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Connecting Africa: A Home-Grown Answer to Airbnb?

Relatively used to the never-ending innovation, the hospitality industry was always hard to surprise. Nevertheless, back in 2008, an up-and-coming start-up managed to do exactly that. Where hotels once reigned with undivided power, Airbnb decided it was time to change things up. Not only have Airbnb-listed properties become a more affordable alternative to the traditional lodging sector, but they also enjoyed a certain fleur of trendiness and a positive public image. More than a decade later, the company is proud of its portfolio of over 6 million active listings worldwide in more than 200 countries. Yet, the one region still not giving in its charm is Africa.

Despite rapid market penetration in the past 10 years, Airbnb had only about 130 thousand listings on the whole continent in 2018, with the vast majority located in South Africa. Unable to bridge the gap, the company leaves a vacuum that is certain to be filled sooner or later. And now, it looks like a worthy candidate has arrived.

Cameroonian start-up Bongalo aims to give a home-grown answer to Airbnb. Its founder, Nghombombong Minuifuong, thinks that the problem is not in the lack of demand or supply, but rather in the insufficient flexibility Airbnb has demonstrated when it comes to the payment methods. Mobile money is currently not accepted on the platform. Meanwhile, this system is taking the continent by storm with over half a billion registered accounts, according to Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), an industry trade group.

In terms of size, Bongalo is yet to grow if it wants to compete with the incumbent on a meaningful level. The company was launched in Cameroon in 2017 but relocated to Rwanda in 2019, pivoting to its current model. With over 1000 properties listed and 5000 active accounts, it admittedly pales in comparison to Airbnb. However, Minuifuong expects the demand to rise as Africa is gradually lifting the covid-related travel restrictions.

When it comes to price, it typically costs around USD 40 to stay in one of Bongalo's properties overnight. The houses, which are verified before being listed, are available for booking via the company's website with a mobile app soon to be launched. The younger consumer sector (people between 25 and 35 years old) are the primary audience.

There is also a positive social aspect to incorporating the mobile payment system. By accepting mobile money, Bongalo lets its customers avoid transaction and currency conversion fees that come with paying by credit or debit card and taps into Africa's "unbanked" market since no bank account or internet access is required. This is essential in sub-Saharan Africa, where fewer than 50% of the adult population has a traditional bank account, according to the World Bank.

Overall, competing with Airbnb may be a tall order, as the hospitality giant became a household name throughout the continent. Nevertheless, the African market remains underpenetrated, and home-grown start-ups like Bongalo might have a good chance of filling the void thanks to their superior knowledge of the local market and consumers’ needs.

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