Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast. You might be feeling a bit paralysed by the news at the moment, as the Coronavirus pandemic worsens across the world, and governments update their guidance every day. But amid the chaos are people trying to do some good.
Volunteers in many countries are sewing masks for local hospital staff facing shortages. GoFundMe pages have been set up so we can buy coffees for people doing essential work. A new website in Australia is highlighting small businesses doing it tough that are still able to open.
And in Switzerland, an expat entrepreneur is hoping to connect communities through his new app. Slovakian, Stefan Kuruc, is my guest in this episode to talk about how Help’n’Trade can be used by individuals and families, to get the support they need.
Stefan, can we start with a little coronavirus status update, noting that we’re recording this on Wednesday 18th March, as France and Spain and Italy enforce lockdowns on their citizens. What’s happening for you over the border in Switzerland?
Stefan: It is quite an interesting situation. Switzerland has quite a few cases, a few thousand to be precise. They’ve already closed the border with a couple of the countries, but not all of them. And the country is not completely on lockdown.
People can still leave their houses and are actually encouraged to help their neighbours who are in need of help, so that they protect the risk category of people who may suffer from Coronavirus with deeper trauma than anybody else.
That means the elderly, above 65, or people who have some health preconditions. So those [people] are supposed to stay home at all costs, and people are coming together to help each other, which is really great to see.
It is not that you cannot leave your house, but still you’re supposed to be cautious and keep the distance. Well, we are talking about Switzerland, so it’s not like people are hugging each other all the time, but nevertheless, people are supposed to be very cautious to keep to the hygiene standards, and to keep the distance.
And of course, all the events are closed. All the social and public places are also closed. Events are either postponed or done online, just like everywhere else.
Carlie: Basel is currently home for you. But when the outbreak started, and started getting serious in Europe, did you consider packing up and heading back to Slovakia?
Stefan: That’s an interesting question. Actually, not at all. I didn’t really have the time to do so, to be honest, because when the first cases in Slovakia appeared, Slovakia immediately shut the borders. And I’m in shock that as a foreigner you cannot enter Slovakia as of now.
Only Slovakians and – what do you call them? – pendlers can enter Slovakia. But if you come back as a Slovakian, and you were in a foreign country, you have to go straight away to quarantine for 14 days. And that’s a no-go for me, because I have an enterprise to build, I have a venture to take care of, and I cannot lose 14 days in quarantine. And therefore, [there’s] no chance for me to go to Slovakia.
Besides, the healthcare system in Switzerland is a few levels above the Slovakian one, so if things should go really bad with me, I think I would prefer the healthcare system in Switzerland, even though it’s really expensive; you get the quality.
I mean, I have this little challenge that my brother is about to get married, and I would like to go to the wedding. We do not know yet if the wedding is going to be postponed.
But anyway, if I would go to Slovakia as of now, I would be in quarantine for 14 days – in the place with other people who are in quarantine (it’s like a huge social place; it looks like an overnight hotel with low standards) – but I would have to pay for the quarantine myself, which makes me definitely neglect the idea of going to Slovakia.
Carlie: Stefan, it’s interesting timing this outbreak for you, because you’re the founder of a mobile web app that is still being developed, but it can hopefully be used for a lot of good over the coming weeks and months. Tell me firstly what the app is and what it’s designed to do.
Stefan: Sure. Of course. Help‘n’Trade is a digital platform, which is here to emphasise the local exchange of skills, goods and services. Our aim is not to create just a platform for that kind of exchange, but to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem, so that you can transition from [having] a hobby – let’s say, ‘I like to paint rooms for my friends’ – to a fulltime entrepreneur.
You can become, for example, a fulltime handy worker. Or you find out, ‘Actually, I like building websites. So, let’s do it fulltime.’ And with our platform, you can do so. So this is the overall vision. This is what we are aiming for.
And we’ve of course implemented a couple of the first features, and we are just now publishing our MVP to test the entire concept. We had to go a couple of steps forward in the development, because of the current situation, where we say, ‘Well, the vision right now is secondary. What we have to do is help people.’
And the features that we have on the platform – for example, you can announce what you need and request help or offer help to others – is something that can right now help a lot of people that are in the need.
If they are in self-quarantine, or volunteers, or parents that need day-care … If you need the supplies to be brought to your home, because you may be in one of the critical categories, you can use the platform as it is now.
