Many know Dave Terpstra through his dynamic ministry Free the Girls, where women donate second-hand bras for sex trafficking survivors to sell in Mozambique. But lately, Dave has ventured into the realm of the athletic, starting a brand-new gym for the people of Mozambique. Dave’s methods may have changed, but his heart for catalyzing human improvement has not. While Free the Girls uses business as a means to empower women, the Armadura gym funds a local ministry for street boys in Maputo, Mozambique.
Dave’s purposes through this gym, besides making Mozambicans healthier, are multi-faceted: 1) funding the ministry Masana, 2) investing in the employees, 3) providing a Christian witness to clients, and 4) engaging Americans in missions by providing internships.
The result has been incredible. From employing street kids to forming positive relationships with clients of different faith backgrounds, Dave’s gym has been successful in more ways than one. I caught up with Dave to hear more (interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did your idea of starting a gym in Mozambique come about?
The gym was started in order to help a local center for street boys. There’s a center for street boys here called Masana, and they’ve been operating for eight or nine years. They befriend kids that live on the street—only boys—and their objective is to help those boys return to their families or home communities. Masana workers provide breakfast and lunch, devotional chapel times, and basic literacy and math classes for the boys, so they don’t fall too far behind in school. Last time I checked, over 60 boys had been rehabilitated and are back home with their families now, which I think is just awesome.
When I saw what amazing ministry these guys were doing, I thought this is a ministry that is going to need to keep raising funds to do the exact same thing year after year.
So I approached the leadership and suggested that we come up with a business that could complement what they’re doing—not just create money for their project—but also somehow participate in the ministry itself. So as I was working with the leadership there, we realized that working with boys—boys love sports—we wanted to see if there was anything we could do in the realm of sports. So we came up with the idea of a gym.
“We currently have six out of our 10 employees who at one time lived on the street. We do discipleship with those guys.”
I had the idea of a gym for a business for a while because I went to a couple of different gyms here in Maputu when we first got here, and I wasn’t super impressed. All of the gyms that most expats go to here are incredibly expensive. And so I felt like there was a market for middle-class Mozambicans that was better than a garage gym, but was less expensive than an expat gym.
How did you begin implementing your startup gym?
I have a business partner, he’s a missionary with Masana, and he’s also a gym enthusiast. And so he and I sat down and made a plan for what it would look like to put together a small gym that would be able to provide funds. I think we borrowed $30,000 from Masana in order to start the gym. And then we began paying them back almost instantly. We ordered equipment in South Africa. We started off with three employees.
We were highly successful from the get-go. We cash-flowed our third month, and we turned a true profit in the fifth month. We’ve been basically profitable ever since, and we now have grown to a new location that’s five times bigger. We have 10 employees and we’re at about 250 members.
What kind of a gym is it exactly?
We are an American free-weight style gym. Our focus is on free-weight equipment, benches, dumbbells, and barbells, not on cardio machines because they break more easily. We have all Olympic plates, and we do have some Crossfit-style classes. We have some cardio equipment like bikes and ellipticals, and we’re about to get a shipment of treadmills as well. But for our first two and a half years, we haven’t had any treadmills and we’ve still been incredibly successful.
Do you have trainers?
All of our employees are also trainers. Our management team is all young guys that we are investing in, doing leadership training and discipleship, and they’re all leaders in their churches. Our regular employees are actually former street boys. At Masana, there are a certain number of boys that do not have homes to go to. Or they’ve just aged out, turned 18, and wouldn’t move back with their parents anyway. And so we’ve begun working with them. We currently have six out of our 10 employees who at one time lived on the street. We do discipleship with those guys.
What does the relationship with your clients at the gym look like?
We have a significantly high number of Muslims that work out at our gym, and last year, we put up a sign saying that you could freeze your membership for the month of Ramadan. And all of our Muslim members said, “But I thought you guys were a Christian business.” And we replied, “Well, we are, but we figured this was the best way to demonstrate love and respect.” Instead of freezing their memberships, we ended up striking a new deal: staying open a half-hour later because our clients wanted to work out after sundown. And that was a great moment for us and our employees to see how our witness is moving forward, because these guys trusted us.
How is the gym and workout culture different than what we see in America?
I would say that everything about Western culture is attractive for most Mozambicans. And so if somebody is doing it in the West or if somebody owns it in the West, there’s just something attractive about that. And so we found that as people get a salary and get a disposable income, they want Western amenities. A gym is one of those Western amenities that’s really popular.
Also, the diet of most Mozambicans is all carbs. So what happens is as people have more money, they gain weight really rapidly. When they see that, they want to offset that with some exercise. And so we obviously provide a great outlet for that.
What’s been the most challenging part of starting this business?
The biggest challenge was opening and wondering if anyone was going to show up. We had some doubts about our original location; we had some doubts about whether we could get enough members; we just had a ton of doubts about whether or not it was going to be successful. It was just that risk, that opening leap of faith to see what would happen if we actually open this up. And our fear went away really quickly as our gym began to fill up.
Tell me about Free the Girls. How has operating this organization helped you launch this new venture?
One of the things that I learned with Free the Girls is how important the business side of BAM actually is. You cannot have a successful BAM enterprise project if your business isn’t successful. It’s not going to work. Business and ministry are not equal partners because the business can exist without the ministry. It can just be a business. It doesn’t have to be a ministry. But the ministry can’t exist without the business. And because of that, for me, I don’t want to waste my time doing a business for a ministry that I don’t fully believe in. And I also don’t want to waste my time doing a business that doesn’t complement the ministry.
What I learned with Free the Girls is how important that partnership is. We’ve had a number of safe houses and after-care facilities that work with sex trafficking survivors who have approached us or who we’ve found, and we’ve said no to about 50 percent of them now because we want that perfect fit. And I think the same thing is true with the gym. When we started it, we wanted something that was going to become completely symbiotic so that eventually, one just wouldn’t exist without the other because they become so interdependent.