Tourism, the fastest growing economic sector within Africa, serves as one of the core investment opportunities on the continent. But beyond the safari experience, innovative companies offer a look into Africa which is capable of penetrating this global culture. “There is no reason the world shouldn’t experience the environments that breed such dynamic people,” said Cherae Robinson, Founder and CEO of Rare Customs.
Cherae is the brilliant mind behind “Tastemakers Africa”, a mobile app and website that allows travellers secure exquisite, adventurous and curated trips across Africa. The award winning entrepreneur is keen to become not only a trip advisor but also also use this as a medium to grow her activism centred around developing the continent from a business point of view.
In this interview, Chaerae Robinson shares her inspiration and passion for developing African tourism. She wants to modernize the tourism value chain by engaging travellers in new ways and ensuring the tourism industry in Africa grows sustainably.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m the oldest of 5 children, one of 2 girls and am originally from Long Island, NY. Although people seem to always compliment my people skills, I actually am a scientist by training earning my B.S. in Biology from Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. I even worked for a World Health Organization program to train food borne disease investigators just after college.
How would you describe your experience working for international organisations in Africa?
It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life but also one that has made me question the way things are done in the world. I spent three years working for CARE International first in the media department and then moved on to partnerships and fundraising. After CARE I joined CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my professional life. I had the chance to travel to 20 countries in little over 3 years meeting everyone from rural farmers to prime ministers along the way. I met with CEO’s of some of the world’s largest agribusinesses and women who were just trying to get the right to own a piece of land and make a living. The dichotomy of it all was insane. This experience really illustrated for me that the private sector was really the place to make large scale, sustainable change. I was able to witness firsthand what happens when John Deere enters a new market the right way with local partners and also when a multinational does it wrong. The ripple effect of global commerce in even the most remote communities is not to be underestimated.
At what point did you decide to start up a tourism company?
Once I realized that I wanted to impact development from the business point of view I began weighing my options. I tried to work my way into agribusiness because it was challenging enough to keep me occupied but my background didn’t quite fit the requirements of a global role of a top firm. I then started to think about other things I was passionate about and that would allow me to bring both my analytical self and my creative brain into one model. I arrived at tourism because I love to travel, am forever curious, and frankly saw a huge gap in the offering on the African continent. In some countries, one tourist creates 8 jobs, if that isn’t development I don’t know what is. I knew that I had developed some thought leadership in the travel space and in Africa in particular so it just made sense.
What is the inspiration behind Rare Customs?
Rare Customs is inspired by the urban sophisticates of the African continent. They are infiltrating the global culture through music, through education, through business and there is no reason the world shouldn’t experience the environments that breed such dynamic people. The Africa I know is one of rooftop bars, late night conversations, and some of the flyest people I know. That lives with me and that is what lives within our brand.
Tell me about an accomplishment that shaped your career.
I’ve always been an “intrapraneur” in every organization I’ve been apart of, whether it was expanding the donor base at CARE, creating a new brand for WHO’s Global Salmonella Surveillance program, or helping CIMMYT speak to big agribusiness in a way that connected them to small farmers around the world I’ve never done things quite like my job description outlined. That in and of itself is something I’m proud of. But if I had to name one thing that shaped my career, and sticks with me now it’s being apart of the formation of the Borlaug Institute of South Asia (BISA). Norman Borlaug is the only agronomist to ever have one the Nobel Peace Prize. While at CIMMYT I had the chance to help build an institute in India, with his namesake and it cemented for me the way I would build my legacy. BISA was formed by strategic interaction between the government, private sector, and civil society organizations who wanted to harness the intellectual and human capital in India to lead innovation in the agriculture sector for even the smallest farmer in the region. My role was engaging the private sector and also raising funds for the institution. Through the process I imagined that my life’s work would be to do this in Africa working with industry, government, and the people to harness the possibilities and turn it into something that can last for generations.
What areas of your business are performing particularly well and why?
I think we’re doing well with branding and having people buy into the vision, people are also excited about our tours. We placed a bet that people would be willing to travel to Africa beyond the Safari experience and we were right. We’re also doing a good job reaching out to people on both sides of the pond finding partners and supporters in Africa, Europe and in the US and Canada.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced starting up Rare Customs?
