/ 28 May 2015

Skip safaris and Africa’s dark heart

Skip Safaris And Africa’s Dark Heart

For Christin “Cici” ­Battle, a professor of leadership development and English at Sena, a school in ­Santiago de Cali, Colombia, travel must include two ­components: an opportunity to explore the real culture of a country and to interact with locals. “I am not really into all-inclusive vacations,” she says.

A trip with Tastemakers Africa to Ghana in December 2014 served up this specific dose of insider insight, interaction and exclusivity that Millennials and Generation X travellers like Battle are after. “For the trip to Ghana, the Tastemakers team created a packed agenda that covered the best Accra had to offer,” Battle explains, stating that, despite being an experienced traveller, she would have struggled to create a similar itinerary on her own.

Tastemakers chief executive and founder Cherae Robinson, who was named one of 10 “women to watch” by the United Nations Foundation for her work in expanding and facilitating tourism to Africa, is working to change outsider perceptions of what makes Africa tick. “The number one thing is to turn the page on misconceptions and [have Africans] own the African story,” she says.

For Robinson, who is African-American, this means investing in promoting outstanding creatives, holding specific industries accountable when they operate from a point of profit without contributing to local economies and getting in front of news stories “before the fires are flamed by out-of-touch international coverage”.

It’s a complicated task, one that African tourism bodies and private companies have been trying to accomplish, some with slow but growing successes, for decades.

Tastemaker’s roots lie in Rare Customs, an award-winning project Robinson started in 2014 to bridge the gap between foreign investors and small and medium-sized enterprises interested in three key growth areas for Africa: investment in agriculture, market entry and tourism.

Robinson first travelled to Africa in 2009, to Sierra Leone, working with micro-finance groups run by women. “I was so moved by the resilience of people after such a traumatic period,” she says, referencing the brutal 11-year civil war that ended in 2002.

Subsequently, Robinson travelled to South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Lesotho, Ghana and Senegal. “I discovered very distinct ­cultures of each place in both the traditional and contemporary sense.”

(Pic: Joe Klamar/AFP)

A cross-section of urban and rural life
Working in agriculture during this time with a focus on public-private partnerships, Robinson was experiencing a cross-section of urban and rural life in Africa. By day she was talking to farmers about micro finance, walking with livestock in fields; by night she was meeting young creatives and influencers at champagne parties on rooftop bars.

And when Robinson posted pictures on social media channels, she was met with incredulity from her friends and family. “People would constantly say: ‘Take me to Africa with you’,” she says.

In Nairobi, Robinson was introduced to Jeffrey Kimathi of Jamhuri Wear, award-winning filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu and Zambian-born, former MTV Base producer Cathy Phiri. “They were stylish, smart, driven and unlike anyone I saw in media depictions of Africa at the time, four years ago. They gave me an insider’s experience in Nairobi.”

Although this statement represents a skewed perception of Africa, one that popular media platforms such as Africa is a Country go to great lengths to dissect and vilify, there remains a latent truth here. Potential travellers are not always equipped with an informed understanding of what the African continent embodies.

The access Robinson enjoyed planted a seed in her entrepreneurial mind about offering highly curated tours that combine local insight and ingress on a more intimate level, with a luxury traveller in mind. “I consistently saw beauty and opportunity. I looked at [African] tourism as an industry with great potential, underdeveloped but a gateway to investment and growth.”

Breaking stereotypes
Essentially, Tastemakers Africa is an experiential group tour service that uses the convenience of technology (a start-up that understands the future is mobile, according to a recent Skift report) with the aim of eradicating entrenched misconceptions about travel in Africa. It isn’t the first of its kind – the Nomadness tribe of travellers, more than 9?000 strong, have been travelling in groups since 2011 to destinations and iconic events from the Holi festival in India to running with the bulls in Pamplona. Founded by New Yorker Evita Robinson in 2011, Nomadness makes use of a large network in each destination they visit and caters to the needs and desires of the group, over and above trends in travel.

“I gravitate towards experiences that break the stereotype of where black people ‘like’ to travel, giving a more well-rounded example of who we are,” explains Robinson, outlining that the group demographics consists of 80% female and 80% African-American members, but all are welcome to join.

To offer value, a tour package needs to be infused with innovation and technology that can break down deterrents such as issues around perception, affordability and accessibility, Cherae Robinson explains.

And this is where Tastemakers Africa, a mobile app (still in beta phase at the time of writing) and content platform comes in. “It’s like Groupon meets Afar magazine meets the coolest person in Lagos,” Robinson says.

When asked why travellers to urban Africa would consider a group tour at all, considering the current accessibility of information, existing tour offerings and social media ­connectivity, which Millennials (Tastemakers’ target group) understand better than any other market, Robinson says: “It’s a combination of ­wanting access to insider experiences and still having a ‘fear of Africa’ as a destination. We provide safety in a really cool package.”

Tastemakers, like Nomadness, takes travellers beyond the well-worn path of safaris and bush ­excursions that Africa remains best known for.

“People always want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s a natural inclination,” says Evita Robinson of her Nomadness tribe philosophy.

(Pic: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

New ideas and connections
Remote Year, founded by Greg Kaplan, is a group travel concept on a much larger scale. The idea is to manage a group of about 100 entrepreneurs and freelancers who work remotely, travelling to 12 fixed destinations around the world (across Europe, South America and Asia), for a bimonthly fee of $1?000.

Brittany Carter, a 24-year-old New Yorker and industry analyst who specialises in retail and technology, says that simply travelling to a destination is not enough, in her case. “With Remote Year I’ll continue to work, furthering my career while also building a core group of friends. Most nomads will tell you they get lonely trying to make new friends in every city. It’s wonderful to know I’ll have the same group of people travelling with me to each country,” she says.

The concept Remote Year offers during its yearlong residence is appealing to start-ups and entrepreneurs. Although it’s certain to ­challenge perceptions and ideas about destinations, it provides another potential advantage. “I want to start my own company someday and can’t imagine a better opportunity to fuel new ideas and connections than the group I’m going to be travelling with,” says Brittany, who’s keen to forge professional contacts.

Both Tastemakers and Nomadness use on-the-ground networks of insiders and experts to find the elements that will make up the tour. This is what Cherae Robinson terms their “special secret sauce”. “This motley crew of influencers are not involved in the tourism industry in the traditional sense; they are cool people making things happen who understand their city’s dynamics,” she says.

Reconnecting with your roots
Although there are exclusive launches and parties that Tastemakers guests get invited to, it’s not all about VIP access, Robinson is quick to point out. For many of the African-American travellers on tour, it’s their first trip to Africa, and an effort is made to include facilitation to reconnect with their roots.

“We arranged a traditional spiritual leader [to] come and do a naming ceremony for our travellers. For many of them it was an emotional experience as they were able to connect with Africa in a way they hadn’t before,” she says.

Working with regular tour operators in Africa involves a fair amount of training and untraining, explains Robinson, whose goal is to have operations based entirely on the ­continent, creating multiple job opportunities. “As it stands we don’t consider our staff in Africa merely local hires: they are part of the team.”

To ensure every aspect of the group tours go according to plan, a Tastemakers team member accompanies the group, as is the case with Nomadness. Having worked in development for several years means Robinson evaluates how the tours affect the environment and local residents, who if involved, she insists be paid equitably.

Ishay Govender-Ypma is a freelance travel journalist.

Follow her at @Foodandthefabfoodandthefabulous.com