Exclusive interview : Estelle Verdier-Watine, Managing Director, Jovago East and Southern Africa

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1. Tell us about Jovago East Africa and your role as the Managing Director.

Jovago is the leading hotel booking website in Africa with an increasing inventory; partnering with over 25,000 hotels in more than 40 African countries.. We cover all types of destinations from urban to rural areas, from a very broad range of 1 to five star hotels, camping sites, bed and breakfast, serviced apartment, lodges. We have offices in 10 countries from where we operate customer services in local languages and with local knowledge, conduct training for hotel employees and managers, and conduct marketing operations.

I am overseeing operation in 19 countries with the support of a team of close to 100 people.

2. When did you assume this role? What are the challenges and how you have tried to mitigate them?

I was recruited by the investors in July 2013. At that time we did not have a website yet and I was visiting hotels one by one to sell them the idea of joining the Jovago network. People were very skeptical about online services and we had to prove to them that we were a reputable company and that online promotion could be of benefit to their business. We also had to train them on how to confirm our bookings and take care of our customers. Last but not least we had to adapt our online processes to the reality which was that most hotels had very limited connectivity; hence resulted to finding innovative ways of contacting them especially in very remote areas.

For the customers, we had to adapt the western model of online booking to the local demand, for instance, the possibility to pay upon arrival, or via mobile payment. We have also obtained resident rates, and negotiated special deals for the local holiday seasons. We strongly believe that the customer is the boss, and we keep on listening to our customers to adapt our offer and make it easier to travel in Africa. Recently we launched our website in Swahili to better serve our Tanzanian customers. We also opened customer service centers in Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia on top of our Kenyan hub to provide more local knowledge to our customers and get closer to them.

3. How do you rate Jovago against other booking portals in East Africa?

I don’t know any other East African booking portal offering end to end online booking process with such a large and diverse portfolio of hotels and rates as competitive as ours. We are also the only hotel booking platform with such a large local presence in over 10 countries with over 400 team members assisting customers in their booking process.

4. With Africa’s estimated population to increase by 1.3 billion in 2050, according to UN reports, what are your plans to meet with increasing demands for your services?

We are constantly growing our customer service team to cope with the increasing number of bookings. We also conduct trainings for hotel managers and staff for them to become more autonomous with the management of booking coming from Jovago. On the offer side, we sign up new hotels on our platform to ensure that each visitor will find an accommodation which will fit respective needs.

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5. What alliances are you forming with private companies and government agencies to strengthen and improve the services your company offers?

We are in partnership with numerous Tourism boards and transport companies including bus, taxi services and regional carriers. Our website is integrated on the partner company’s website to enable visitors book and reserve Jovago hotels at convenience without having to navigate from the particular website. We offer one stop shop solution to travel industry players

6. What are the incentives your numerous customers enjoy for their loyalty and business?

We are regularly rewarding our customers with special deals, and discount. We have a great number of returning customers. People who book on Jovago once usually come back for their next hotel bookings. We also reward customers who recommend our service to new customers.

7. What advice would you give potential customers that are not using the Jovago platform?

Customers should visit Jovago to see how easy it is to book a hotel (4 clicks and no payment) and how affordable it is to travel in Africa.

8. How would you rate the support you get from government agencies in terms of information gathering and how are government policies affecting your business?

The government is very aware of how strategic it is to grow the tourism industry to boost revenue and employment. We work hand in hand with tourism agencies such as KTB to support the growth of the industry.

9. What policies do you think should be put in place or that are not in place to support your business?

We still face some challenges when it comes to connectivity in rural areas. Access to internet should be a right for all Kenyans. The network should be extended to cover even the less populated areas. In terms of promotion of the country, we strongly believe that public, private sectors and media have to join forces to shed more light on Africa so as to showcase the diversity of the destination, the business potential, the safe environment, the ease of travelling and the large number of accommodation options.

The tourism industry represents a great potential in terms of revenue and job creation, we have to work hand in hand with all stakeholders if we want to support the growth of this industry

10. What is your hotel acquisition rate in East Africa?

We are currently partnering with more than 4,000 hotels in East Africa if we consider only Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. We estimate that there are about 7,000 hotels in this region.Every month about 400 hotels join our network in East Africa

11. Who is behind Jovago?

Jovago is part of a large group called, Africa Internet Group which is the leading e-commerce incubator in Africa. Our investors are MTN, Tigo and Rocket Internet. These 3 investors give us access to a large market as well as a unique knowledge about e-commerce in Africa. Our sister companies are Jumia, Lamudi, Easy Taxi, Hello Food, Kaymu and we all work together to guide the African industry towards the digital shift.

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