Cherae Robinson is the founder of Rare Customs, a company focused on embedding American SME's in emerging market tourism trends. Originally from Brentwood, NY, she is a traveler and connector interested in emerging markets, particularly Africa.
Rare Customs was recently selected as the inaugural winner of the She Leads Africa startup competition for its new consumer product ‘Tastemakers Africa, a multi-platform brand, revolutionizing travel on the continent.
Cherae has spoken at different fora, engaging audiences on African economic trends, African-American issues, travel, diversity in international careers and balancing motherhood and global ambition. In this online interview with peter ugwu, she shared Rare Customs’ vision for the African market.
Rare Customs & TSTMKRS App
Tastemakers Africa (TSTMKRS) is still in its early stage, we only came up with the concept of launching an app just 6 months ago.
Before then, Rare Customs spent 6 months putting together a plan for engaging African tourism boards and potentially consulting for them. Once we pivoted towards TSTMKRS we were able to bring a couple of the best minds in the African startup scene on board as advisors.
Additionally, we immersed ourselves in case studies, data mining, and studying our competition in order to find the right business model, planting seeds for partnership, and making data-based decisions that we knew could last through a challenge.
While it’s certainly a boost for me to receive such a big honor from the United Nations Foundation, the real honor will be gaining the trust and interest of investors so that we can scale the business.
If I had to think of some things we’ve done differently, I’d focus on our ability to be nimble (we have already pivoted some parts of the business), be open (we share our process not just our successes), be connected (we are building partnerships at the outset, particularly on the continent), and most of all be user-focused.
‘She Leads Africa Entrepreneur Showcase’ First Place Winner
It’s interesting; I’m actually new to the tourism industry. I’m not new to travel, I’ve been to 30 countries and counting, but traveling and the business of tourism is very different things.
In Africa, I think my status as a parvenu so to speak is beneficial, it allows me to really create whereas working through the system might not.
Our team gets to experiment, take risks, and disrupt the notion that any conversation involving tourism on the continent must involve an elephant or a lion.
Entrepreneurship in the tourism industry, particularly when Africa is growing in might economically, requires one to have a long strategic vision of how tourism links into this growth and be able to take that vision and turn it into a tangible business model.
You have to have the tenacity to follow-through crises like Ebola which disrupt the industry or scare off investors (that happened to us), the foresight to understand and even predict trends in traveler behavior, and the fearlessness to go against the grain and remain committed even when the gatekeepers in the industry don’t want to let you play in their sandbox.
Assessment of Africa’s Tourism Sector
The sector is ripe for growth and investment but is not without challenges. Issues around infrastructure are well documented but above infrastructure I would put attention to the customer experience.
This December, our team is giving a social media and customer experience training to tour operators in Accra, Ghana (#DecemberInGhana).
We believe that strong digital narratives paired with top tier customer service upon arrival will really help change the conversation. Once this happens, and the number of arrivals increases even in new hotspots, the investment will come. I think there are some really interesting hotspots that are cropping up.
Namibia is doing an excellent job of grouping it’s offering into specific themes like adventure tourism, “glamping”, and really promoting its biodiversity. Senegal is rising high up on the must-visit places with its capital city, Dakar reaching the top 10 of GOOD Magazine’s “Most Inspiring Cities In The World” list. These are good signs.
The next step is for governments to move beyond entrenched ways of operating in the sector and to embrace new players on the scene. Private sector is ultimately what will drive the industry but support at the government level can make the road a bit easier.
Rating of Nigeria’s Tourism Industry
I would place the Nigerian tourism industry as approaching average. The head of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation seems to be doing the right thing in thinking about ways to increase domestic tourism in addition to attracting international visitors.
This is key; last February while I was visiting Lagos for Social Media Week, a Nigerian friend and I visited the Badagry point of no return.
My friend hadn’t been to the site since he was just a small child, and his friends almost ridiculed him for taking the time to go.
There’s a lot of work to be done in getting the average Nigerian to see the value in visiting some of the national treasures available to them.
This is similar to what has been done in the United States with respect to new efforts to increase visitors at our national parks. Lack of technology inclusion and infrastructure concerns due to a lack of consistent power or internet in many places is definitely causing significant revenue loss.
The industry is valued at $7 billion and less than 20% of attractions are online. This is not in line with consumer expectations and is hurting the industry. According to Forbes magazine 82% of consumers trust a company more if they are involved with social media.
More than 148.3 million people use the Internet to make reservations for their accommodations, tours and activities. That’s more than 57% of all travel reservations each year according to Statistic Brain.
When you apply this number to Nigeria’s industry where there is a 37% differential in online presence, that’s a loss of $2.59 billion annually.
Tastemakers Africa App
Tastemakers Africa lets users find and buy hip experiences in Africa. The beta version of the app launches on Android and iOs in early 2015 and features 10 cities in Africa.
We chose the launch cities based on where the most cosmopolitan offerings were, where smartphone penetration was the highest, and where tourists are already traveling.
The app is like having a cool friend on the ground who knows all the best parties and restaurants and things to do except it’s an app and all of these things are now at your fingertips. The thing that makes the app special is that it not only lets you browse cool experiences, you can actually purchase them in advance.
Whether it’s dinner for two at a trendy restaurant, a VIP table at a nightclub, or Skydiving over Table Mountain, the Tastemakers Africa app lets users build their own African experience through a distinctive, visual interface.
Tastemaker Africa App Footprint
Partnership is at the core of who we are and we intend to continue building relationships with the right companies and organizations on the continent, international brands that speak to millennial and urban sophisticates are also key for us.
Beyond this we believe in our marketing and user acquisition strategy. We lead with compelling, visual content but are also producing a product unlike anything anyone has ever scene as it relates to Africa.
Existing Gaps in the Market
The primary gaps we see are encouraging domestic tourism, underestimating the diaspora market, and underestimating the power of the millennial generation. Tastemakers Africa will address all of these through the entire platform.
Sustaining The App’s Penetration
Our target user on the continent can see themselves in our product. We tell their stories, we work alongside of them, and we value their contributions.
The version of Africa that Tastemakers is focused on is something people take pride in. Brands like Okay Africa, Applause Africa, and others have tackled this from a media level and we intend to go one step further in bringing “Aspirational Africa” to the tourism space.
This statement is so true - that’s why we built TastemakersAfrica.com a companion to the app. The website follows the same categories as the app [Eat, Drink, Do, Rest] but it wraps this within featured content on creatives in the world of film, music, art, etc.
We feature events on our page, plugin to user Instagrams, and really push the envelope on what’s happening.
The App Launch
The app launches in beta mode in Q1 of 2014. You can signup at www.tastemakersafrica.com to be the first to know.