What do you do when you have the travel bug and just can’t get it out of your system? Well, you start a business of course! Moni Baruwa has visited more than 25 countries, lived on 3 continents and connected with people from all across the globe. Her travels and the path of self-discovery and development led her to start her very first business venture in CountlessMiles. CountlessMiles is a travel startup that aims to transform the African’s perception of travel by curating unique, cultural and fun destination experiences within and outside the African continent.
Moni shared with us some of her thoughts on the black travel movement, filling in the gaps in her startup toolkit and her jollof of choice.
Why don’t you believe young Africans currently see intra Africa travel as an attractive option?
Traveling within Africa requires deeper introspection. Generally, the average young African’s idea of a travel destination has been focused on places where they can shop or conduct business, or show on social media and positively impact their social status. These historically have included locations in the UK, US, and Dubai. If a destination does not fit into this, then it is not seen as appealing. So our goal is not only to make intra Africa (and global) travel more attractive, but also to change the perception of travel as a whole to a means of learning and self-development.
I’ll use myself as an example. When I started solo traveling, and not just to shop or take pictures, the experiences forced me out of my comfort zone, and I developed the boldness to take risks and think bravely in ways that even a college degree didn’t offer. I believe if more of our young people have similar cultural experiences exploring other regions, cultures and ways of life, and brought home the knowledge, we would see significant impact from the community levels to the economic level.
Additionally, and equally important, Africa travel is quite expensive and costs the same or sometimes more than the more “attractive” travel options like Europe, US and the Middle East, so young travelers often opt for this. It’s similar to the dilemma US travelers face when trying to choose to travel to the West Coast from the East Coast, as compared to spending less on a round-trip flight to Europe.
Black Travel has become quite a popular topic in the media recently with companies like Travel Noire and Tastemakers Africa getting a lot of media attention for providing young black travelers with other options for travel and showcasing another side of the travel industry? What is CountlessMiles bringing to the conversation and adding value to the industry?
This is a question I get asked a lot. It is quite amazing the work that businesses like Travel Noire and Tastemakers Africa are doing. For instance, Travel Noire has totally transformed the travel industry for black people. I remember when I traveled, I didn’t see a lot of people like me – black and more so African, so this is good progress.
We have similar goals and missions in that we are changing the conversation with regards to blacks and travel. However, the approaches are quite different. Our goal at CountlessMiles is two-fold: we aim to not only change the average African’s perception of travel but also consciously add Africans to the “black traveler” community. This group of travelers is typically different from the black traveler community because they have unique barriers to travelling including issues such as obtaining visas with a non blue/maroon passport, finding travel health insurance to name a few.
When I traveled around Eastern Europe and I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina, the guy at the immigration border gave me a dirty look because of my Nigerian passport. He almost gave me a hard time getting in, but because of my experience with similar issues, I was fortunately able to convince him otherwise. Similarly, in Vancouver, the receptionist at the place I stayed said he had never seen a Nigerian passport before, so they made a souvenir of my passport. I was pleasantly surprised at that but it made sense, in part because of their own lack of curiosity, but largely because Africans haven’t fully embodied the essence of traveling the way the Europeans or Australians do, and have yet to reach that far.
This I believe makes CountlessMiles unique in its approach and impact – consciously encouraging Africans to travel the world in a unique way, while subconsciously opening up better tourism relationships with other countries and hopefully less visa hassles for Africans, especially West Africa. At CountlessMiles, we say “Your vacation starts with You”, because we focus on curating authentic personalized experiences for any African looking to travel, based on their budget and travel preferences. The primary service we provide, which is crafting a destination experience, is very customer-centric, while most of the competition seems to be focused on creating group trips that people can sign up for.
The travel industry across West Africa is very fragmented and has many small-scale operators. How will you identify the best operators that are able to deliver the experience your customers are expecting?
The great thing about experiential travel is being able to connect with the locals, the culture, and the new environment. This is the approach we take at CountlessMiles – visit the countries ourselves, get immersed in the culture, meet the locals and get information about the best offerings in the region, and build informal long-lasting relationships with potential partners. This way we are able to curate the best and most authentic experiences for clients based on first-hand knowledge and experienced recommendations.
