Some of the major forces behind Africa’s economic resurgence, and Nigeria’s recent confirmation as the largest economy in Africa, are diversifisication, technology and innovation. And though resources  – minerals, agriculture, fossil fuels, etc – still accounts for a huge chunk of export revenues, African economies are more sophisticated now than a decade ago.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa has increased (according to this PwC report, Africa offers the highest risk-adjusted returns on foreign direct investment) and economic diversification is arguably evident in all countries. In short, business is booming in Africa. Consequently movement of capital, investment and other resources have created increased demand for quality hotel rooms across the continent, with Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, expected to get a large chunk of the traffic. Despite infrastructural challenges, entrepreneurs, investors and companies have braved red tapes to establish thriving businesses in the real estate and hospitality sector, leveraging on technology and innovation. One of such companies is Jovago.com, a hotel booking website or OTA (Online Travel Agency) launched in Nigeria in 2013. According to its website, it offers thousands of hotels across Africa and South Asia for customers to book directly. I caught up with its polish founder and managing director, Marek Zymslowski on the sidelines of the 2014 Mobile Web Africa conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, and he had this to say:

On how Jovago.com has managed to establish itself as a leading destination for hotel booking in Nigeria…

photoMZ: In other to become the leading destination service, it’s all about building and having the best inventory, and by having the best inventory I mean there things:

First, you should have as many as possible direct relationships with hotels in the country you operate in because the more hotels you can choose from on Jovago.com the better product you can find for the customer.

Second thing about having the best destination service is good quality relationship with your hotel management: if you maintain regular communication with the hotel management then cooperation would go on smoothly and there won’t be any issues while you service your customers.

Last, is the quality of the inventory quality of information of the hotel on our website. Every hotel that we have a direct relationship with in Africa is verified personally by our staff. It is checked and the description is written by our staff, and pictures are taken by our staff. So we ensure our customers that the information is very reliable and always up to date.

Quantity of inventory, quality of relationship with hotel Management and quality of information about the inventory is key.

On Nigeria’s hospitality sector as an economic growth frontier…

MZ: Definitely, whenever there is economic growth there is always growth in the hospitality sector because in other to do business people travel, and they need to stay somewhere. You need to have a hospitality base in other to attract business people and it’s the same thing for leisure travel. Nigeria has huge potential in other to build a nice next hospitality. There so many [security] challenges and we all know about them, but we need to start something and the good start is nice hospitality with good services.

On how many customers Jovago.com has on a monthly basis and how they access the website…

MZ: We started proper marketing two months ago because Jovago is a new venture, which was launched August last year. And the first months were all about building inventory. Last month we had around 4000 bookings.

The statistics on how customers access the platform is as follow: 50 percent from [a] computer, 40 percent from smartphones and 10 percent from tablets. We expect the percentage of tablets and smartphone access to increase and desktop access to decrease.

On the state of hotel infrastructure in the country and how it can be developed…

MZ: SSA [sub-Saharan Africa] hospitality industry is the fastest developing in the World, and [the] Nigerian hotel market is one of the fastest growing. The challenge is the service standard, which quite often does not keep up with worlwide standardards yet.The hotel base – number of hotels you can have access to in Lagos or every other state – is growing…the issue is the quality of service and as soon as we get this done then we are okay…

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 5.36.55 PMFor infrastructure quantity, we have a lot of hotels. Just in the last five years in Lagos, the number of hotels has nearly doubled and there are still new hotels been opened every month. Right now sub-Saharan Africa in general has the biggest growth in the hotel sector, but when you have such a high growth there is always problem with maintaining the good place – first, the quantity and then the quality.

On Nigeria’s hotel services  being one of the most expensive in the world…

MZ: [Laughs] Just after Moscow, Lagos market is the most expensive [hospitality] market in the world which makes me always question like why because in Moscow…”I didn’t get the last word”.

I think it will go down when competition grows. In the last decade, hotel owners were mostly focused on corporate customers. But now because there are more hotels opened everyday, you don’t know if your competitors may steal your customer. Thus, you have to be more focused on individual customers, more focused on locking in the customers by making them stay – that leads us to the quality of service.

On expansion plans in Africa and strategy…

MZ: Our goal is very clear: we are going to be the biggest online booking platform in sub-Saharan Africa. We want to promote sub-Saharan Africa as each of our destination. Obviously, you can book hotels all over the world on Jovago; you can travel to Abuja, Calabar, Nairobi, Paris or New York. [But] sub-Saharan African and Nigeria as our major market. Now we have a hub in Nairobi; we also have a hub in Senegal. We’ve basically opened like an experimental hub in Pakistan because that is also big country, and other things are going on there. As for now sub-Saharan Africa is our main destination. You can expect us opening new offices in that region because if you want to maintain high quality service in other countries you need to have people on the ground – there is no other way.

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 5.24.25 PMNairobi and Kenya is our hub for East Africa, Nigeria is our oldest, biggest market right now. Whatever new activities we do we try them in Nigeria and when they are successful we try to implement them in other countries with some changes, because every country is different as well. Senegal is our hub for French speaking West African countries. Obviously, from Kenya we have people building relationships with hotels in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and all the neighbouring countries. From Nigeria we go to Ghana, Gambia, and Sierra Leone, and obviously, from Senegal its Abidjan [capital of Cote d’Ivoire] and Morocco.

On businesses leveraging mobile technology in Africa…

MZ: Mobile is like the only way for us business developers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs to grow our businesses in a situation where you don’t have the infrastructure. Mobile is like a flight business for a country where there are no good rails or good road. [However], besides online business and ICT we have plenty of sectors that need that “classic” infrastructure to grow. It [mobile] gives us a shortcut to develop faster than other countries that are more developed than Nigeria because when they were developing they didn’t have mobile. Let me give you an example of Poland. In Poland, when the banking sector was developing in the early 90s, just after the communism ended, we never got to the stage of having cheques, we moved directly to credit cards, and now mobile payments because we didn’t need cheques anymore because [of] technology.

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