In 2016 Zakia Moulaoui launched her business Invisible Cities, a social enterprise which trains people affected by homelessness to become walking tour guides of their own city and offer alternative tours to tourists and locals.
Zakia and her team provide high quality training to empower guides to create, craft and deliver tours that are their own which highlight monuments, people and places that they have chosen themselves.
We sat down with Zakia to discuss the idea behind Invisible Cities and how this model has helped to support some of the UK’s homeless in getting back on their feet.
What inspired you to create Invisible Cities?
In 2011, I started working for the Homeless World Cup Foundation, an organisation which used football as a tool for change and to support people who have experienced homelessness. The experience was eye-opening, and I became aware of the huge stigma surrounding homelessness and the different causes and consequences of it.
When I left the Homeless World Cup Foundation in 2015, I knew that I wanted to continue to raise awareness of homelessness and to break down the common misconceptions surrounding it. I wanted to build a platform where the homeless could share their stories, develop their skills, boost their confidence and where I could support them in making steps to rebuild their life.
How has the Invisible Cities developed since you started the business?
Invisible Cities launched in Edinburgh in 2016 and in less than five years we have launched tours in Glasgow, Manchester and York. We have welcomed nearly 10,000 customers on tours to date.
Since beginning the business we have trained more than 70 people and while some of our guides have now progressed on to other careers and opportunities, we have a number of them who are still actively working with us.
Part of our long-term mission is to create a more positive and inclusive community. We are working on several local projects and are partnering with likeminded organisations, which can help provide services and goods for those in need.
For example, in Edinburgh we work with Queen Margaret University’s podiatry team to provide a free footsore service and with Socks for the Street which donates socks.
Last year, we worked with The Big Issue Invest, one of our funders, to develop an impact report which measures our social value. The impact we deliver is achieved both in the direct employment of guides and through the wider training and advocacy work delivered by the team. You can read the full report here.
Invisible Cities provides a sense of community and aims to tackle poverty and the stigma around homelessness. Could you share some employee success stories?
We provide one-to-one support for all our trainees and guides focusing on developing transferable skills such as public speaking, confidence building and customer service. Aside from this we also assist them to find housing, food provision, access to further education, counselling and reuniting with family members.
We want the guides to build on the skills they have learnt with Invisible Cities to help them build a career whether that is continuing their work with us or moving into another line of work.
We have had some fantastic transformations over the last five years including Angie. Angie started her journey with Invisible Cities whilst she was living in temporary accommodation. She worked with us for a short while taking tourists on the Edinburgh: City of Festivals tour and has since trained to become a recovery coach.
Angie has come on leaps and bounds since joining us and now has her own flat. She shares her own experience with others who face the same issues she did and regularly helps us with training our new guides.
Corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly more important for client events. When including one of your tours in an events programme, how are organisations contributing to tackling poverty and inclusion?
On a typical tour of a city, you are taken to places of historical interest or of significance. Whilst we do incorporate elements of this in our tours, we also aim to showcase the ‘invisible’ sides of a city; not only the social elements but also the unknown history and knowledge behind it. Our guides take customers on a tour that tells their own background stories and their personal experience of the city.
When attending a tour with Invisible Cities, a group is not only supporting one of our guides but also the whole organisation. This helps us to raise awareness of more issues and create more community events during which we give back to rough sleepers or other communities.
Invisible Cities provide walking tours with a twist, what can groups expect from your Glasgow and Edinburgh tours?
Our tours are unique as they are all designed by our guides; they choose the theme and content for all of them.
The tours include a mix of history and local knowledge, but the guides also use this time to introduce themselves and discuss their own personal circumstances.
On a typical tour in Edinburgh, we like to showcase the beautiful old town, so if you have never visited before, you are in for a treat. We also showcase fellow social enterprises such as The Blankfaces and The Big Issue.
What is next for Invisible Cities?
Our plan is to grow while keeping our local approach. We describe our ethos as GLOCAL, global but with a local flair.
We will continue to develop more tours in Glasgow and Edinburgh and launch them in the coming years. We are also dedicated to train more people to become guides and help them to carve out a career.
This year, we will launch our project in Cardiff, Wales, which was due to happen last year but due to the pandemic we had to push the date back. We will also be launching in another UK city later this year.
To find out more about Invisible Cities visit invisible-cities.org