The Digital Nomads: David Roa
He swapped cubicles, traffic and wind chill for beaches, adventure and significant savings
Soul-crushing winters, gig economies, eternal commutes—the urban struggle can be very real. But instead of giving in or giving up, some Torontonians are getting out: they’re packing their laptops (and yoga pants and GoPro cameras) and taking their work on the road. Where to? Places like Bali, Sydney and Medellín, which have become hubs for digital nomads and thriving micro-industries to support them. But mostly, the destination is wherever the sun shines, the Wi-Fi is reliable and the living is easy. Scenes from the new frontier of work.
Who he is: David Roa, 35, international food broker
Where he does it: Medellín, New York, Miami, Panama
What it costs: Housing $550, transportation $45, food and housekeeping $500, work expenses $700 a year for workspaces and $90 a month for a virtual assistant, health insurance $50
I arrived in Toronto from Bogota, Colombia, via the U.S., when I was 18 years old. I studied at the University of Toronto but dropped out when I got a job selling newspaper subscriptions. I discovered that I’m really good at sales. The money was great until the recession hit, and I needed to make a change.
I’d always been interested in specialty coffee, and one of my dreams was to import beans, but I had no experience in international trade. I landed a remote internship with a company in Colombia that sourced fruit concentrates and sugar. Because I speak Spanish, I was able to help broker deals with sugar producers. In 2012, I stumbled upon the book The 4-hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, which outlined how to operate a lean digital company. I decided to start my food trade business by leveraging relationships I already had with people at the Colombia trade commission, who I’d met during my internship. From my living room at Bathurst and Eglinton, I started Roa Naturals. I had a professional-looking website, a corporate email and mailing address, but otherwise I was untethered.
Before I fully jumped into the nomadic lifestyle, I tested things out. I went to Niagara Falls for a few days with just my laptop. Then I went to New York for a week—I figured I could fly home in an hour if anything went wrong. When I realized there was no need for me to be in Toronto, I flew to Panama for an entire month. Eventually, I worked up the courage to leave permanently—I left all my belongings and transferred my lease to a friend. Over the next two years, I visited 22 different countries in Europe, North America and Central America, usually staying with friends or contacts. Otherwise, I used Airbnb. I took my bull terrier, Papo, everywhere I could.
My business has now evolved into sourcing ethical and organic ingredients from small producers in Latin America and selling mainly in Canada and the U.S. Usually, I’m in remote areas of the Amazon, working with Indigenous people. Banking is tricky, as is security, so I always carry two debit cards in case one gets stolen.
To live a nomadic lifestyle, you must have an adventurous heart. For me, it’s worked out in business and in my personal life: I met my wife, Nathaly, in Medellín, and we recently had a son, Ethan.