Obinna Ekezie, Founder and Group Managing Director, Wakanow
By Onome Amawhe
Wakanow, one of Africa’s most powerful one-stop travel companies operates a website where travellers take control of their bookings and reservations. The site provides reservation for more than 700 airlines, 512,000 hotels, and over 40 car rental companies across a network of 130 cities. Wakanow was created in 2008 as the pioneer of Nigeria’s web-based travel company.
Growing steadily during its first two years in business, the traction gained made it possible for the innovative travel company to be awarded an exclusive licence during the 2010 World Cup as an event reseller. During the past year, it launched an African travel booking platform – Destinations Africa (DA), a one stop travel booking platform for all categories of African travels. To drive the initiative, Wakanow partnered with Ebony Life TV; an entertainment and lifestyle network to produce a glamorous travel show- of same name. The TV show was designed to highlight the continent’s top destinations for African travellers.
Since inception, the site has recorded over 700,000 travel bookings, and counting. Obinna Ekezie, Wakanow Founder and Chief Executive, is one of the rare insiders who built a continent-wide behemoth with a passion for travel and a hyper-sensitivity to the customer experience. With responsibility for the overall profitability and performance of the organization, his focus is to build for the long term an enduring travel brand, invest heavily in technology to make transactions more efficient and acquire a stable customer base and market share. He shares his thoughts in this interview.
SINCE Wakanow came on board in 2008, how have you significantly changed the way travel reservations are made in Nigeria/Africa?
Prior to opening our doors for business in 2008, the industry was made up of booking agents who shrouded the booking and ticketing process in complete mystery. There was no such thing as a travelling customer having the opportunity to independently compare airline or hotel pricing, so what he/she was told is what they had to believe.
Back then, travel agents had a stronghold on air travel and it appeared that bookings were made deliberately difficult to push the customer towards paying more. Back in the US while I was a professional basketball player, I had a personal experience with making bookings from Nigeria and I asked myself, ‘why can’t we have the same experience here in Nigeria as we get in America and other developed markets?
Transparency and best priced deals
And as I did not see any reason why that could not be, we decided to set up Wakanow to change the face of travel and give people convenience, transparency and best priced deals. We have leveraged on technology and the entire digital ecosystem to change the way people book travel and reservation in Nigeria – offering customers a broad selection of highly affordable travel deals. We will continue to do more of this to put the power in the hands of the customers. Today, we are taking that same technology further into Africa and have recently launched an African travel booking platform called Destinations Africa (DA). Our vision is to own African packaged travel by aggregating the best of African holiday destinations under one roof. The continent has a lot to offer and we want to be at the forefront spearheading the effort to showcase its potential.
What was the driver for creating Wakanow– what gap did it fill?
Innovation is always at the back of our minds in everything we do. Wakanow was a response to an industry in dire need of improved customer service, better deals and more options and value for travelers. We wanted to get rid of the inefficiencies in the Nigerian travel management space and create a sustainable culture of transparency in the industry.
We also wanted to take the industry far beyond the brick-and-mortar model by creating travel solutions that are localized, but that still meet the globally accepted standards of service delivery and professionalism. And because of our keen appreciation of the peculiar cultural paradigms and preferences of the Nigerian traveler, we were able to quickly integrate innovative models that match these consumption patterns. We felt it was time we got Nigerians, and of course, Africans to make the most of seamless, easy and affordable travel booking at the click of a button.
What strategy did you adopt to drastically improve the online ticketing process involved in travelling to and from the continent?
I would say that technology was the backbone of our strategy. That is, the use of technology to offer superior service in the areas of ease, convenience and transparency. We went with the best of the best in building the technology we wanted. We were very clear in our minds that online ticketing was the future for the industry in Nigeria. We also recognized that there were Nigerians who wanted the direct personal interaction for their bookings.
This informed why we went with both an online and offline model and today, even though Wakanow is primarily online, we are also in over 30 travel centres around Nigeria and counting, including all the jor airports. Very shortly after opening our doors in Nigeria, we opened in Ghana, the UK and Dubai. We not only book travel for our customers, we also assist with facilitating their trips with ground transportation activities, telephony and travel wallets.
As opposed to the traditional approach of travel agencies, why did you opt for the online travel model?
One of the major factors that fueled our optimism for the model we adopted was the rise of digital technology. We looked at the statistics, and were convinced that technology would shape the future of travel. We were very clear about that, and despite the cynicism of many Nigerians to anything online at the time, we could see that there was a rising number of people who were voraciously consuming content online and would latch on as early adopters to our innovative offering. We were not wrong and today, posterity has proven us right in that regard.
Two years after you came on board, you were awarded the exclusive licence during the 2010 World cup as one of the events authorized ticket resellers. How did you close that deal within the short time of your launch?
Our precedence came through for us in obtaining that license. It was early days for us when we applied for and got it, but the fact that we could thrive in such an uncertain terrain at the beginning gave the World Cup organizers the confidence that we could handle it. It proved to be one of the most challenging things we ever did but we pulled it off and in the process got very good visibility from being a significant Nigerian participant in the event. We are very proud of that achievement.
I’m of the opinion that Wakanow’s development has been surprisingly rapid. How was this accomplished? Can you tell us a little about what the early stages was like?
At inception, the business was not a smooth ride; it was like a plane battling with a cluster of whirlwinds at takeoff point. We had it tough from various players in the industry while trying to get a foothold in the market. At the time, even though there were some early adopters, most people were and are still scared of making payment online because of the nation’s unflattering history with internet fraud.
Most exciting destinations
But the conviction of our vision far outweighed any hitches we faced. With tenacity, we continued and the books started looking attractive. We have surpassed our initial projections in terms of growth; going global just within a few years of our existence is a feat that delights us as much as it humbles us.
What difference does Wakanow want to make?
For us, beside our vision to become Africa’s biggest online travel company, we also want to make Africa one of the most exciting destinations on the planet. This is a major factor that influenced our DestinationsAfrica platform. We want the world to be able to experience the new Africa of hope and beauty; a new Africa of pride and endless possibilities. We are part of that fundamental shift in how tomorrow’s Africa will be perceived, not the continent of hunger, diseases and unrest. We want to champion that conversation about a new Africa.