Our kid from Barking Iliyan Kuzmanov is the new Ghandi

Interview by: Ana Luiza Fragoso


Some stories come to us from places we never expected, and Iliyan Kuzmanov’s is a good illustration of this example. The trajectory of this social entrepreneur, activist, writer and author of the bestseller If You Meet Buddha Kill Him!: Pilgrimage To Freedom.

Iliyan Kuzmanov: citizen of the world

A native of Bulgaria, Kuzmanov studied Law in his home country, History and Economics in Canada, and Global Politics in Germany. He has lived in England, Russia and Asia, passing through Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. It was in London that his main projects began to take shape, but Iliyan is, as we can see, a citizen of the world. And London means mostly The East- Barking, where he made so much social goods.

“And what are the connections with the rest of the world?”, was my first thought when I started reading about his projects. And the truth is, there aren’t any, at least not directly. It is undeniable, however, that some of the main reasons that drive Kuzmanov in this fight are issues that we are very aware of: corruption and social injustice.

The awakening to activism began with the problems of his home country: “When I was still studying law in Bulgaria, I began to realize that real life was not exactly what I was reading in the books”, he says. Despite having traveled the world in the following years, Bulgaria’s problems were not forgotten by him. Iliyan points out, in the current pandemic scenario, that the country “has the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with 80% of the population being of antivaxxers.”

The Mad Man of Social Advertising

Iliyan’s wanderings around the world have reached like-minded minds who embarked on the same ideals along with him. Kuzmanov’s legacy in the UK began with EZO, voted the best social initiative by the Londonist, one of the biggest cultural portals in England. The idea was to create a self-sustaining cultural hub to provide free courses to the local community in Barking, one of the poorest regions in the UK.

According to Iliyan, the project generated income not just to cover expenses, but to generate sustainable growth, offering activities and projects that actually engaged homeless people. “It was a kind of a practical school. Through EZO we were able to learn a lot about quality control in social businesses and apply the learning in other spheres”, he says.

The Mad Man label of social advertising came from the creation and execution of so many projects in different parts of the world. A member of Mensa International, a non-profit organization for people with extreamly high IQs -above 140 (Iliyan is 162, 10 points on top of Einstein) on supervised tests, Kuzmanov says, without modesty, that intelligence has helped him to think about his projects and clearly see what needs to be done.

Third world crises within the first world

According to the World Population Review, Bulgaria is among the ten poorest countries in Europe. After losing a large share of the market in the 1990s, the country’s economy was completely destabilized. After a period of growth, the country’s economy was hit again by the 2008 financial crisis. Data shows that more than 40% of Bulgarians are at risk of falling into poverty, and almost 10% of the population is considered extremely poor.

In Bulgaria, Iliyan has been working to create multicultural transition programs to help the poorest part of the society. Part of the project is to make changes to the prison system, but the main focus is on human trafficking, domestic violence and gender equality. All projects by his Bulgarian NGO, Art Angel, were 100% self-financed by his London ventures.

Iliyan is currently working harder on the COVID-19 vaccination project in Bulgaria. “Politicians don’t give a damn about the people, we’ve been in crisis since the beginning of the pandemic. Normally, people consolidate around tragedies, here they fight for power.”

If you find the Buddha, kill him!

This is the title, in free translation, of the most recent work by Iliyan Kuzmanov. But before you get shocked by If You Meet Buddha Kill Him!: A Pilgrimage To Freedom, calm down. The book is not an apology for violence, nor is it a hate speech with a religious bias. The publication is a journey to self-knowledge, an inner journey that explores soul, ego, fears, desires, creativity and art.

Asked about the choice of title, Iliyan replies that it is based on dialogue between student and teacher: “It means we have to think critically, we don’t always have to do what our superiors say,” he says.

Kuzmanov adds: “The book is a social product. The funds raised from the sales will be directed towards cleaning the oceans and towards social projects that are already part of the scope of our fight, such as domestic violence and human trafficking. I also have a dream of building a coffee roaster in Thailand, but for now it’s still just an idea.”

Beyond Europe’s borders

Dreams, by the way, form the draft for new projects. “The good thing about social business is that you don’t depend on projects or foundations. If you earn money, you do the things you like”, says Iliyan, who also says that he doesn’t consider everything he does as work. “It’s just rock and roll”, he laughs, “no matter what I’m doing, everything is full of excitement and passion!”

More than a storyteller, Iliyan Kuzmanov is the person who performs and experiences the actions he proposes. “I try to be the change I preach, I fight for the ideals I believe in, whether in London, helping Afghan immigrants in Canada or building a coffee roaster in Thailand,” he adds.