Ocean Academy Aquatic Tourism

Ocean Academy Aquatic Tourism: Kayak with Purpose

Caye Caulker, BelizeCaye Caulker, Belize
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
Project Stage:
$1,000 - $10,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Across Belize only 40% of youth attend high school and youth unemployment is 25%. Kayak with Purpose is the flagship social enterprise at Ocean Academy allowing students to earn tuition, stipends and gain real-word job skills. Aquatic tourism is our island's top industry.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

all Belizeans could learn social enterpri skills while in high school and become entrepreneurs with a deep sense of community responsibility?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Across Belize, education is not free and only 40% of secondary-school-age youth attend school. The youth unemployment rate is 25%. The combination of these two issues is a contributing factor to the rise in youth violence and disengagement in Belize, as well as increase in low-pay low-skill jobs that are destructive to the environment (ex. dredging or over fishing). As well, girls are under represented in the aquatic tourism field as guides.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Ocean Academy has small businesses in which students accompany tourists by kayak (or bike or fishing rod) and interpret the marine ecosystems and share local knowledge. Students are "hooked" to enroll in high school because of real-world learning relevant to the local economy and student interests. Trip profits are credited to the student leader's tuition and family income, thus further encouraging retention to graduation. Apprenticeships often lead to employment offers after graduation. Related electives include marine biology, tour guiding, leadership, first aid, communication and entrepreneurship skills. Environmental stewardship, particularly of the mangrove and reef ecosystems, is integrated into all tours.


2015 invitation to attend Ecology Project International Leadership Summit in Costa Rica (Mercedes);2014 UNICEF Sport for Education Award (Beyond Sport)
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Mercedes' brother Kyle was not a valedictorian and did not plan to attend high school. However, Ocean Academy's scuba certification program "hooked" him into the academics. He learned fly fishing and kayak, as well as marine ecology, communications, accounting, entrepreneurship, tour guiding skills. He graduated 2014 and earned a National Youth Award for Tourism. Ocean Academy hired Kyle as an assistant fly-fishing instructor one afternoon per week and he now mentors youth. Kyle is studying now to certify as a guide. Moreover, five tour operators have already offered him fishing and guiding employment, based on the skills he learned at Ocean Academy. Fly Fishing is one of the highest-paid tourism jobs and is very specialized.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Ocean Academy’s Aquatic Tourism Program attracts island youth to attend high school by appealing to their interest in the island’s sport tourism economy. Across Belize only 40% of youth attend secondary school. On the island of Caye Caulker even fewer students advanced because there was no high school until Ocean Academy opened in 2008.Prior to 2008 only 32% of graduates from the one island primary school continued their education. 93% students enrolled in high school in 2012. This year, Ocean Academy saw a 140% new enrollment over last year. 70% of OA graduates go on to Jr. College, well above the national average. Of 34 graduates to date, 3 are working in dive/snorkel shops, 1as an environmental NGO’s boat captain, and 4 are studying tourism or marine biology. As well, 3 current students work after-school with dive/snorkel shops.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Kayak with Purpose, the first social enterprise co-founded by Mercedes, has already inspired other "With Purpose" social enterprises at Ocean Academy: Fish, Bike, Dinner, Art with Purpose. Belize Ministry of Education is very interested in our social enterprise model, and the Chief Education Officer is an advisor willing to spread the project nationwide. International awards also draw interest to the program.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Kayak with Purpose Tour profits are reinvested in students' tuition, stipends, and school operations. The goal is financial sustainability through social enterprise. Local tour operators volunteer their time, expertise and equipment to train the youth at no cost. Mercedes returns on weekends from her University studies to lead kayak workshops. We have an MOU to lead With Purpose tours with an international travel company for 2016.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Ocean Academy is the only high school (2008) on the island of Caye Caulker. There is no Jr. College, no employment centre. Aquatic tourism is the main industry on our island, and while there are many tour operators offering kayak and fishing trips, none is a social enterprise. Females are under represented in the lucrative island tour guiding industry. The Department of Youth Services is starting to promote entrepreneurship and financial literacy initiatives in schools, and we are happy to share Kayak with Purpose's sustainable model of place-based education and social enterprise.

Founding Story

Mercedes Requena was one of the first students at Ocean Academy IOA) when it opened in 2008. She participated in the aquatic classes offered (kayak, scuba, swimming) as well as the tourism classes (entrepreneurship, marine biology, environmental club). Tourists wanted to see the island "through the eyes of a young Belizean" so she took them on a kayak tour of Caye Caulker and interpreted the reef and mangrove ecosystems. They posted a blog; then the Belize Tourism Board asked to do a tour. "Kayak with Purpose" was born as an Ocean Academy social enterprise. Mercedes is now studying biology at University of Belize and training OA students on weekends to lead kayak trips.


Mercedes Requena is the co-founder of Kayak with Purpose (2008-2009 to present) and is currently training new tour leaders. Ocean Academy Founders and Project Managers of Kayak with Purpose are Joni Miller M.Ed. and Heidi Curry, M.Ed.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:


Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:

Co-Founder and Workshop Trainer

Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

Kayak with Purpose Mercedes' first entrepreneurial initiative. Her main focus has always been promotion of environmental stewardship through work with NGOs. She was President of my primary and high-school Environmental Clubs, won the Belize National Youth Award for Environmentalism (twice), and worked with the Forest and Marine Reserves of Caye Caulker on a mangrove restoration project and Community Reef Technician program, as well as an internship with the Belize Fisheries Dept. Kayak with Purpose allows Belizean youth to interpret the reef and mangrove ecosystems while kayaking with visitors, and hopefully will contribute not only to economic/job opportunities but also sustainable tourism practices.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

Ocean Academy is accredited by the Belize Ministry of Education, and has an active Board of Governors. The Aquatic Tourism Program's tour operator partner and mentor is Allie Ifield who owns Toucan Canoes and Kayak. Our other partner is the US State Department who funded acquisition of six kayaks through CARSI ESF grant. Beyond Sport and UNICEF are mentors through the Beyond Sport Award Program.