Another useful resource that has worked particularly in West Africa is leveraging on our network across the region. Luckily through my travels and life path, I have been blessed to meet people who are key influencers in various West African countries. I am working with them to develop a list of the best operators that we can partner with, and with their connections, we are able to deliver high quality destination experiences for our customers.
Since this is your first startup, what are the hardest parts of getting your venture off the ground, and how are you looking to fill in the gaps?
The interesting thing I’ve realized about starting a business is that you think you’re the only one with the idea when you had that “Eureka!” moment, but then when you start trying to get things in motion and you do your research, you find that you have tons of competition. It also doesn’t make it any easier now that the travel buzz is starting to peak, and I am trying to build my brand.
This means working twice as hard as my competitors and thinking outside the box to really differentiate CountlessMiles. This made me quickly learn to trust my journey and stay focused on the big picture, because I realized that there will always be competition. With this in mind, I have been spending most of my time focusing less on competition but more on ways that we can differentiate the brand/business.
Another lesson I have learned about starting a business is that you can’t possibly know how to do everything in the business, except you’re God. I’m great at the strategy and technology aspects of the business, but not too experienced on the creative front. A trusted friend of mine volunteers her time to work on the creative and marketing aspects for the brand. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without her help.
The final difficulty which most startups also face is the issue of funding. Not having enough capital to get some areas of the business started and growing faster is quite a challenge. I have had to bootstrap my way through so far, but I am constantly applying to entrepreneurship programs and competitions that provide seed capital for African startups.
What’s next for CountlessMiles and what can we expect to see in the next 6 months?
We are hoping to launch the business fully to the general public in a few weeks and send out social media blast to fellow African travelers, who want to curate creative content and itineraries for the site – so stay tuned.
We are also working to deliver fun and creative itineraries and other unique content for our readers for each destination. We are taking a city-by-city approach to launching content; starting from our top favorite cities around the world, so expect content to grow gradually. Right now we are finalizing travel content and itineraries for our first African city Lagos, Nigeria, since this is home. You can also expect to see features from fellow African travelers about their experiences traveling the world.
Lastly, we are working on a key partnership within West Africa to integrate with a platform where travelers can get our exciting content on what to do in each city. As with any new startup that has a passionate and experienced travel team, I believe the sky is the limit in the next 6 months and beyond.
We asked Moni 5 quick questions about her favorite travel destinations and food tips:
What is your favorite place to visit in Africa and why?
I really liked Morocco because it was a birthday trip, so it was special and I was also extremely impressed by togetherness of the culture and tradition as seen in the market nightlife – Jemma el Fnaa.
Ghanaian Jollof, Nigerian Jollof or Senegalese Jollof?
Hmm, this is tricky because I haven’t tried Senegalese Jollof. So between Ghanaian and Nigerian – I’ll say Nigerian.
I am particularly a fan of Nigerian Jollof rice because I grew up on it, so I am ride or die. Ghananian jollof is a close second, especially when you add some shitto 😉
What SPF sunblock do you use?
I am a fan of SPF 50 Soltan Invisible Spray from Boots. I choose the highest SPF because we know our blessed Nigerian sun doesn’t smile, but sometimes I opt for SPF 30 (actually a tip from a dermatologist – SPF 30 and 50 don’t differ much).
Also, I love that it is price friendly and it gives me a golden brown tan that complements my complexion.
What’s your travel playlist? What international songs get you in the zone for a fun experience?
To be honest, I don’t have a travel playlist. Yes, my friends think I’m weird too. When I travel, I’m either zoned out reading a book or watching movies.
But I do have a couple of international songs that get me in the zone – I fell in love with Spanish music after living in Malaga, Spain for a few months. I like Me Gusta Tu by Manu Chao and Bailando by Enrique Iglesias.
Where are you off to next?
This is always exciting. I recently just mapped out how to travel within Africa without breaking the bank, so I am trying to decide between my West African mapped out route or my East African mapped out route. Seems like I’ll be choosing the West African route – The Gambia, Senegal and Mali.
Look out for the posts and content on CountlessMiles for this trip!