Managing Director, Jovago.com, an online travel agency, Mr. Marek Zmyslowski, spoke to Chinazor Megbolu on the internet revolution in Nigeria and how it has helped to boost the economy of the country and Africa as a whole. Excerpts:
How were you able to become number one Internet booking portal in Africa as stated in your profile?
We always take into account a couple of factors when it comes to companies and we are definitely one of the biggest companies when it comes to inventories. Right now from Jovago.com, you can choose more than 20,000 hotels, which is available on the website. 20,000 hotels in Africa and more than 200,000 in the world and each of the 20,000 hotels in Africa was done personally by our staff and no other online travel agency does that, and no other online travel agency gives the customer the guarantee of what they see on the website is the reality of what they will get. We also have the highest rated feedbacks of customers in terms of their satisfaction level and I think these are the two most important factors that make us the number one travel agency because customers have the biggest choice of hotels they can choose from and of course with the best rates and we are also the number one in highest ratings of customers statisfaction because if you are a customer, you want to be happy. Don’t you? So, I believe that is what makes us number one. Of course, it is easier said than done.
What was your impression about Nigeria before you came establish your business in the country?
From business point of view, Nigeria represents the most exciting market in Africa and Africa also represents one of the most 15 exciting market in the world and it is the most exciting market because of its size, speed and the growth and then when you get deeper, not from business perspective but also from people perspective, Nigeria is the most very vibrant country and like they say, that Nigeria is a nation of traders and a nation of entrepreneurs and you can actually see that most especially in Lagos. Everybody wants to make money, which makes business negotiations quite easy and enjoyable because everybody have the same goal to make money and build business and grow the economy.
Why do you see Nigeria as viable place to do business?
I am in the business of online travel and in online travel, we can clearly see three trends that enforce each other. The first trend is the trend of putting businesses online, every business you can think of sooner or later will be online, mobile traffic and Nigeria is the fastest adopting country in terms of technologies and the amount of mobile traffic is actually the biggest in Africa and of the biggest in the world. Then, we have the trend of the growing economy and the hospitality business where Jovago is also situated and it is always the effort of the growing economy, business grows and people needs to travel because they need it and the third trend is the demographics and Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and it is one of the youngest in the world and been estatic from 15 to 20 years from now to be one of the most populous country in the world and we are talking about the biggest market in the world.
Do you think the internet revolution can boost Nigeria’s economy financially? Please, share?
It definitely can. We shouldn’t treat the Internet technology as the saviour of all our problems. We have to get the fundamentals fixed as well but definitely, Internet help businesses grow. Look for example, our sister companies like Kaymu in the market place, which helps street traders find new customers. Jovago is a perfect example, we put hotels online, hotels that would never able to find customers online because they have websites but don’t know how to use it and now they are getting additional customers online so in general, it is a communication between people and between businesses, which is easier and when communication is easier, businesses grows.
How do you think this sector can help to boost employment generation in Nigeria?
When we established Jovago two years ago, we were just two employees and right now we have 80 people working for Jovago and addition of 40 people working as our field representatives. So, obviously, online businesses create employment, one of the biggest challenges in this country. It helps the economy to grow, help people get jobs and also make their life style better.
Are there challenges that you face daily in your operations?
We run an online business in Nigeria but it is surprising to see some typical challenges that we online companies have to face in the area of power shortages and having to have generators and then diesel and moving to much higher cost of Internet connection than other countries, then move to much higher complication of estate especially in Lagos, which are very expensive and also the situation in the market where when you have an office, you have to pay for a year or two or sometimes five years up front. All these things generates high overhead cost and high startup cost for a company to deal with and creates urgency and need to be frugal in your operations and if you really want to check every kobo you want to spend because it is easy to spend a lot of money when you are based in Nigeria. The additional charge we have to face, again we have an online company but in order to grow, so many times, we have to run an offline marketing strategies in order to attract customers. Many customers book hotels on Jovago for the first time, with the help of Jovago travel agent that they at the airport or the bus terminal and that case, in that sense. We kind of create market for ourselves by finding people offline, in the streets before they find us online. So, that is a challenge of an online company that you wouldn’t find in a more developed market.
