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This Google-Backed Startup Is Looking to Become ‘Africa’s Airbnb’

A new option for travelers offers authentic stays in destinations formerly unreached.

Bongalo is a Cameroonian travel startup that has been heralded as “the African Airbnb.” The Google-backed company was designed for the African traveler but is now eyeing long-term global growth with the hope it will be able to provide special features for international users.

Founded in Bamenda, Cameroon by web entrepreneur Nghombombong Minuifuong as a real estate company, Bongalo stuttered at the beginning due to the civil war in the country. Minuifuong transformed the business into an online booking agency when he moved to Rwanda in 2019 and now has over 2,000 users on the platform. Bongalo currently lists properties in Rwanda and Cameroon that welcome guests from all over the world.

“The average host is between 30 and 45 years old, with average guests between 25 and 40. Most of the users are young people but we have users from between 25 to 60,” Minuifuong says.

Bongalo’s short-term target is to prioritize Africa with practical booking solutions. They are focused on the challenges local travelers and hosts face. It starts with offering a trusted local platform where people can list and find accommodation.

Making payments accessible is probably the most crucial step. Bongalo accepts mobile money, the most prevalent electronic payment solution in Africa with over 500 million registered accounts. An increasing number of Africans abroad are using mobile money to ease transactions back home, potentially opening up more business for hosts. Pan-African banks like UBA and Ecobank are getting in on the act, making it easier to fund mobile money with bank accounts through which users can securely book property stays online.

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Many mobile money users are people without bank accounts or credit cards. Bongalo allows African guests and hosts to comfortably exchange money from their mobile phones in local currency at cheaper rates.

Courtesy of Bongalo

There’s a deliberate effort to help travelers who are not exposed to technology. Bongalo has built relationships with independent travel agents to help promote the platform. These agents help book for less tech-savvy travelers. The agents can also help to procure tickets for travel, events, and experiences.

Foreign and local users can use Visa and MasterCard on Bongalo. The company is trying to help its users to go further than the big players in the industry can lead them by listing properties in remote areas without internet. This will give travelers a chance to discover and stay in new places.

Minuifuong says the reception from users has been great with an approval rating of over 86%. This rating is one of the reasons why Google for Startups is pouring in $320,000 worth of equity-free funding into Bongalo through its Black Founders Fund in Africa. This endorsement will offer Bongalo more visibility, build trust, and attract more funding to continue the expansion.

That expansion, if successful, is going to happen in a world that is dominated by established giants like Airbnb, Booking.com, and countless other accommodation hosts, but Minuifuong sees Bongalo as a legitimate competitor up to the point where opportunities for collaboration arise. To their advantage, he thinks they understand the true nature of the African market.

“The typical African host is nice, welcoming, will integrate you into their family, and carry you around to show you the town,” adds Minuifuong.

They have their work cut out for them if they’re going to play with the big boys who have already established a solid presence on their home turf. Airbnb has over eight times the number of listed properties on Bongalo for Kigali, so one of the newcomer’s biggest challenges will be to convince more hosts to join the budding platform.

Airbnb has over 100,000 listed properties in Africa and has so far proved to be a reliable earner for African hosts. They have also invested heavily in building an attractive package that includes experiences, luxury options, and a wealth of information to educate their users.

Bongalo’s founder, Nghombombong MuinifuongCourtesy of Bongalo

One strategy to counter this might be to aggressively target users who are new to online booking. Bongalo is going to have to get creative to build a project that is unique for their clients. Getting help from Google is great, but they’re going to need support from the African countries where they are creating jobs and opportunities. They operate in a space with a wealth of things to see and do, so a good amount of time and effort will be needed to create immersive content that gives travelers a taste of where Bongalo can take them.

The company is now putting together a team to meet these challenges before they move on to the next phase of growth. Bongalo is planning to launch this year in the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Kenya, and Senegal. The goal is to list properties in at least 20 African countries in five years. Mobile apps are scheduled for release in 2022 on Android and iOS. Its founder’s ambition, though massive, is stated very calmly.

“We want to be the go-to platform on the African continent, a billion-dollar company in five years,” muses Minuifuong. “We want to become a household name.”

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