When Alex Pastollnigg journeyed to Tanzania to trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, she discovered the difficult truth about the conditions faced by Kilimanjaro porters — they are often subject to appalling exploitation, and most of the tourists whose gear they haul to the summit are unaware of this. Alex’s experience inspired her to launch KiliGATE, the first online booking platform to direct aspiring Kili climbers to responsible companies that treat their porters properly.

We caught up with Alex to learn more about the inspiration behind her start-up.

What was your experience researching and booking your Kilimanjaro climb like?

It took me four months. I got a bit sidetracked at times, but there were at least three months of intensive research. It was very confusing — you have hundreds of websites and forum entries and comparing different offers and understanding why they’re different is overwhelming. I was almost too overwhelmed,  but I pushed through. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people drop out at this stage because they find it too much.

What did you know about the porters on Kilimanjaro before you traveled to Tanzania?

Very little. I had seen on my operator’s website that they were part of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project. Around the time I booked my tour, I started to write a book about my experience. I included a section about selecting a tour operator, and within that, I included a section about porter treatment. I realized I had made the very same mistake I tried to help others avoid — blindly believing what I read on the website and not double checking if it was true. Because I was writing my book, I decided to become more aware of the porter treatment situation.

What was your impression when you got to Africa, and how did that challenge your previous narrative?

When I first got to Kilimanjaro, it wasn’t as scary and dangerous as I’d been expecting, but I was still a bit worried. Then, earlier this year, I cycled from Cairo to Cape Town, and that truly opened my eyes. I’ve now traveled through countries that I previously thought of as scary. The narrative the West believes of Africa is so wrong. Everyone we met was kind. The roads were good. It was a very nice, pleasant experience. That’s what motivates me now to get more people to travel to Africa so they can see for themselves that it is a normal place where people have normal lives.

Can you tell us about the climb itself?

I loved the whole experience — I felt alive on Kilimanjaro. We had a great hiking group. We were all strangers, but over nine days, we had a wonderful bonding experience and felt very in touch with one another. A lot of people in our group were working in social impact groups, doing NGO or medical or volunteer work, and it was a great experience for me to encounter these people and see that they were doing something deeply meaningful with their life. That, for me, was very crucial.

Could you describe the conditions that you observed the porters experiencing?

As a tourist, you see that they carry a lot of baggage, but you don’t ever get to see the reality. You don’t get to see how they really sleep. You don’t get to see what food they eat. Most tourists hand the guides the tip money without ever knowing if it gets passed on to the porters. I think the sad reality at the core of the situation is that tourists are not exposed to the porters so they can really see what’s going on.

When did you first have the vision for KiliGATE?

When I was researching my climb, I realized that there were no platforms to compare different companies. I was frustrated that very few people knew about the porter situation and that the political situation prevented honest conversation. When I came home, I took an online course in social entrepreneurship and that’s when I realized I could do something to educate tourists. One course requirement was to work on a case study. I didn’t know any, so I decided to come up with my own. That’s when I really started to work on KiliGATE.

Your background is in finance and banking, so what challenges did you face starting a company?

I needed to start from scratch. I knew I needed to build a team of people who were experienced in tourism, African issues, social impact, and start-ups. I realized that  to build an effective start-up, I had to collaborate with those who have experience in different areas.

What is your vision for the future?

In a few years, we would like to be the go-to booking platform for Kilimanjaro, but we want to be received as an African platform as well. Our strategy is to create different brands, so ideally we’ll have an African brand that is separate from KiliGATE itself.Within a few years, we’d like to have 10 destinations across Africa and be known as the responsible tourism platform for Africa.

At its core, KiliGATE is about responsible tourism. What are some things people traveling to Africa, or anywhere around the world, can keep in mind if they want to be responsible tourists?

One is to do a lot of research on tourism companies . That includes examining their environmental impact, and their ethics regarding people and wildlife. It’s important for tourists to be diligent about who they’re booking with, which hotels they’re staying in, and what they are doing for the community they’re staying in.  I think the challenge is on platforms like ours or on certification agencies to make it easier for tourists to book with responsible companies.

Familiarize yourself with your destination, talk to locals, and try to understand the situation.

You saw something while traveling that troubled you, and you decided to do something about it. What advice would you have for other tourists who see something that troubles them and want to take action?

The best advice is to just do it. If you see something and nobody else is doing anything about it, then  take the first step. And if it seems overwhelming, just start with taking that first step. Realize that it’s within each of us to affect change and we need to do it.