Azhoora Ahmed first waded into the deep waters of the Maldivian tourism industry through her passion for watersports, only to realize that the industry had so much more to offer and that she can do so much more.
She seamlessly transitioned from water sports to sustainability, having served as the Surf Experience Manager of Soneva. She is now involved with the Soneva Namoona project where she is fulfilling her dreams of protecting conserving the environment.
In an interview with Maldive Islands for our Get To Know segment, Azhoora explains everything about the Namoona project of Soneva and her role as well as her transition from surfing and water sports to sustainability and eco-tourism.
Maldive Islands: Having previously served as the Surf Experience Manager at Soneva, how did you make the transition to the Soneva Namoona project?
Azhoora Ahmed: As I began my role as the Surf Experience Manager, one of the first things outside of Soneva’s surf program that I got involved with was the Soneva Namoona project. The Soneva water bottling plant on the island of Maalhos was operated by an NGO, and I am part of its management committee. Not too long after I joined Soneva, we had a workshop that brought this project to life.
We signed a pledge together with the Councils of Maalhos, Kihaadhoo, and Dharavandhoo, and the UK charity Common Seas, to work together to demonstrate a sustainable waste management model and to stop the practice of open burning on these three local islands.
MI: What was the main aspect that drew you to the project?
AA: I have always been a passionate advocate for the health of our oceans and the environment around us. What drew me to Soneva in the first place was the kind of community engagement initiatives that Soneva gets involved in, even with the surf program.
MI: Tell us a bit about the Soneva Namoona project and why such an initiative is needed to the Maldives, in your opinion.
AA: With the primary aim of tackling the ocean plastic problem in the Maldives, the Soneva Namoona project is a mission to demonstrate that a working sustainable waste management model is possible in small island communities.
While open burning of mixed waste is a common practice on islands across the Maldives, an initiative such as this will provide alternative ways to manage an island’s waste and guide the communities towards being more conscious of their impact on the ocean.
MI: Not to deviate from the topic, however, we also heard that Soneva’s surf program is fully sustainable. Can you explain that aspect of the surf program and your role in it back then?
AA: All of the surfing equipment is eco-friendly and made from recycled waste, making us the first fully sustainable surfing program in the world. We encourage our guests to leave their equipment at home as we provide full usage of our eco-friendly and sustainable surfboards, sunscreen, and rash guards.
As the Surf Experience Manager, I would oversee the surf operations at both Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani. Soneva’s surf program offers luxurious guest experiences for our surfing guests at uncrowded surf breaks, surfing lessons for beginners, as well as basic surfing lessons for students who live on neighboring islands, and even a local surf competition open for the whole atoll to participate in.
MI: To bring the focus back to Soneva Namoona, what are some of the current developments and ideas on the drawing board for the future?
AA: We are almost two years into the project now and one of our pilot islands, Maalhos, has already stopped open burning. Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo will follow their example in a couple of months. The island waste management centers are being upgraded to Eco Centros, which will be up and running by the end of 2020.
While the Eco Centros are being upgraded, we are working closely with the island councils, NGOs, and schools to implement household waste segregation. This will make collection easier, with the segregated waste brought back to the island Eco Centros to be sent for recycling.
We are also very excited that government institutions have taken notice of the success of this project and we are now partnering up with the Baa Atoll council to form an NGO that will work on implementing the Namoona model across all 13 islands in the Baa Atoll.
MI: We notice that Soneva gets very involved with local communities in different ways. Taking the example from Soneva, what advice would you give to other properties in the area of giving back to the community?
AA: There are many other resort properties that are involved in a variety of activities with local communities. With the experience I have had while working within the communities is that what they need the most is longevity in the projects they work on in partnership with resorts.
A lot of the time, resorts seem to start working with community groups and not see it through to the end of the project. It happens so often that is has created the mentality within communities that ‘all of them come and go’ and that the help is temporary. I would say that the value and sustainability of projects are something that needs to be considered in the development phases of any project.
MI: We have also come to know about the project you guys ran in Maalhos under the Namoona Baa project. Tell us a bit about that particular project, and what were some of the positive outcomes from that project?
AA: Maalhos is one of the three pilot islands within the Soneva Namoona program. Namoona Baa started with the mineral water bottling facility in Maalhos, to the island being the first of the three pilot islands to stop open burning. They also inaugurated the Maalhos Eco Centro in February 2020.
MI: Would you like to add anything or send out a message to industry newcomers regarding following a sustainable lifestyle?
AA: Not just the tourism industry, but all industries should recognize the problem with single-use plastics, waste management systems, and processes in the Maldives, and focus on aligning all their actions to contribute to eliminating single-use plastics. They can do this by purchasing items from suppliers who offer more sustainable materials, practices, and packaging.
That would be a really good starting point.