Traveling around Africa was once considered unsafe, costly, and lacking in variety.
There were the usual places to visit and the usual things to do: safari in Kenya, pyramids in Egypt, and river rafting in Zambia or Zimbabwe (depending on which side of Victoria Falls you live on).
But young African innovators and diaspora entrepreneurs are turning people’s desire to see a “different side of Africa” into a business.
Through the use of social media, travel platforms like Tastemakers Africa, Everyday Africa, Hip Africa, Visiter L’Afrique and others are giving African travel and tourism a fresh and youthful injection by reimagining the possibilities of African travel for Africans, the African diaspora, and international tourists keen to do something other than seeing the “Big Five” on a game reserve truck or buying rugs in Morocco.
“Social media has done more for African tourism than anything else,” says Cheraé Robinson, chief executive of Tastemakers Africa. Robinson, who’s American, started the online platform after working in international development which saw her frequent cities including Nairobi, Freetown, Lagos, and Johannesburg.
“When I visited those places, I felt their dynamic and creative cultures weren’t being covered. So I thought Tastemakers could reflect what was actually happening in African cities to give a fuller and bigger picture of those cities,” she said.
Hip Africa founder Ruby Audi had a similar inspiration, but hers came during her career as a travel journalist. She realized there wasn’t a platform offering practical advice about how to travel around and between African countries.
“There wasn’t really a place to go where they could tell you how to book a hotel, get a visa, and how to travel around different African countries,” Audi said. Despite being raised in London, Audi had a knowledge of Africa beyond popular destinations like Cape Town and Morocco.
Audi, whose mother was born in Ghana, launched Hip Africa in 2013, and began enlisting writers and content creators from different regions of the continent to cover their respective cities.
“When I first started Hip Africa, we were one of the only ones covering Africa through the lens of tourism. A lot of my work involved reporting about places, talking to people on the ground, and using the network I had as a journalist to understand each city.”
A recurring theme for these innovators is capturing a face of Africa not often seen in mainstream media, even within African media. A couple of decades ago, it would’ve been unlikely that one person’s photo hobby could be seen by more than a few friends, or that you could organize those friends to also share their photos on the same platform. Instagram and other social media platforms are helping to show authentic and unexpected sights of African cities and cultures.
That’s how Diane Audrey Ngako, the Cameroonian founder of Visiter L’Afrique uses her platform. When she started her Instagram page three years ago, she was determined to take on what she perceived as Western tropes of Africa being a place of “famine and wars.” She started traveling at a young age to Europe and America but soon realized she wanted to “learn something about where she was from” and began frequenting East Africa and North Africa.
What started as a hobby, adventure, or a passion project for these founders has quickly evolved into real startup business opportunities or marketing partnerships.
Robinson first tested out the idea for Tastemakers as a travel community and potential business when she organized a trip via Facebook called “December in Ghana” with her South African co-founder, Stephanie O’Connor in 2014. They sold out ten spots within a week. The site launched shortly thereafter and now facilitates trips to Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Morocco, and Zanzibar.
About 70% of Tastemakers’ travelers are from the United States. But in recent years, Robinson says more upper to middle class Africans are traveling more within the continent, either booking trips within their home country or to places like Ghana and Kenya.
Last year, Tastemakers pivoted towards “marketplace-style business” similar to Airbnb to allow visitors to book trips and tours directly.
Robinson has since worked with South African, Kenyan, and Nigerian tourism boards as an advisor for online branding and marketing strategies and received a $250,000 investment to expand the team and develop growth strategies.
While Hip Africa currently offers guides and tips on how to navigate African countries, Audi plans on offering the opportunity to book trips directly through the site in the future. She lists platforms like @bantuwax and @everydayafrica, which published its book Everyday Africa: 30 Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent in June, as Instagram pages that make her want to travel the continent more.
Like Robinson of Tastemakers, Audi believes that presenting an aesthetically pleasing images along with complex narratives helps their site shine through. Her curation of Hip Africa’s site has seen her have conversations with the Ghanaian tourism industry on how to appeal to different audiences, and adapt to digital influences on travel and tourism.
Tourism has long been a massive opportunity on the continent. The World Travel and Tourism Council projects it will contribute around $296 billion to African countries’ combined GDP by 2026, that would be a tenfold growth since 1995.
“There’s a massive opportunity to guide African tourism ministries in the right direction,” Audi says.
Ngako, who was listed on Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30 last year, hopes to expand the site’s reach into food, travel, and photography. This month Visiter L’Afrique’s published its first book, They Call It Africa, We Call It Home.
Not all glamour
Despite the luxurious backdrops and glamorous destinations that showcase the more bourgeois pockets of African cities, Robinson believes it’s important for Tastemakers to give their audiences a complete picture of what’s happening in those places.
“I think it’s about marrying the premium and the authentic and peeling back the layers,” she said. “So if we’re in South Africa, yes we’re showing you Maboneng and the creative scene, but we’re also talking about gentrification. If we’re in Ghana, we’re going to talk about having a housegirl or a houseboy because that’s a reality there.”
Yet Robinson understands that Tastemakers’ powers lies in the aspirational visuals they showcase. “About 74% of our bookings come off Instagram. It’s our biggest marketing referral.”
Ngako says Visiter L’Afrique’s page offers followers an opportunity not only to explore the possibilities of African tourism, but to also see a different side to their own countries and foster a greater understanding of African cultures.
“We are always happy when people say, ‘is it really in Africa?’ or ‘man, I’m from Mali but I never heard about this place,'” she said.
In addition to Visiter, she thinks that travel pages like @dakarlives and @spiritedpursuit have catapulted francophone countries as desirable vacation spots. Ngako’s move to cover the region proved to be savvy as Visiter now boasts over 100,000 followers on Instagram.
“The tourism boards and ministries are really non-existent in Francophone parts of Africa,” she points out. “Today it’s mainly people that create accounts to promote their country without any help.”
When Tastemakers launched their Instagram account, their growth doubled from 20% to 40% each week. The platform has collaborated with popular content creators like Velma Rossa from Ghana, and Twiggy Moli from South Africa to document their cities and travels with Tastemakers’ 37,000-plus followers.
With the addition of Instagram stories and videos, they’ve roughly seen a 300% increase in engagement from their followers.
“You’re seeing a renaissance, you’re seeing people on the continent prioritize going to African countries over Europe. Because of the visual aspects of social media, people feel more connected to one another and can explore their curiosity about other African countries.”
*Correction: The article previously stated Tastemakers received a grant. It was an investment. It also uses Airbnb style model, it is not in partnership with Airbnb.