I think the first challenge was figuring out a business model that can not only work for now, but can scale. We are not trying to be a small business, we’re building a $100 Million USD company we hope. To that end – funding has been a challenge although we are just really kicking off a seed investment round. Dealing in the US, investors have been hesitant because of the Ebola crisis which we know is short-sighter but it’s been an obstacle. In Africa, we are beginning to tap into Angel investors but vetting them and being in touch is challenging. The other piece is more granular, working out a payment processing process that works for us, our merchants on the continent, and our users has taken a lot of research and hard work though we are excited to test it.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
My greatest achievement is not giving up. I’ve come a long way and have stayed true to my own compass. I’ve allowed the universe and my faith to guide me, give me the courage to stay the course and the flexibility to allow things to come together beyond what I initially expected.
Do you have any competition? If yes, why do you think Rare Customs can beat the others?
We don’t have direct competition meaning someone doing exactly what we are but Trip Advisor, Wakanow, Sleep Out Kenya, and local city blogs all tackle parts of our business. We believe that our multi-platform solution offers the best bet for really disrupting the Africa travel industry. Working together the mobile app, website, and tours offer a 360 window into all things trendy and hip on the continent and puts it at the fingertips of today’s traveler.
Where in Africa do you like to recommend to clients and why?
It depends a bit on what they’re looking for. For people looking to mix business and pleasure I recommend Lagos, Nigeria – for adventure and thrills I recommend Namibia and in East Africa, I recommend Kampala because the city is energetic enough to feel cosmopolitan but nature is just a short while away. Mauritius and the Seyhelles give access to some of the world’s most luxurious experiences at half the cost. While Tunis offers refined beauty. Finally, South Africa, probably the most well-known destination is somewhere you could explore for a month and still not be ready to leave.
Would you say that the tourism industry in Africa is growing sustainably?
I think there’s a lot of work to do in the area of sustainability. Eco-tourism is a hot topic but the small lodges and hotels focused on this aren’t the biggest drivers long-term. I’d like to see the larger brands, including international ones like Marriott work more comprehensively to use sustainable materials, smart power options, and integrate with communities. One of my dream projects to work on is building farm to table restaurants attached to four and five star hotels across the continent. Building those supply chains and blending them with sophisticated design would be a true representation of what can be done.
How does your company connect clients to emerging business opportunities in Africa?
Our Tastemakers Tours offer a business development service that pairs travelers with people on the ground in their respective fields, we host a networking reception as a part of each experience so that our clients can connect with leading business leaders in our destination. Through our social media content, web series, and participation in countless conferences on African business we engage our clients where they are. Beyond this we are exploring opportunities to offer strategic market entry and business development services but this is further down the line.
Tell us about your upcoming mobile app Tastemakers Africa
The TSTMKRS app is launching in Beta in Q1 of 2015. It is an unrivaled opportunity to find and purchase hip experiences on the continent. The app focuses on 10 cities: Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Windhoek, Port Louis, Johannesburg, Capetown, Cairo, Marrakech, and Stonetown (Zanzibar). We went mobile so that we can scale – a website alone wouldn’t do it. The user experience is clean, design-forward, and social. Purchased experiences are stored as a digital voucher that can be presented at the merchant – even without internet. We take the worry out of credit card issues, handling paper currency, and help the traveler focus on having a good time.
How will it contribute to the evolution of today’s traveller?
Today’s traveller is already mobile. Millenials, our target audience, touch their smartphones 43x per day. We want to be there with them capturing that value and offering a glimpse into a new narrative on African travel every time. While they are in the destination, travelers use their phones to find local things to do 33% of the time – when they are in Africa this is virtually impossible. TSTMKRS is going to be the brand for a dynamic experience in Aspirational Africa meeting users on the web, on their phones, and in-country.
Recently you won first place at the 2014 She Leads Africa Entrepreneur Showcase. How did this feel?
Winning She Leads Africa was like something I’ve never experiences, it felt unreal even. I was so glad to even be included among the other entrepreneurs but to win was amazing. It was important for me to get buy-in on what we’re doing from the African continent, particularly in one of the largest from both a cultural and economic perspective. I draw on the energy of that moment whenever things are tough and it always gets me through.
What future do you see for tourism in Africa?
The industry will continue to diversify and grow as perception continues to shift. The Ebola crisis will soon be a blip on the radar in terms of what it means for the industry’s long-term trajectory. The ecosystem must begin to change, operators must be more sophisticated, especially as it relates to digital and large scale investment is still necessary to help strategic destinations build up to international standards. We believe that we can have an impact on broadening the notion of travel to Africa and have a goal of getting 1 Million tourists to the continent in the next 5 years.