What is Bongalo? Google-backed company calls itself “Africa’s Airbnb”

A new option for travelers offers authentic stays in previously unknown destinations.

Bongalo is a Cameroonian travel startup that has been heralded as “Africa’s Airbnb”. The Google-backed company was designed for the African traveler, but is now eyeing long-term global growth in hopes that it will be able to provide special features for international users.

Founded in Bamenda, Cameroon by web entrepreneur Nghombombong Minuifuong as a real estate company, bongalo stuttered at first because of the civil war in the country. minuifuong transformed the business into an online booking agency when it moved to Rwanda in 2019 and now has over 2,000 users on the platform. Bongalo currently lists properties in Rwanda and Cameroon that welcome guests from all over the world.

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“The average host is between 30 and 45 years old, with average guests between 25 and 40 years old. Most users are young people, but we have users between 25 and 60 years old”, minuifuong said.

Bongalo’s short-term goal is to put Africa first with convenient booking solutions. They focus on the challenges faced by travelers and local hosts. It starts with offering a trusted local platform where people can list and find accommodation.

Making payments accessible is probably the most crucial step. Bongalo accepts mobile money, the most widespread electronic payment solution in Africa with more than 500 million registered accounts. A growing number of Africans abroad are using mobile money to facilitate transactions at home, potentially opening up more business for hosts. Pan-African banks like UBA and Ecobank are getting in on the action, facilitating mobile money financing with bank accounts through which users can securely book property stays online.

Many mobile money users are people without bank accounts or credit cards. Bongalo allows African guests and hosts to comfortably exchange money from their mobile phones into local currency at cheaper rates.

Courtesy of Bongalo

There is a deliberate effort to help travelers who are not exposed to technology. Bongalo has built relationships with independent travel agents to help promote the platform. These agents help book for less tech-savvy travelers. Agents can also help secure tickets for trips, events and experiences.

Foreign and local users can use Visa and MasterCard on Bongalo. The company tries to help its users go further than the big players in the industry can take them by listing properties in remote areas without internet. This will give travelers the chance to discover and stay in new places.

Minuifuong says user reception has been excellent with an approval rating of over 86%. This rating is one of the reasons Google for Startups is providing $320,000 in non-equity funding to Bongalo through its Black Founders Fund in Africa. This approval will provide Bongalo with more visibility, build trust and attract more funding to continue the expansion.

This expansion, if successful, will occur in a world dominated by established giants like Airbnb, Booking.com and countless other accommodation providers, but Minuifuong sees Bongalo as a legitimate competitor up to the point where opportunities for collaboration arise. To their advantage, he thinks they understand the true nature of the African market.

“The typical African host is kind, welcoming, will integrate you into their family and transport you around the city,” adds Minuifuong.

They have their work cut out for them if they want to play with the big guys who have already established a solid presence on their home turf. Airbnb has more than eight times the number of properties listed on Bongalo for Kigali, so one of the newcomer’s biggest challenges will be convincing more hosts to join the fledgling platform.

Airbnb has over 100,000 properties listed in Africa and has so far proven to be a reliable source of income for African hosts. They have also invested heavily in creating an engaging package that includes experiences, luxury options, and a wealth of information to educate their users.

Bongalo’s founder, Nghombombong MuinifuongCourtesy of Bongalo

A strategy to counter this could be to aggressively target users who are new to booking online. Bongalo will have to be creative to build a unique project for its customers. Getting help from Google is great, but they are going to need support from African countries where they are creating jobs and opportunities. They operate in a space with a wealth of things to see and do, so a lot of time and effort will be required to create immersive content that gives travelers a taste of where Bongalo can take them.

The company is building a team to meet these challenges before moving on to the next phase of growth. Bongalo plans to launch this year in Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal. The goal is to list properties in at least 20 African countries within five years. Mobile apps are expected to be released in 2022 on Android and iOS. The ambition of its founder, although massive, is expressed very serenely.

“We want to be the benchmark platform on the African continent, a billion-dollar business in five years,” Minuifuong muses. “We want to become a household name.”

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