A taste of Africa

Finweek English Edition - - INSIDE - BY MANDY DE WAAL AND JON PIEN­AAR ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

Meet Cherae Robin­son, the award-win­ning tourism en­tre­pre­neur who is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing how peo­ple will ex­pe­ri­ence travel in Africa. When Robin­son founded her pan-African tourism company, Rare Cus­toms, her goal was to change the way in which peo­ple out­side of the con­ti­nent per­ceived Africa. Robin­son’s dream has man­i­fested.

She spent a decade work­ing with in­ter­na­tional non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tions in Africa like CARE – the hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tion that aims to fight poverty and pro­vide dis­as­ter re­lief – as well as US mu­si­cian Ali­cia Keys’ HIV ini­tia­tive Keep A Child Alive.

“When I was in Africa I’d spend a lot of time speak­ing to farm­ers in ru­ral ar­eas and to peo­ple from the city. I felt I didn’t need any­one to guide me, I re­ally just wanted to wan­der around and meet peo­ple,” say Robin­son.

“The re­sult was that I just kept meet­ing re­mark­able peo­ple. I met some amaz­ing DJs in Jo­han­nes­burg, mu­si­cians in Dur­ban – where I was taken along to this in­cred­i­ble ad­ver­tis­ing party. Wher­ever I went in Africa I was for­tu­nate in that I met artists and cre­atives who of­ten be­came friends,” she says.

“There are 10m mil­len­ni­als who are al­ready trav­el­ling to Africa, so I thought it would be enough of a mar­ket for me to build a vi­able and sus­tain­able prod­uct.” To­gether with her close con­tacts in the US and in Africa, Robin­son has forged a multi-pronged business that’s al­ready win­ning awards. In Septem­ber, Robin­son was awarded a $10 000 grant from She Leads Africa, an award that en­sures fe­male en­trepreneurs are part of the con­ti­nent’s suc­cess story.

The first leg of Robin­son’s spe­cialised tourism company is called Tastemak­ers Africa. This is a mul­ti­plat­form tool where would-be trav­ellers can f ind and buy hip ex­pe­ri­ences in ma­jor ci­ties across the world’s sec­ond­biggest and most pop­u­lous con­ti­nent. From rooftop par­ties in down­town Jozi, to quaffing cock­tails at an ex­clu­sive club in La­gos, Nige­ria, to rub­bing shoul­ders with fash­ion­istas in Ac­cra, Ghana, Tastemak­ers Africa is about Afropoli­tan ex­pe­ri­ences off the beaten track. This soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tion is due to be launched early in 2015, on iOS

(iPhone) and An­droid.

“Th­ese are care­fully cu­rated ex­pe­ri­ences, and be­cause this is a hand-picked niche, we’re launch­ing the mo­bile app for this ser­vice with 20 top ci­ties in Africa,” says Robin­son, adding that the ci­ties that make it into the app are those with the high­est num­ber of tourism ar­rivals and the high­est smart­phone pen­e­tra­tion.

“It is all about get­ting away from the tourist traps and tak­ing peo­ple to the well-kept lo­cal se­crets. Whether it’s eat­ing with renowned lo­cal chefs, to sand dune surf­ing in Namibia, or shop­ping in ex­clu­sive places in Cape Town, there are a large range of ac­tiv­i­ties that can be booked à la carte us­ing the Tastemak­ers Africa App. Trav­ellers can book for one per­son, for two or a crew of four or more. It has been a very labour­in­ten­sive process, but to­gether with our part­ners in Africa we’ve built a list of the kind of ex­pe­ri­ences we want to pro­mote, and then we take a 10% com­mis­sion off the top of each book­ing,” Robin­son ex­plains.

“Be­cause we’ve got a f irst-mover ad­van­tage in the mar­ket we’re be­gin­ning to build ad­ver­tis­ing part­ner­ships, which will add to our rev­enues,” she says. In ad­di­tion to the Tastemak­ers Africa App, Rare Cus­toms or­gan­ises quar­terly tours to Africa, and in De­cem­ber the des­ti­na­tion will be Ghana.

“Th­ese trips are very cus­tomised so that we don’t even go near ho­tels,” she says. “In Ghana we’re rent­ing out a lux­ury beach house some 40 min­utes out­side of the city. We’re do­ing this on pur­pose be­cause we don’t want our brand to be in any way as­so­ci­ated with other big tour brands. That’s not what we’re about,” Robin­son adds.

Her company a l so works with gov­ern­ments i n Africa and l ocal busi­nesses to mar­ket des­ti­na­tions to the US and beyond; it’s in­volved with pro­mot­ing for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment to the con­ti­nent and man­ages large-scale events in Africa.

A global op­er­a­tion, Robin­son says that her part­ners are spread be­tween

“RE­SEARCH YOUR BUSINESS MODEL, RE­SEARCH YOUR PART­NER­SHIPS, RE­SEARCH YOUR MAR­KET AND STAY ON TOP OF NEW THINK­ING.”

two con­ti­nents. She’s in New York City, her co-founder is based in Jo­han­nes­burg, her lead de­vel­oper is based in Mom­basa, Kenya, and the business’s so­cial me­dia lead lives in La­gos, Nige­ria.

“Our ex­pe­ri­ence is that there are a lot of gate­keep­ers in the tourism in­dus­try and what we’re try­ing to do is to democra­tise the in­dus­try as well as to build ca­pac­ity by cre­at­ing a brand that grows with other brands. What this means is that we push money back to the mar­kets and brands we fea­ture and the ci­ties we fea­ture be­cause we’re hir­ing peo­ple from those ci­ties,” Robin­son adds.

The business has been go­ing for a year, and Robin­son says she’s al­ready had too many learn­ings to count. “I’ve learnt that no one knows your business quite like you do, and you do need to know ev­ery part of your business inside out. Even the parts you might f ind te­dious, like ac­count­ing.

“This doesn’t mean you have to do ev­ery­thing your­self, but it does mean that you have to bring a cer­tain level of aware­ness to ev­ery part of your business if you want your business to be taken se­ri­ously. Another les­son that’s im­por­tant is to use re­search and data when it comes to mak­ing de­ci­sions,” Robin­son states, addings that de­ci­sions should be made us­ing facts rather than guess­work.

“Re­search your business model, re­search your part­ner­ships, re­search your mar­ket and stay on top of new think­ing. Lastly, I’ve learned that it’s not enough to have peo­ple who are will­ing to help you, you have to take own­er­ship of let­ting peo­ple know how they can help you,” she says.

When it comes to Africa, Robin­son ad­vises: “From a business per­spec­tive, don’t dis­count the in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity on the con­ti­nent. The pro­fes­sion­als on the con­ti­nent – re­gard­less of their field – re­ally have some­thing to prove. “Per­haps this is be­cause the world has ren­dered them in­vis­i­ble for so long. But peo­ple in Africa have their hearts set on be­ing twice as good as any­one else.”

The Na­tional Mosque in Abuja, Nige­ria

Cherae Robin­son

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