Cherae Robinson is the founder and CEO of Tastemakers Africa, a mobile app that allows travelers to book curated experiences in African cities.
Knowledge at Wharton: Where did this love of the African continent get started for you?
Cherae Robinson: I think I’ve wanted to go to Africa as long as I can remember. I used to work in development. I worked in CIMMYT (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo), a World Bank research institution based in Mexico. I was spending a lot of time in southern and eastern Africa. Before that, I spent about a month in Sierra Leone. So part of it was, as an African-American, I was interested in the historical context. Then, when I was there for work, I saw the wealth of business opportunities available on the continent. It’s kind of dual interest for me.
Knowledge at Wharton: I want to know about Tastemakers. Tell us a little more about that and your business there.
Robinson: Tastemakers is a mobile app that allows you to book epic experiences in African cities. It’s about connecting you to insider ways, with an authentic African experience. The idea of being premium and African is not something that you see, particularly in the travel space. What we do is create all these experiences, right now in five countries, that allow you to travel, be included, be an insider, but at the same time, travel with a certain degree of safety and style.
Knowledge at Wharton: The interesting part is that you’re doing it through an app. It may not be normal to think about travel in that way. But in the digital world we live in, it’s an area of focus and probably an area of growth.
“The idea of being premium and African is not something that you see, particularly in the travel space.”
Robinson: We knew we needed to create a platform. If you go to Tastemakersafrica.com, you see lots of visual, first-hand account content on things that should inspire you to travel and explore African cities in a different way. We knew that there was a lot of content about Africa being produced. We needed something to actually take people there in a way that speaks of the trends in the travel industry right now. Orbitz, Expedia … everybody is trying to go mobile and go local at the same time. Tastemakers is a pioneer in doing this, because we started in the beginning knowing that travelers not only wanted to have these more connected experiences, but they also wanted to be able to book these things in just a few taps. That’s what Tastemakers does.
Knowledge at Wharton: So where is interest in a product like Tastemakers coming from?
Robinson: There are two sets of people. You have more people doing business in Africa, and they don’t have access to what’s happening locally because their companies say, “Be safe, stay inside your hotel.” They want to be better connected. So you have that subset of people. Then you have 10 million people — particularly younger people — who are going to the continent already, but just not being connected. They’re reading blogs for hours, they’re trying to find ways to connect, but there’s no brand that says, “Come here, find everything that’s awesome, and then book it through this interface where you spend 70% of your time anyway.” People look at their phones 70 times a day, at a minimum. They are used to these devices. But they don’t have that option once they come to the African continent.
Knowledge at Wharton: Was an app the most straightforward and easiest way to bring this information forward?
Robinson: Yes. When I first started Tastemakers, I had thought about it as a consulting opportunity. I said, “I can consult with tourism boards and help them figure out how to talk to this next-generation traveler who sees himself as a global citizen.” I tried that. I said, “Well, we can do a blog and help them brand it.” But it just wasn’t sticking. It just wasn’t working. What I realized is that travelers today are mobile. Even their hotel decisions are something that people make on their mobile phones. The other piece was the supplier side of the business; these people are not sitting at a desktop. When I looked at where the traveler was and where the experience providers were, all of them are on their phones all the time. So, for me, it seemed the best way to penetrate people’s minds and the travel decision-making processes in a place where they were spending the majority of their time anyway.
“[The new leadership] is moving the continent forward, moving their countries forward. For me, the leadership change is really about that.”
Knowledge at Wharton: If I go on your app [does it list] where my deals or my opportunities are within the next couple of days, or is this something I could also plan in advance?
Robinson: That’s what I think is really special about Tastemakers, because the other thing we noticed about the African travel space was that it’s run by the idea of a tour operator. So you have to plan weeks in advance. But in the Tastemakers app, it’s virtually on demand.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the key lessons you have learned?
Robinson: I don’t think we would be as far along as we are if we didn’t go through an accelerator. Accelerators give you networks. I don’t think you can be successful as an entrepreneur without figuring out who your networks are, how to grow them, how to utilize them. Tastemakers is a small start-up. We raised a round of angel funding over the summer. But being part of the African Leadership Network Ventures program enabled us to find people who would do things for us. We didn’t have the budgets to hire them. So I think that’s one of the benefits of going through an accelerator.
The second piece is really pushing to challenge yourself on your model. With Tastemakers we had a commission-based model to begin with. It seemed the right thing. But through the accelerator, we learned that we were diminishing our value proposition. We were devaluing the time it takes to curate these epic experiences. We realized that we really had a premium business model.
“In Africa, the startup space is still fairly new and novel. The funding space is even more novel.”
The networking is probably the biggest piece. I think the last part that we got from the accelerator process was peer-to-peer learning. I can’t stress how much those peer-to-peer learning opportunities and peer-to-peer relationships have catapulted us over one obstacle or another, just by learning what other persons in the same position went through and how they solved a problem.
Knowledge at Wharton: The fact that there is so much development going on in Africa right now means that the continuing relationship with people is going to be very important to the success of this operation.
Robinson: In Africa, the start-up space is still fairly new and novel. The funding space is even more novel. And so the community of founders and investors and the ecosystem around them that helps businesses scale is critical. With Tastemakers, we won a start-up competition called She Leads Africa in Nigeria last September. She Leads Africa catapulted us into that ecosystem.
Knowledge at Wharton: As you operate in Africa, what are some of the real challenges that you’re facing in operating a business?
Robinson: I think one of the things, particularly in our leisure and travel industry, is talent and grooming talent. You have talent that comes back and works for a multinational — with a multinational salary. I think one of the things that we’ve had to do was create a lot of processes around talent — referral-based programs and programs to train talent. Both talent that works for Tastemakers directly and the staff at the restaurants and the tours and the activities that our travelers are booking. Customer service is a big issue on the continent. It’s a very different level of service from what one is expecting in the kinds of experiences that Tastemakers is focused on. We’ve had to identify the gems and help take them to the next level. There are smart, sharp people, but you have to be willing to put in the work to help those people get to their true potential. I think the other piece is infrastructure.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are you looking for and what are you seeing around leadership on the continent?
Robinson: Leadership is changing on the continent. The old version of leadership, which was not about bringing up the next generation, but about making as much money as you can and keeping it in your little clan or whatever you call it, is going away. [The new leadership] is moving the continent forward, moving their countries forward. For me, the leadership change is really about that. It’s about helping individuals and organizations achieve their potential. That’s really exciting, and hopefully will cross over into politics. But right now, business is leading that call.