Could the pandemic be the catalyst for collaboration between industries?

Entrepreneur Kim Whitaker is a coronavirus survivor who was spurred on to take action after a conversation with a doctor and fellow entrepreneur. Whitaker’s hospitality business, and her industry as a whole, was impacted enormously by the pandemic. But, while she was quarantined at home, a Zoom-call discussion encouraged her to join in the fight against the disease.

“On the call, someone asked the doctor what he would have done two weeks previously had he known how crazy the situation would get. He replied that he would have arranged accommodation in closed hotels for his staff and colleagues. That really sparked the idea for me since I own two hotels in South Africa,” says Whitaker.

Having returned from Europe, where Italy was already battling the coronavirus, just before the nationwide lockdown was declared, she foresaw her hotels in Johannesburg and Cape Town having to shut down for an extended period of time. “I realised this was likely a problem the entire country would face, so why not find a national solution?”

That solution was Ubuntu Beds, an idea that came together in a matter of days. By the Monday morning after the Saturday’s Zoom call, Ubuntu Beds had a logo and a website, and Kim was on radio explaining how the idea would not only help the country’s healthcare workers but also the hospitality industry.

The concept is simple enough: Provide nearby accommodation to healthcare workers at B&Bs, lodges, guest houses or hotels that are unable to take in guests. This would not only allow these workers, who are at a higher risk of contracting the disease protect their families, but would also help ease the long commutes they had to and from the hospitals where they work. Kim says that since its launch on 31 March, Ubuntu Beds has accommodated more than 700 healthcare workers and is close to having provided 15 000 bed nights.

Refocusing her efforts to help others has shown her that even in the most desperate of times, there is hope. “I like to think of it as when my son has built an amazing structure with Lego, only to have it smashed to bits by my daughter,” she smiles.

“It’s upsetting to think of all the hard work you’ve done but, if you calm your mind and look at it from a different angle, you may be able to build something even more incredible.”

And that’s exactly what she plans on doing with Ubuntu Beds once the global pandemic is over, even if that appears to be only in two years’ time or once a vaccine is available. “The business-sharing economy has really picked up over the past few years with the likes of Uber and Airbnb. These were all solutions to simple problems people had at the time. For example, the idea of Uber was based on the fact that a student wanted to reduce the cost of direct transportation and realised that ride-sharing could make it affordable. So, you could offer someone a lift to either where you are going or a stop along the way. The same goes for Ubuntu Beds.

“How this could work in the future could be by providing accommodation to a family who have travelled from another part of the country for their child to have a life-saving operation at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital or to people left destitute by a natural disaster such as a fire or flood. I’d really like us to start collaborating more with community-based NGOs that can use the service for humanitarian or natural disasters.”

Already, the Ubuntu Beds team has been in discussions to expand its services to hospitals in Namibia and other countries, backed by Booking Cares, the CSI arm of Dutch-based

“Booking Cares has been amazing,” says Kim. “They were the first ones to identify our programme as being able to work in other countries and even donated €45 000 to Ubuntu Beds, which is not an insignificant amount. Another incredible corporate partner who has been one of our most ardent supporter during this time, is the First Rand Spire Fund, which has listed us as a beneficiary of eBucks and donated close to R4 million.”

Individuals and hospitality owners have also come to the party with donations and free accommodation for healthcare workers, showing that South Africa truly is a place of “ubuntu”.

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