esteem, a stronger connection to nature and a more powerful sense of community and their place within it.

Africa has a young population, nearly 60% of Africans are under the age of 25, compared with 27% of Europeans. Vanderful knows that these are the innovators of the future, but African children still have the lowest access to education in the world. Vikki is passionate about the power of education in inspiring young people to become the change makers and leaders their countries need. In particular, drama workshops are proven to help with trauma and develop confidence, independence and creativity.

Three young girls performing a play
Vanderful Expressive Arts (Drama) Pilot Project in Swakopmund, Namibia.
Photo credit: Karin Retief Photography

When Thea, a usually timid student, stormed the microphone in front of 250 parents, teachers and fellow students at the end of their production, to publicly thank Vikki and Francesco, the character transformation shocked even her own mother.

To ensure the development is sustainable, the team aim to identify at least one local teacher or mentor in each community to continue the project. And thanks to the support of Waves for Change, the new leaders will be flown to South Africa for training before assuming their role when the Vanderful residency comes to an end.

A group of children wearing wetsuits, holding hands, and walking in a line into the ocean with Fransesco at one end
Watersports and Craftsmanship Finale, Vanderful Pilot Project.
Photo credit: Vikki Farrell

This focus on sustainability is evident throughout the carefully considered project. The workshops invoke few demands on the local communities beyond a safe, open space for the children to gather. In return, participants are empowered not only with the skills needed to succeed in life, but also the knowledge to create and sustain a successful tourist industry. Francesco will be planting the seeds to encourage communities to run surf schools. Putting this knowledge into the hands of local people is key to avoid tourist economies becoming like those in top surf destinations such as Costa Rica, where most of the surf dollars end up in European pockets.

The Namibian pilot project has been a roaring success. Silent, after discovering his innate skill for fashioning surfboards, has been inspired to try his hand at making and selling furniture one day, whilst his classmate Luciano can’t wait to pass on his expertise to his own children in the future.

Two boys design a surfboard together
Teamwork is essential – Silent and Remko shaping their Paipo boards.
Photo credit: Karin Retief Photography

As is to be expected from people who love the ocean so dearly, the environmental impact of Vanderful is designed to be minimal. Their focus on craftsmanship in a world of mass-production is hoped to make a lasting impression on participants. With drama props made from recycled materials and inexpensive local wood used for the surfboards, the project’s footprint is small and considerate of the fact that repairs and replacements will be required of the novice craftspeople, even once the Vanderful team are gone.

Vikki working at a craft table, writing hand-made labels
Label making for Vanderful Organic surf wax.
Photo credit: Francesco Gigli
Fransesco helping a young girl to saw wood
Luciano learning craft skills about which he exclaimed, ‘I can’t wait to teach my own children one day!’
Photo credit: Karin Retief Photography 

Francesco will be sharing how to make upcycled plastic surf accessories, eco-friendly board wax and even all-natural sun cream. Having witnessed the plastics problem that is choking developed surf spots like Bali, Indonesia, Vanderful lays the foundations for a more sustainable model that cares for both people and planet.

Indeed, they hope that surf tourism will help preserve the untouched coastline of Africa in the same way as has happened in Noosa, Australia, where World Surfing Reserve status has afforded the area automatic conservation. Again, education is key, reframing a pristine ocean as a prime source of sustainable income through tourism, not something to be feared or polluted. Francesco and Vikki’s long-term dream is to rev up the Kombi in a few years’ time to retrace their journey, stopping to witness the once fledgeling projects soaring, uniting local children with each other, with creative and active outlets and with the ocean for the betterment of their whole community.

Vikki, Fransesco, and Bronzo the dog smile from the windows of their van
Do you trust the driver?! Bronzo, Vanderful’s Mascot.
Photo credit: Karin Retief Photography

Vanderful is a non-profit organisation that relies on the help of donations and sponsors to continue their extraordinary work. If you would like to donate anything from equipment, materials, accommodation or funds or become a sponsor, get in touch with Vikki and Francesco at [email protected] or you can follow their progress at Their crowd funding campaign is live until the end of May, and can be found at

Thanks to:

World Travel & Tourism Council Africa Report 2018

World Bank Africa Tourism Report 2018

Gates Foundation Goalkeepers Report 2018