After quitting London for Cartagena, entrepreneur Portia Hart brought the concept of Ibiza-style beach clubs to an idyllic Colombian island. But as her business expanded, so too did her desire for sustainability, responsibility and support for the local community. Jane Tarrant went to meet her
The super-stylish beach club Blue Apple lies hidden on the southern shore of Tierra Bomba island, about half an hour by boat from the Colombian mainland.
It’s run by Portia Hart, a British-Trinidadian Londoner, who when offered the chance of joining a friend with a Colombian boyfriend on a trip to South America, leapt at the chance to “learn Spanish”. Handing in her notice at a yacht brokerage after eight years, she set off on a life-changing voyage. And while her friend and her boyfriend moved back after six months, Hart stayed.
“One day I was on the phone to my dad, and I was like, ‘I'm going to use my savings and set up a beach club” Hart recalls, because she couldn’t find a beach club like the ones in Ibiza, the south of France or Mykonos. She assumed her “conservative and sensible" father would tell her not to be so ridiculous. But Hart senior, who ran his own business, thought it was a great idea. “So I was like, ‘well, that wasn't the conversation I was expecting.’”
And initially, it was a real culture shock. “I was a joke,” she says. “I had no idea how to run a beach club. I didn't know how to cook. But I knew what the clients want.” She does, however, attributes some of her business nous to working for yacht marketing company Y.CO, “which grew from 15 people to 200 people while I was there. I started as a PA and ended up as the managing director, so it was kind of like a really long-term MBA.”
Despite Harts’ enthusiasm, nobody thought it would work. They didn’t think her ‘Blue Apple’ would go down well with the locals. “And they’re right, the locals don’t like it,” says Hart. “They LOVE it!” In fact, they make up 60 per cent of her clients at weekends, attracted by the atmosphere and amazing food. “At one point we were the biggest distributer of San Pellegrino and rosé wine!” she says, which is all the more remarkable considering that until 10 years ago, the country was essentially sealed off.
Her next project was a real force for change. Hart had been keen to flex her environmental credentials from the off, and the result was the Green Apple Foundation: a not-for-profit social enterprise which uses trash to create job opportunities for local people.
Launched in 2017, its seeds were sown at the Blue Apple Beach House, when Hart was looking for a way to improve her environmental and social responsibility – while also maintaining economic prosperity and the existing cultural vibrancy. “We just didn't feel anyone was taking recycling and sustainability that seriously,” she says of the Foundation, whose mission is to reduce waste sent to landfill; encourage a circular economy; create jobs in sustainability; encourage entrepreneurship; change habits and mentalities of business owners and customers; and inspire (and pressure) big suppliers to join in and take responsibility.
Two sorting centres have been constructed from 6,441 empty bottles and 1,100 coconuts, and created five full time jobs. On any given day, the Foundation might be composting or turning waste into beautiful objects. In addition to working with local villagers, The Foundation has recently signed a partnership with Diageo, trying to create “a small economy based around not putting rubbish into the sea”,
It’s a big task, especially in a poor country. “There's trash everywhere; no running water; sometimes no electricity; and hospitals are only open some of the time. Sometimes, it's really bad.” One day a cow fell into her septic tank.
But Green Apple has already had many successes. Since its start it has diverted 51,000 kg of glass or organic waste from landfill; converted 1,100L of cooking oil into biofuel, and planted 10 kitchen gardens every six months, using organic waste converted into nutrient-rich compost. It is also planning a community garden in Bocachica, growing healthy produce. It has motivated 13 local businesses to contribute to Green Apple’s efforts including Alquimico, El Baron, and La Cevicheria.
Glass accounts for a massive percentage of waste in hospitality, but Cartagena has no consistent glass recycling facility. Last year, the Foundation was awarded a £25,000 grant by Treebeard Trust, which helped buy a glass pulveriser – the only one, in fact, on the Colombian coast. The pulveriser has also led to job creation, as people need to operate the machine.
The sand ground down from pulverized glass can in turn be sold to villagers and hardware stores, while other revenue streams potentially come via compost and garden produce sales, and the proceeds from sales of used kitchen oil, aluminum, plastic, paper and cardboard by Green Apple’s participating businesses.
Hart’s other endeavor is her “hostel for grownups” in the heart of Cartagena’s historic walled city, the boutique Townhouse Cartagena. Staff are recruited via word of mouth. “You find a couple of good people, and then you get a good reputation for being a good employer.” There’s English lessons for staff, and interest free loans, “if they want to do something to their house or send a kid to school”.
There’s no security at the Townhouse, other than a night watchman. Despite break-ins in other nearby hotels, they’ve never had one themselves. “What generates crime very often is a feeling of inequality,” says Hart. She puts their fortune down to the fact the hotel is genuinely part of the community.
“You can stay somewhere and be really comfortable and have a really nice time,” says Hart. “But also know the place you’re staying in is contributing to the advancement of other people. I think that's a nice feeling to have as a traveller.”
She’s passionate about her adopted home, and wants people to know about it. That it’s one of the world’s largest exporters of flowers, for example, and one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. “Also there’s a really strong African culture in the northern coast. And then you've got a strong European culture in Bogota. Cartagena even does an International Film Festival.”
She thinks her next hotel project will be in the coffee region, “a gorgeous, incredible area of Colombia” that just so happens to be lacking hotels for younger people. “Things go wrong, and you make mistakes, and you kind of go with it, and you make it up as you go along,” she says. Thus far, it’s certainly working for her.