Wakanow: Taking African Destinations Global

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Waknow CEO, Obinna Ekezie and Executive Director Zenith Bank, Sola Oladipo, during the announcment of Wakanow’s rebranding, 

Nigerian online travel company, Wakanow, launched four new web portals on the occasion of its rebranding last week. Speaking on the sidelines of the event, the company’s CEO Obinna Ekezie elaborated further on the reasons behind the new innovation and Wakanow’s vision. Demola Ojo reports…

Last week, Nigeria’s leading online travel portal, Wakanow, held an event in Lagos to announce major developments in the company’s evolution. First was the unveiling of a new brand identity meant to reflect a more mature, aspirational outlook that resonates with its global intentions and with the dynamic nature of its target market.

According to Wakanow CEO Obinna Ekezie, “The brand we had was a reflection of what we had been doing and have done up to this point. But we felt that the new brand and the simplicity and richness of it, and the new direction, which is we are about to go to the world and show the world what Africa is about… a true, very strong African brand that can compare with any global brand, that’s why we felt that we should also rebrand, to be able to show the world that we’re ready to compete and to show Africa in a different light.”

The second major announcement on the day was the disclosure of a new partnership with Zenith Bank. Ekezie remarked: “The most important thing for us as a company is to have a banking partner that will help us go global.”

In partnering with Zenith Bank for its global rollout Wakanow found a bank if sees as nimble, forward –focused and with the capacity to take on the rapidly expanding portfolio of the Wakanow brand.

“We’re establishing new goals and targets every day. We are looking at how to deploy Wakanow across the continent and the technology to enable the payment gateway. That is why we’re working with Zenith Bank because of the spread they have on the continent,” Ekezie explained.

Wakanow has grown from humble beginnings in 2008 to one of the major players in the travel industry in Africa today. Launched in 2010, the company has over 600 employees, and is looking at getting bigger and taking on more challenges. Which is why the third announcement of the day was arguably the most important.

Multiple Web Engines

Over the years, Ekezie – a former basketball player in the NBA – has repeatedly stated that the company he cofounded is a technology company more than anything else. The Wakanow web portal is driven by the power of technology to help customers get the best deals in real time. However, during the brand’s relaunch last week, Wakanow revealed that rather than one website, it would have four. One for Africa, another for the US, a separate one for the UK and yet another for the UAE.

“As a company, we had a vision of going global two years ago,” Ekezie said. “Just like the initial Wakanow platform, these platforms took the better part of two years to build. These platforms are not just websites, they’re engines.”

Stating that the company has been getting so many bookings from the UK and US without having dedicated websites for those markets, he explained that the platforms will make it easier for those outside the continent, including Nigerians and Africans in the diaspora, to choose travel packages tailored for them.

“To give you an example, Wakanow UK is focused on the UK market with special deals on UK flights, hotels, and other stuff for people coming to Africa. It’s the same that we sell here, hotels, flights, visas, but specific to that market.

“For the US, people in the US will have the best deals coming out of the US. Wakanow will sell you the best deals coming out of that market. Before, we had people booking from the Wakanow Nigeria website. Now, on each of those portals, you have independent deals from what you have on the Nigerian website.

“For the UK it charges in pounds, for the US, it charges in US dollars, and for UAE, it charges in dirhams. So we will be able to earn different revenues and foreign exchange from these markets.

“Nigerian companies, not just Wakanow, should be able to offer services that will help the country earn foreign exchange,” Ekezie said, against the backdrop of the renewed talk about diversification of the economy “which should happened about 10 years ago when the price of oil was at its peak.”

The Big Picture

With the slowdown in the economy, the travel industry itself has slowed down with the price of tickets much higher now. But as a company, we’ve still been able to grow, because we’re a technology platform and more people are now trying to embrace technology,” he revealed.

“People are becoming more price sensitive and looking for the best deals, and because we offer the best deals, we’re still experiencing growth.

“While Nigeria has felt the adverse effect of oil prices, other countries have gained, like the US and China. They’ve benefitted from cheaper oil prices so their economic outlook is much stronger. That’s why it’s important that we go to those markets so we can sell them African destinations, so we can grow as a company and also try and create more jobs.”

Ekezie believes that right now, Nigeria has no other option than to produce. His company has held consultations with the Central Bank of Nigeria, Bank MDs and other players in the financial sector to explain its vision. “We are selling African products to the world. It doesn’t mean we’re selling rice or what have you. We’re selling Africa as a destination which will help us earn foreign exchange so we will contribute to the Nigerian and African economy, because we cannot not be totally reliant on commodities which is what we are suffering from today.

“Those selling commodities are experiencing a downturn which is why African economies are suffering. We should start to export refined products, finished products asides from just exporting raw materials and we’ll start to see a more positive impact on the economy.”

African Tourism and Visas

Speaking on how to sell African destinations better, Ekezie said, “We’re going to the World Travel Market in Cape Town and we’re having a session there discussing tourism in Africa. This issue about Africans having to get visas to go to other African countries is old. We have to scrap it. It would be easier for people to move around within Africa. Obviously we should make sure that the security issues are being addressed.

“An example is Dubai. Today you can get a Dubai visa without visiting an embassy but they have very serious security. So the issue of having to go get a visa makes it harder for people to visit your country and if you want your country to develop, you need to allow people to come in, visit your country, experience the tourism aspect and look into the investment opportunities.”

This is what has helped Dubai diversify their economy from oi to a tourism-based economy with many Nigerians buying property in the Arab Emirate.

“We’re pushing with the tourism boards, immigration and foreign ministries, to have a discussion about how to use technology to enable easier visa processing that would spur tourism, which is what Dubai has done.”

The Past, the Future…

The Wakanow CEO is enjoying every bit of birthing a new company and seeing it grow as he talked about challenges and surmounting them.

“You must understand that as the first company in the online travel space, we are breaking ground. And when you’re looking at partners; airlines, hotels, banks, nobody really understood what we were doing, so it was always difficult trying to convince people.

“What we did was work extremely hard and create a platform focused on the customer, with exciting products and exciting deals. When costumers started understanding the value we were creating, in terms of the technology platform and customers started to adopt it, all our partners knew it was the future and that Wakanow was here to stay.”

Now, besides its online presence, Wakanow has over 25 travel centers across Nigeria with plans to make that a hundred by the end of the year. Wakanow also has offices Ghana as well as in the countries with the new portals; the US, the UK and the UAE.

The company has also gone into the ground transportation business with the acquisition of oya.com, a local bus, cargo and car hire services company.

Wakanow isn’t done yet.

“As we speak, the next global platform we’re going to build is China. Today China is leading the rest of the world in global tourism numbers. The last report that we received showed that over 100 million Chinese travelled outside China. One hundred million! Those are tremendous numbers.”