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Nghombombong Epaphrate Minuifuong: Building Africa’s Airbnb – Bongalo

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Nghombombong Epaphrate Minuifuong is the Founder of Bongalo, a home-grown booking platform that connects travelers to affordable, comfortable, and most convenient accommodation options across Africa. A platform that leverage Momo payment to provide an unbeatable booking service that secures transactions and avoids double charges. While also opening doors for hosts in Africa to list their property on our platform, receive an increase in bookings and get paid out directly to their Momo Accounts. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Epaphrate shared more insight on Bongalo, the inspiration, how it works, the impact of COVID-19 and the future. Excerpt.

 

Alaba: Could you briefly tell me about yourself and why you launched Bongalo?

Epaphrate: My name is Nghombombong Epaphrate Minuifuong, fondly known as Epafred or Fred. I come from the English-speaking part of Cameroon. I’m a marketer and Product manager at the core. I hold a B.A(Hons) in International Business and Trade from the African Leadership University. I have a background in technology, helping companies build scalable products for the future.

Launching Bongalo was fulfilling a dream to have a home-grown booking platform – an “African Airbnb,” where people could find affordable accommodation when they travel locally and internationally on the continent. We are here to offer an option in the market dominated by western platforms, at best not even known by a typical local traveler. We also wanted to provide a tailored platform to our African context; payment methods, means of making a reservation, etc.

 

Alaba: What was the inspiration and how big is your market in Africa?

Epaphrate: My inspiration drew from when a couple of people stayed at my apartment in Kigali, Rwanda, and paid me for it. Note that they never booked it online. The guests were sent via friends and referrals. I hosted two Nigerians, two Cameroonians, three Sierra Leonians, and a Ugandan. It dawned on me there was a gap in the market that we could fill.

 

Alaba: What makes your brand USP stand out, and how has the market responded to your services?

Epaphrate: Our booking process, Payment options, Payout options and the use of agents in executing bookings(reservations).

This market is hugely underserved; those who don’t want to use the available booking platforms for trusts and payment issues have very few alternatives other than hotels.

We implement a sharing system where agents can book for travelers, most importantly, local less tech-savvy travelers, and also bypass the trust issues faced by online businesses on the continent. Agents are established complementary service providers such as ticketing agencies at airports, buses, and train stations.

 

Alaba: Can you tell me more about how Bongalo works?

Epaphrate: A user registers on our account using their email address and names. After completing the registration process, they choose to list their properties of book available properties for their stay. When making a reservation, the guest selects a listing, choose their dates, proceeds, and selects a mobile network provider and input the mobile wallet number for the supported network. A prompt is sent to their mobile phone in USSD codes, displaying the amount in the local currency. The user inputs their five-digit PIN code and validates the payment. A confirmation SMS is sent to their phone confirming the debited amount.

Alternatively, guests (mostly less tech-savvy) can walk into a booking agency office and ask to book accommodation. The agent would proceed to make a reservation for the guest, which can be paid with cash, mobile wallet, or arrival at the property. The agent earns a commission on each reservation they make.

We already support mobile wallet payments in six African countries and are growing. It allows guests to make payments quickly, even when booking through agents. Guests can also pay with cash on arrival after booking via agents or pay to agents. This solves trust issues for users who doubt the authenticity of listings, a typical scenario for most African online businesses.

 

Alaba: The travel and hospitality industry was one of the biggest victims of the pandemic (COVID-19). What actions have you implemented to remain in business and stay competitive?

Epaphrate: What I know is that difficult situations mostly push creativity. When you’re faced with the most challenging conditions, you’re bound to innovate and find better ways to solve them. I’d admit that we thought of shutting down due to the pandemic because we finally released our platform during the pandemic, and our numbers were horrible as opposed to projections that we had. We stayed resilient and decided to exploit other opportunities in the industry, which is local travel.

We also launched in Cameroon during the pandemic to test the local travel option and validate it thoroughly. This worked! We had over 30 bookings in the first week of launching in Cameroon. We also downsized to cut costs, reduced other expenses. Finally, we found our way on.

 

Alaba: How has your industry evolve during pandemic and your outlook post-COVID-19?

Epaphrate: Travel is gradually resuming. Airbnb CEO recently said the rebound of travel would never have been witnessed, based on data from their recent bookings registered. The difference would be that people would travel near this time than going far away, so we’re investing in local travels(from one city to another – like from Lagos to Abuja, within the same country). Local trips were previously ignored, but the pandemic has shown us its potentials. We’ve also witnessed a rise in requests for accommodations within the same country in different cities, primarily touristic cities.

Alaba: What are your top 5 tourist destinations in Africa and why?