It’s not pretty. It is not the best user experience, but it gets the stuff done, and we want to help. So go for it. It’s all for free. We are keeping your data safe. We are not going to profit from it.
Carlie: So, I’m just on the app now. I can search my town and then I can look up what I’m looking for. So, say I’m in isolation here in France until the end of the month, and I really need someone to find me some toilet paper, because it’s completely out of stock in my local supermarkets. I can say, ‘I can bake you 12 cookies if you can give me six rolls of toilet paper,’ for example.
Stefan: Exactly. You can do that. Because it is all localised, the first time you’re going to land on the application, you’re going to be asked if you allow us to get your approximate geolocation. And once you allow that, then the map should zoom into your location. And then you see more precisely exactly what is happening around you.
And then you can start right away, interacting with the trades or needs that are already popping up around you, or you can just create your own. If you think that’s necessary to do, then go for it.
Carlie: And what I find really good about this, is that the trade doesn’t have to be in cash. So, we know a lot of people are stretched right now. They’re being told to take breaks from their jobs. Some industries are collapsing completely. But you might still need some essential work done.
Say you’ve got a busted pipe in your house and you’re in quarantine, and you really need someone to come over, but you just don’t have the spare cash to do it, you could say, ‘But I can give you or provide some other service in exchange.’ Right?
Stefan: Absolutely. Yes. This is up to your consideration. It is all public and transparent to everyone. So, there is also sort of a bidding behind that. That means once you announce, ‘I need someone to repair my plumbing in my house; in exchange I offer a breakfast, lunch and dinner’… Someone on the other side who sees that trade can say, ‘I’m good with breakfast, lunch and dinner.’
Or a professional plumber can say, ‘You know what, my work is still worth 160 Euros.’ Or your neighbour can say, ‘Well, I’m not that hungry. I’ll just take a lunch.’ Or someone else may volunteer.
Carlie: So it’s like battering. I can give you food, or someone else might be able to give you 10 tomato plants.
Stefan: Absolutely. Yes, that is exactly what you can do.
Carlie: So, it’s really going to be a community building exercise over the next couple of weeks; a month to get people on the app, people around them on the app as well, so that they can work together and have a network.
Stefan: Yes. Once you create a trade, you can share the URL address of the trade to your network and tell them, ‘Apply. Go for it. Show interest in my trade, to the need that I have.’ Et cetera. You can spread the word easily by any channel you want. This is really about building a community and it all starts with you.
Carlie: Stefan, we know there’s so much doom and gloom in the world right now, and it’s so great to see people like yourself offering really useful platforms for free for people to help them during this difficult time.
When we come out the other side of this virus, when we get on top of it, when governments get on top of it and things start to return to normal again, what are you hoping this pandemic might change about how we live and interact with each other?
Stefan: There are a lot of things to expect, a lot of foreshadowing. But here’s the thing I wish for. I really wish that people start realising the value of life itself, what they have. The health that they have is not guaranteed, and you really have to value that.
And the second thing is that you already are surrounded by a lot of valuable things and skills, and there are a lot of things that you can do even though you’re locked down in your house, or [even though] you saw that this is the end and you can’t do anything about it. This is all wrong.
You need to look at the world in a bright perspective, in my opinion. And then motivate [other] people to do so. For example, with our application, you can start exchanging your own skills and goods, but you can just as well say, ‘You know what, I’m going to try a new hobby, where I am going to refurbish broken flowerpots, and I’m going to offer that as a product.’
And so, I really hope that people will start realising what is actually around them, what the value is of their own products that they are buying, what the value is of the food they are eating. How do I keep healthy? All sorts of things that were on – I would say – a second track.
It was not a priority, because everybody was taking it for granted. Whereas right now, this shows that once you break the chain of supplies, you can’t go back easily. You have to look around [and say], ‘What can I do now? How can I get the products that I need locally? How can I refurbish, repurpose, reuse, resell?’
And all this, I think, is going to be a value which is going to be in the DNA of people after the pandemic.
Carlie: Mm. I think it’s definitely going to spur a lot of people to get creative, and to tap into that inner entrepreneur, and see what comes out.
Stefan: Definitely. Circular economy is a future, and I hope that we will see more after the pandemic.
Carlie: That’s it for today. If you want to share initiatives and tools that can help people during the Covid-19 crisis, head over to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our country forums and Facebook groups.
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