She Leads Africa Finalist

Cherae Robinson is the founder of Rare Customs, a start-up that connects SMEs to emerging African tourism and investment trends. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke with Cherae about her innovative take on Afro-tourism and being named a She Leads Africa pitch competition finalist.

Akinyi: How did you develop your interest in African affairs?

Cherae: Africa has always been on my mind and in my heart. I’d say the seed was planted as a child watching National Geographic and then it grew into a passion during college. I graduated from Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore Maryland. At Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States, courses in Africana Studies or the African Diaspora are a requirement. Between falling in love with historic Pan-Africanism and making many Nigerian and Ghanaian friends, the call to all things Africa grew stronger.

During my junior year of college, I took a course in international affairs with a professor who did some consulting for the US State Department. During his lessons, Dr. Hilaire would talk about his travels to Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Nigeria. It was far too late to change my major so I decided that international development was the best way to use my background in an international environment to finally get to Africa.

Akinyi: How did you become affiliated with She Leads Africa?

Cherae: I first learned about the competition through the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN) who has a Listserv for members that keeps us informed of opportunities in African Affairs. I bookmarked the site and the very next day I received a few tweets and emails from friends like Kwame Son-Pimpong of Afara Global encouraging me to apply.

Akinyi: What factors do you believe make a strong leader or businessperson? Are there any particular assets that women or Africans bring to the table?

Cherae: A strong leader must be willing to take risks, willing to listen, and have a strong sense of timing. I believe women in particular are best at listening. Often times, women function as consensus builders, we are wired that way. You cannot build consensus without listening and consensus building is an important part of growing a business and moving strategically. Africans and people of African descent more broadly have the unique privilege of “struggle.” I don’t necessarily mean in economic terms (although we do have that), but in the sense that globally our people are fighting every day to be acknowledged and to be given the same opportunities as our counterparts. Even at the highest level, there is an understanding that you have to be 100% better in order to be successful. This “fight” gives us resiliency, perseverance, and grit—qualities that you need to succeed against all odds.

 Rare Customs

In some ways, they are a clean slate. A tourist can easily shift from being a visitor to being an investor with a vested interest in the success of that city.

Akinyi: What led to your decision to start Rare Customs?

Cherae: I spent a decade raising visibility and awareness for large international non-profits but to be honest, the door to Africa was in some ways closed to me. Being on the external relations side of things, focusing on fundraising and communications, I didn’t have the opportunity to be on the ground often. I applied to hundreds of NGO jobs in Africa and was often told that I was not hired because I hadn’t lived in Africa before. Frustrated I kept pushing; I relocated from Atlanta to Mexico City and focused on private sector partnerships for an agricultural research institution.

In this role I traveled to thirty countries. Fortunately, I was able to spend a lot of time in Africa. I enjoyed the work. I spent time in the rural areas of eastern and southern Africa, but I also had the chance to build my own network, mostly in Africa’s cities. I began to meet people like Wanuri Kahui and Jeffrey Kimathi in Kenya, Cathy Phiri in Zambia, and Stephanie O’Connor and Miza Mobedi in South Africa. My peers gave me a glimpse of Africa that my NGO colleagues didn’t know. We were on rooftops, at art shows, and in upscale nightclubs. I just remembered thinking “I wish my friends from home were here.” I’d come back to the states and tell the stories and people would say “unbelievable!” or my favorite “they have that in Africa?!” I knew there was a need to tell these stories and I felt that I was in the best position to tell them.

I still cared about development and sustainability planning for businesses in the tourism ecosystem. Between the restrictive nature of development (you are either direct programs or marketing/fundraising, not both), my understanding of market-driven models of development (traditional aid is failing to have real impact), and my desire to live freely (a desk does not have to equal success), I decided that I would start a company that addressed these issues through a modern lens. I believe tourism is development, and this is what Rare Customs is interested in.

Akinyi:  What are your favorite African countries and why?

Cherae: Sierra Leone: It is the first country I visited and Bunce Island has historical ties to the southern United States where my family is from.

Nigeria: The music, the people, and my own Nigerian friends.

Ethiopia: So many people think I’m from Ethiopia and there is a quiet power that the women there possess. It feels very spiritual in that country.

Akinyi: Which region or country in Africa do you think is often overlooked by tourists and investors?

Cherae: Tourists often overlook West Africa because it lacks the safaris and pristine beaches of eastern and southern Africa. It is also seen as a riskier investment that is a hard sell beyond people investing in the stakeholders surrounding the oil and energy sectors. West Africa is huge on cultural tourism, but Ghana has done the best on preservation and promotion of this.

Akinyi: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges that African tourism currently faces?

Cherae: The first challenge, as everyone knows, is that of perception–branding, strategic partnerships, and sponsorship will help overcome this over time.  The story on Africa is beginning to change, so the time is ripe for tourism to grow beyond animals. Governments, however, have to take this seriously and not give this task away to cronies or people who do not have a vested interest in authentic representations of the continent.

The second would be cost, there must be more work to address policy around air travel on the continent—the high landing taxes, visa costs, and poor infrastructure is unsustainable for real tourism growth. I went to book a Delta flight to Accra recently and the taxes alone were $900.00. The distance is not that much greater than Europe so organizations like the UNWTO and others must infuse some new energy into working on this piece.

Lastly, I would say customer service training. I love my African people but some places could certainly use some lessons in how to treat visitors with tender, loving care—it keeps them coming back. When you look at the success of tourism in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, smiling faces and attention to service is at the core of those brands and is then exported globally.

Akinyi:  What do you think African cities have to offer that is unique in comparison to more developed regions?

Cherae: In some ways they are a clean slate. A tourist can easily shift from being a visitor to being an investor with a vested interest in the success of that city. Investment price is low although the processes can be complicated and off-putting. Beyond this piece, I think tourists are relatively new to the scene. In many African cities, there is a uniqueness that comes with you and therefore you are often afforded access to the highest caliber of experiences if you are open and social. There isn’t the attitude against tourists that you sometimes get in Paris or New York because the market hasn’t experienced that sort of bandwidth.

Connect with Cherae and Rare Customs:

Twitter: @Cherae, @Rare Customs

Website: rarecustoms.com

Facebook: Rare Customs