Experience based travel is not just a trend we are seeing in India, it’s happening around the world. SafariDesk, is an African startup, which provides offbeat experiences and luxury travel. The company, backed by Kenya’s Savannah Fund, is a marketplace which connects travellers and service providers.
From meeting his co-founder on Twitter to exhausting the generosity of his parents and having to sleep on his best friends floor, Irvine Ndwiga, Co-Founder of SafariDesk has a great story to tell. Edited Excerpts.
How did you start on the idea?
Ever since my days in high school, when MySpace was a really big deal, I always dreamt founding a tech startup. Then in 2010, when I was studying in Perth, Western Australia I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing mentors who encouraged me to make the leap. So one day, after months of going through a bunch of ideas that weren’t really great, I was at a coffee meeting with one of them and we got to talking about what fun stuff there was to do in Kenya. The chat soon turned into a discussion of the viability of making Africa more accessible online. That’s the day I decided to seriously explore travel in Africa. Initially I just wanted to have an online tour operator, but after seeing how inefficient the existing industry model was, I decided to try and do things differently. That meant trying to see where travel would be in about 10 years or so and trying to make it happen. That’s what lead to me starting work on the idea of SafariDesk itself in March 2011; A collaborative travel platform that made it really easy to connect travellers with the perfect deals for the best travel experiences in Africa.
Tell us about yourself and how you met your co founder?
I was born and raised in Kenya. My parents were the first one’s in their families to go to university so from a very young age I understood the value of education. While in high school I decided I wanted to go to university abroad so that I could be exposed to more of the world. Somehow in 2008, right around the time I found out about Hacker News and Y Combinator, I started losing interest in the hard core tech side of life and I decided to get into figuring out how to leverage tech to create a viable startup. That’s when I switched to a Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurship which was a pretty new course at my school. It turned out to be great!
I met my co-founder Paul Hunkin through Twitter in August 2012. We’d both applied for the Savannah Fund accelerator and when the coding test was sent out, he solved it in about 20 minutes. Savannah Fund tweeted about it and I was just astounded. I decided to find out who this coding ninja was. Fortunately, he’d tweeted them back. Within an hour, I’d reached out to him and we set-up a Skype call. The call was about 2 hours and by the end of it, we’d decided to both work on SafariDesk.
When did you start building the product and when did you go live?
I started working on some initial concepts way back in 2011. When we settled into the Savannah Fund accelerator in November 2012 we used these as the foundation for the platform. We went through several iterations based on user feedback and finally launched our beta mvp in May 2013. It took us a pretty long time to get it out since we had to build the entire platform from the ground up as we weren’t relying on traditional Global Distribution Systems for our inventory like most travel startups do.
What destinations do you showcase currently?
Currently we’re focused on showcasing East Africa with the primary focus being on Kenya.
It’s just how it happened. SafariDesk was meant to streamline travel in Kenya. But it was soon evident that any solutions that worked for Kenya would work for the entire continent.
What were the initial challenges?
I started working on this alone in 2011. My skills in coding were not amazing so my first concern was raising funds to get someone to develop an mvp for me. I’m grateful that my parents helped were able to lend me some money to get the ball rolling. I had a very minimal mvp developed in 2011 but it never saw the light of day. It ended up being a very expensive lesson. I learnt then that I needed a technical co-founder and spent a lot of time networking trying to find one in Perth. As you can imagine, not very many people were very keen on going to do a startup in Africa. The biggest barrier was of-course money. Having exhausted my parents generosity, I started looking for angel investors in Perth starting off with some of my mentors. That didn’t work out too well I have to say. They wanted to see a working product and traction, but I need the money to make that happen. It was a classic catch 22. Right before SafariDesk got accepted into the Savannah Fund accelerator, things were looking pretty bleak as I spent about 20 weeks sleeping on my best friends floor. Any money I had coming my way I spent trying to push things forward with SafariDesk.
Basically starting off by myself with limited technical ability, no technical co-founder and no money was pretty challenging.
What other services do you provide?
So what we’re doing at the moment is identifying local tour operators that have identify with our vision and we’re working with them to handle logistics. We have some amazing partners who handle everything from when a clients lands in Kenya to when they leave.
You recently raised funds?
So we raised 25K from Savannah Fund when we joined the accelerator. I always knew raising tech focused VC money was the way to go for SafariDesk due to the very audacious vision at it’s core. Actually we’re currently raising another round.
What are your plans for expansion?
We’re finding that most of the encountering in the African market are actually present in a lot of places worldwide. If our solutions prove to be scalable enough, then we’ll definitely make a play for other regions. I have tons of friends from India and they think SafariDesk could be quite useful there.
You guys accept Bitcoins. What made you integrate Bitcoin payments?
There’s been a lot of interest in Bitcoins over the past few years and it made sense for us to have it as an option. Online payments are still not as widespread in Africa and we think the adoption of bitcoins would be an awesome solution around this.
Are there any payments done from Bitcoins yet?
Not at the moment. But we’ve certainly had some people ask about it.
What traction have you seen so far?
We currently have 77 high end properties on the platform and are scrambling to bring on about 90 more. The number increases significantly when we factor in all the other mid market destinations and offers. The explosive growth of our Facebook page is also a testament to the growing interest in what we stand for despite being a very early stage startup.