What do you think the future holds for your company?
We would like to focus on specific things and we want to achieve excellence in the industry on particular things. We definitely want to continue to be a leader in terms of the biggest inventory in Africa given that we give our customers the biggest of choice od hotels in Africa with the best treat and continue being the company with best satisfied customers and again makes it much more easier than it really is and that is because it is much easier to make 10 customers happy per day than trying to make 10,000 customers happy per day. A lot of work will be made invisible for our customers, which will resolve in keeping the same standards as we have now while we grow.
Where do you see Nigeria internet market in the next 10 years?
I think right now we are dealing at the tip on the iceberg. With the price of smartphones that is going down rapidly and the prices of phone lines and Internet lines still bit high but going down quite fast and I am expecting the market to grow 4 or 5 times bigger than they are now and customers will be better educated, which means customers will be much more demanding in terms of quality of services. Right now, if you have a company that doesn’t provide the best customer service, you can’t go away with it but if you can improvise, you can go away with average customer services.
Can you share with us on your capacity development with your staff?
Definitely, it is actually part of our internal strategy we hire people who are much younger. Most times, we don’t look at experience but personalities, skills and motivations. We prefer to train people as they work for us and we give them opportunity to grow very fast and for them to be viable for the company, we have to invest in their trainings and not just because we want to do it but this is one of the key growth strategy.
On competition, how have you been able to face and deal with it?
It is very risky and hot to remain number one because everyone is aiming at you and like they say that number two and three always tries harder, I think that time will tell and to still be a number one, we must stick to our strategy as we have defined, don’t lose focus, focus on proper execution because everybody can have an amazing ideas but at the end of the day we must execute those ideas.
What’s your relationship with your clients or customers like since you started doing business in Africa?
When we started obviously, we were a new brand and it was quite challenging for us to convince hotels to work with us especially in Nigeria where people prefer to meet you in person, see your track records and your achievement so far before they do business with us and that was challenging to convince them to do business with us so we spent time and energy in order to build relationship with hotels and to explain that the mutual benefit of where you work, we were sending more customers how to generate revenue working with us and just because we have in Nigeria more than 40 field representatives and that is our hotels personally we were able to build personal relationships and that is a much better quality any email or phone call relationships. I would say that when you compare us to any other online travel agency, this is the only much higher level because just like I mentioned before, we the only online travel agency that has few agents that does some ground work.
Can you share the impact the government has made towards improving the IT sector?
We have to appreciate the two years that I spent in Nigeria in what the Government did. We have the Information Communications Technology and Tourism departments and they are both working on implementing Internet regulations for the market, to provide transparency and to unify the services and for example, in Lagos State, not only the federal government they finally regulated the hotels market in Lagos State in terms of services and we now have official staff ratings for the hotels and when they officially gives the number of staff of the hotels we can show that information to our hotels and then transparency helps our customers to choose the right hotel and also in terms of ICT department, I remember that there was a specific law that was introduced last year about pushing local content in the telecomm sector and that helped the economy a lot and I don’t know how it happened but the prices of Internet connection is going down and is obvious that we are paying much less than how it was years ago.
What’s your take on the issues of compliance and monitoring as regards ICT polices and reforms?
I can only speak from end user perspective. Like I said before, the prices of Internet connection is going down, quality is going up and this is probably as a result of more effective ways of regulating this market because the private sector needs to be regulated by the government otherwise, it can be crazy.
As regard your Corporate Social Responsibility programme, how have you been giving back to the society?
Corporate Social Responsibility was invented by big corporations that do a lot of work and then find a way for their reputation to be better. Our CSR comes naturally. In terms of employment, we hired more than 100 people, which is that we are providing for more than 100 families, I think that is the most important thing. Every couple of months, there are homes that mothers are raising children alone. There one we normally visit at Lekki and we also make sure we provide them with gifts and we make sure they have everything they will eat and it is not because we want to go public with it but because we want to help and as for me, the important way is to hire people and make them happy and so that is the best way you can help the economy and the society.