Epaphrate: Tanzania, Rwanda, Seychelles, Ghana, Cameroon. These are countries with most, if not all, the tourist attractions that I cherish when I travel. Unfortunately, most of them are not so developed. However, I want to travel the entire African continent. Those five are not exhaustive, and I’m sorry that they’re also not absolute.

 

Alaba: Where do you see your brand in 5 years?

Epaphrate: In five years, we would be operational in ten African countries. This means we would be supporting ten African countries, so users could use our platform to find accommodations in ten African countries in five years. We would also have created at least 400 new jobs on the continent and would be a 100 million dollar valued company.

 

Alaba: How do you feel as an African entrepreneur?

Epaphrate: Honestly, it is exhausting and very frustrating. It is not an easy route. It is very hard, but I believe the rewards are worth it. I’m one of the few African youths who think there’s no easy route to success. We shall keep the faith and continue working.

 

Alaba: A piece of advice to young and budding entrepreneurs out there?

Epaphrate: My dear entrepreneurs should study hard, grab some work experience and save up for their new journey on a lonely road. Because on that road, no girlfriend, no “friends”(I mean, party friends, spenders), lost of touch with family and friends. That road is rough, it is not for the faint of heart, but those who endure, persist, and stay resilient will reach their destination.

 

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Claire Rutambuka: Showcasing the beauty of diversity

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Claire RUTAMBUKA is an entrepreneur and the creator of Akâna Dolls. Beyond her professional background in International Trade, she has always been passionate about the creation of small and diverse objects. During her early childhood in Rwanda, she was fortunate to have toys and in particular a doll that she cared very much about. It was not only a privilege to have a doll but even more so to have one with her skin color. 

When Claire Rutambuka became a mother years later, she was surprised that she couldn’t easily find such a doll for her children that would showcase the beauty of little black girls. That’s how the idea of creating “Akâna Dolls” came about. Akâna is a word of Rwandan origin that can be translated as “little child”. It’s also a nod to the founder’s origins. 

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The brand was born from a mother’s desire to meet a need; namely, giving all children the opportunity to choose a doll they can relate to and adults an additional choice when it comes to gifting. After the first realization of the “Kaliza” doll, the ambition is to gradually expand the collection to include more skin shades and hair textures, so that every child feels represented.

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Hakeem Abogunde: Building Slash, a solution for Africa B2B market

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Hakeem Abogunde, CEO Slash Africa. SLASH is a decentralized B2B marketplace where buyers and sellers meet to facilitate and protect their transactions. Buyers can place orders and make payment into “Slash Account”. Slash will hold the fund until item(s) is delivered. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online (BAO), Hakeem shares his journey into tech entrepreneurship and how he is building the solution for Africa’s B2B marketplace with Slash. Excerpt.

 

Alaba: To start with, could you share your journey into tech entrepreneurship?

Hakeem: Growing up as a kid, I was the type of guy who loved the internet. I spent most of my time reading, studying, and researching information and news on the internet. Most times, I would be on my computer from night till the next morning; that’s how attached I was to the internet space. 

My journey as a tech entrepreneur started in 2005 when I dropped out of school to pursue my career as an entrepreneur. I joined my sister in her wholesale business at Lagos Island. During this period, I witnessed how people traveled from different parts of Nigeria to Lagos just to purchase products and resell them in their various locations.  This journey was usually stressful, time-consuming, and costly. As an internet expert, I began to think of how I could use the internet to connect with these people and stop them from traveling to Lagos. Unfortunately, the internet wasn’t as popular then, and the only functioning platform available was Nairaland. On Nairaland, I would post some of our products and connect with a few people who were online at that time. 

After a few years in the business, I joined a Multi-Level Marketing company where I led a team of over 500 sales reps. In the Multi-Level Marketing company, we usually went offline to meet with customers, sell our products to them, and get paid based on the sales volume. As an internet expert, to increase my team’s sales volume, I started selling the products online using different social media platforms. However, I later realized that most of these platforms were not efficient. It was then that I decided to build my own e-commerce website. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to write code then.

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So, I enrolled in a web programming course online, and as a fast learner, in less than 3 months, I was able to build our own e-commerce site from scratch. That actually increased our sales volume by 10 times. I started falling in love with programming and became a freelancer. I worked as a freelancer, developing mobile and web applications for both individuals and companies for 5 years. After, I decided to build a startup.

 

Alaba: You are currently building a solution for Africa’s B2B market through your venture, Slash Africa. Kindly tell us more and the inspiration behind it?

Hakeem: Slash Africa is a decentralized B2B marketplace that connects African retailers with suppliers globally and enables them to carry out secure transactions without any intermediary. 

