Jovago hopes to make online hotel bookings the norm in East Africa

Travellers often face difficulties booking hotels in Africa. Securing a decent hotel in a safe location at an affordable price is often easier said than done. A large percentage of hotels lack an online presence and quite often listed phone numbers don’t work while emails are not responded to in good time.

Estelle Verdier

Estelle Verdier

Hotel booking site is hoping to address some of these challenges by giving more hotels in Africa online visibility and acting as a link between hotels and clients. Jovago allows customers to find hotels and book a room online. The company operates in a number of African countries and has signed partnerships with close to 8,000 hotels.

Users have the option to pay online via credit card or mobile money, or upon arrival. Jovago makes money through commissions agreed with hotels depending on the size and location of the property.

In East Africa, Jovago is headed by Estelle Verdier who oversees 11 countries. Verdier told How we made it in Africa that for both hotels and clients the concept of booking hotels online is only now picking up pace in East Africa.

Jovago is a subsidiary of Africa Internet Group (AIG), a joint venture between Berlin-headquartered internet incubator Rocket Internet and telecoms operators MTN and Millicom.

“I would say 50% of the bookings are made by people in Africa while the other half is by traditional tourists or business travellers from outside the continent,” says Verdier. “For many Africans it is their first experience making an online hotel booking so we strive to make it a good experience, ensuring we have better rates and seamless communication with the hotels.”

The French-born entrepreneur started Jovago in Kenya a year ago and describes the last 12 months of operation as “very exciting”.

Verdier and her team have travelled extensively across East and Southern Africa to sign up new hotels.

“To sign each hotel we have to meet with the hotel manager to explain to them how they will benefit from this worldwide visibility. It is very interesting because for many of our employees travelling to sign up new hotels was the first time they were travelling outside of Kenya. When they come back they have great stories of how different countries operate both in the cities and smaller towns.”

She says frequent travels have enabled the Jovago team to get a good understanding of the region, adding that although often viewed as similar, countries in the region are very diverse.

It is a learning process

“When you go closer to South Africa you find people are more used to online bookings, but when you go to Uganda or Rwanda you really have to explain everything. It is interesting to see the different stages the different countries are at in terms of being digital,” says Verdier.

She notes that having longstanding relationships with hotel managers is critical for Jovago at a time that competition is increasing. This enables the company to get better room rates, prompt confirmation on availability of rooms, and guarantee that when a guest finally arrives they will have their reservation.

“We have come a long way. For instance, at the beginning hotels were making the mistake of asking clients to pay on arrival without realising that the client had already made online payments at the time of booking. We, however, countered such situations by reinforcing communication with our hotels before the guest’s arrival.”

She adds that phone calls still feature a lot in the process even though ideally everything should be “totally online”.

Verdier says Jovago hopes to close these gaps and help the hotel industry in Africa catch up with global trends.

“It is a learning process,” she explains. “People often fear online businesses because they assume behind the website there is just one person coding at night. This is a real business and we have 30 people in Nairobi making sure that the experience of customers in East Africa is great. We also have a team in Portugal working on our website and an office in Nigeria in charge of content. So behind the website there are many people working hard.”

By the end of 2014 Verdier estimates Jovago will have signed a total of 10,000 hotels across the continent and expanded to new markets such as Burundi, Mozambique, Zambia and the larger Central Africa.

“Our goal is to ensure that each customer who comes to our website can get a property that fits their needs whether it is a five star hotel or a motel in a small town. There should be something for everyone.”