Could this Google-backed startup become Africa’s answer to Airbnb?

CNN  — 

Since Airbnb launched in 2008, it has taken the travel industry by storm. Sharing a home or renting an apartment has become a fashionable, and often more affordable, alternative to booking a hotel room.

More than a decade later, the company has 6 million active listings worldwide in more than 200 countries. But one region it’s yet to crack is Africa.

Despite rapid growth in the last decade, Airbnb had around 130,000 listings across the whole continent in 2018 (the company would not disclose any more recent figures), with the majority in South Africa. For comparison, in May 2019, there were more than 80,000 properties listed in London alone, according to city authorities.

Cameroonian startup founder Nghombombong Minuifuong puts this down not to a lack of demand or supply, but the absence of one payment method that’s especially prevalent on the continent. Guests and hosts on Airbnb are unable to use mobile money, a system that lets users send and receive money through a cell phone. This is becoming increasingly popular in Africa, where there are over half a billion registered accounts, according to Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), an industry trade group.

Bongalo has listings in 12 cities across Cameroon and Rwanda.

That’s why he launched Bongalo, a home rental platform that accepts mobile money and is vying to become Africa’s own Airbnb.

“My vision is to build a platform that … enhances travel across Africa by connecting people to affordable places to stay,” he says.

Scaling up

In terms of scale, the startup still pales in comparison to Airbnb. Bongalo launched in Cameroon in 2017 as a real estate company, but in 2019 relocated to Rwanda, pivoting to its current model. It has more than 1,000 properties listed in total across both countries and over 5,000 users, says Minuifuong, but he expects demand to rise as Africans are able to travel more freely around the continent with the lifting of Covid restrictions.

Domestic tourism across the continent has bounced back quickly since the outbreak of Covid-19, says Christele Chokossa, consultant at market research company Euromonitor International, thanks in part to less stringent travel requirements within Africa and the tourism industry focusing on local travelers, she says.

But good, cheap accommodation can be hard to come by. A 2019 report on hospitality in Africa, by online travel agency Jumia Travel, notes that “cost remains one of the main blockers for a faster development of local tourism” and that technology will be key in bringing prices down. The average price of a hotel in Africa’s most popular cities is $50 per night, it says.

Bongalo’s listings typically cost around $40 per night, says Minuifuong. The properties, which are verified before being listed, can be booked via the company’s website and will soon be available on an app. The platform is especially popular with customers between the ages of 25 and 35, he adds.

“The younger generation of tech-savvy travelers has been embracing the convenience and affordability of the shared rental economy in recent years,” says Chokossa. “In countries like Cameroon, improved internet and social media penetration gave room to affordable hotel apartment rentals options, since it allowed owners to promote their servic