I got the inspiration when I was working with my sister in her wholesale business. I discovered a huge economic inequality between suppliers and retailers. For instance, one of the biggest problems Nigeria is currently facing is artificial scarcity perpetuated by most suppliers in other to increase the price of their products. This creates a market environment that heavily favors them, leaving retailers at a disadvantage. Having experienced this myself, I think now is the best time to democratize Africa’s wholesale market. This will give retailers access to varieties of quality products at very competitive prices and also save them more money and time.

 

Alaba: What sets Slash Africa apart from other Africa B2B market solutions, and how are you positioning it to become the go-to solution for Africa’s B2B market?

Hakeem: We are the first decentralized marketplace in Africa. We allow both small and big suppliers to list their products and enable direct interaction between suppliers and retailers, allowing them to define their terms and conditions of transactions without an intermediary. This will increase the level of trust and transparency and also gives everyone equal access to the market. Additionally, by operating on a decentralized fulfillment management system, we make our operation faster and minimize cost.

 

Alaba: What have been Slash Africa’s biggest challenges, and how do you overcome them?

Hakeem: Initially, our intention was to build a platform that enables everyone to create their own independent online store in minutes without coding. But we later realized that most suppliers/sellers, after creating their stores, didn’t have the money and skills to promote their stores. As a result, they didn’t make any sales and they would abandon their store. At that point, we decided to convert it to a marketplace, this enables them not just to create their stores but also connects them with potential customers.

 

Alaba: Raising capital has been one of the major challenges entrepreneurs face. How are you currently fundraising?

Hakeem: Raising funds as a local founder is very difficult if you don’t have any investor connections. Most African investors are not helping the situation either. Imagine this: because an African investor doesn’t know you, they won’t want to have anything to do with you. They also like to copy the US model. Technology in Africa is still at a very early stage, and the level of adoption is still very low compared to the US.  Without local experience, getting people to adopt your solution will be very difficult, and this is where local founders have the advantage. So far, we have been funding our project through bootstrapping and support from families and friends.

 

Alaba: Can you tell us your impression of the current entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem in Africa? How have you seen it transform in the last 5 years?

Hakeem: In the last 5 years, the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem in Africa has been growing rapidly. I see a lot of young entrepreneurs solving problems by leveraging modern technologies. But we need to work more in the area of getting people to adopt these solutions, and that is where local expertise is needed.

 

Alaba: What are Slash Africa’s priorities/plans for the year, and where do you see this venture in the next 5 years?

Hakeem: This year, our priorities involve raising funds, strengthening our team, scaling in Nigeria and reaching $1 million in monthly sales. In the next 5 years, we are projecting Slash Africa to hit $200 million in monthly sales and become the largest B2B marketplace in Africa.

 

Alaba: What is your advice to budding entrepreneurs aspiring to go into tech?

Hakeem: My advice to entrepreneurs aspiring to go into tech is to come with the pure intention to solve a problem and not just for the money. Because when you prioritize money, you won’t have the drive to build the business, and eventually, you will fail. Secondly, you also need to love the people you are building the project for because this will also be your driving force.

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Alassane Sakho: The Senegalese Serial Entrepreneur

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Alassane Sakho is a young and brilliant Senegalese entrepreneur, Telecommunications engineer specialized in the Technical-Commercial field, He founded KALIMO GROUP in January 2023, with the ambition to contribute to the development of Senegal. A graduate of ESMT in Dakar, Alassane is passionate about sales, ICT, Mobile Money and real estate. He began his career in 2010 with the Orange Money Senegal and Orange Business Service projects. Later, he joined large real estate companies as a commercial developer, (SIPRES SA, SENEGINDIA, TEYLIUM Group and the company Fimolux, where he held the position of General Manager of the commercial subsidiary. 

Alassane Sakho has also supported many Senegalese and international companies in their development in Senegal, including Wizall Money, ATPS, MOODS, etc. Its vision extends beyond national borders, initially targeting West Africa, with projects planned in Mali, Gambia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, before expanding to other parts of the continent. 

Kalimo is involved in various areas of activity, including real estate development, digital communication, sales, rental and asset management, construction, training, advice and assistance. In addition, the company plans to enter the film industry, with its subsidiary K7film, which will produce short and feature films, animated films, corporate communication, documentaries, etc.

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Apart from his professional activities, Alassane SAKHO is involved in sports, especially football. He coaches youngsters from 8 to 20 years old and has the honour of winning the “Universal Youth Cup” tournament in 2019 in Italy, against big clubs such as Inter Milan, Ajax Amsterdam, Atletico Madrid and AC Milan. Its main objective is to consolidate Kalimo’s presence in Africa and to help foreign companies wishing to set up in Senegal.

Finally, its digital team is ready to help companies or public figures increase their notoriety and visibility on social media. Other areas of activity, such as agribusiness and mass distribution, are currently being explored.

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