Interview: The evolving role of E-commerce in the travel industry

Oluwakemi-Ojo (1)
Oluwakemi Ojo, Head of communications for both Travelstart Nigeria and Kenya

The most amazing aspect of e-commerce is its ability to impact sales and marketing efforts immediately, however, the uptake of e-commerce is still on its infant stages in most African countries.

The main challenge facing e-commerce in Africa is the quick adoption of mobile money. Kenya is not different, even with the country having an estimated number of internet users stand at 26.1 million, making Kenya the 21st most connected population in the world still more Kenyans prefer mobile money services as opposed to online transactions.

We sought to get some more insights on e-commerce especially and the  travel industry, where it is becoming more convenient to get tickets processed online as compared to lining up in long queues to get your travelling documents processed.

Since 1999, Travelstart has provided the simplest way to book domestic and international flights online. Its mission it says is to make travel easier for customers when it comes to searching, comparing prices and booking. TechTrendsKE”s Nixon Kanali had a chat with Oluwakemi Ojo, Head of communications for both Travelstart Nigeria and Kenya  to get her insights on the evolving role of e-commerce in the travel industry. Take a look.

How do you describe your role as the new Communications Head for Travelstart Kenya and Nigeria? And how do you balance the two?  – I joined Travelstart in 2013 and am currently the Head of Communications for the company’s Kenyan and Nigerian operations. In this role, I’m responsible for managing both companies’ communication activities – externally and to a degree internally too. On a deeper level, this involves being the spokesperson for Travelstart Kenya and Travelstart Nigeria, developing PR strategy for the company, doing market research and being well versed in topical travel issues and all commercial aspects of our business, writing press releases and nurturing relationships with the media in those countries.

Travelstart is an incredible company to work for – multinational, global, and at the forefront of travel technology innovation – I love what I do, and that is what makes my job so fulfilling. Moreover, I’m really lucky because meeting new people and building rewarding relationships are part of my daily tasks.

 Before joining the Kenyan Market what was your previous role? –  Actually, I joined the Kenyan market the moment I joined Travelstart Nigeria where I held the dual position of Content Manager for both websites. As Content Manager; I was responsible for developing a content strategy which included coordinating the creation of relevant stories disseminated via social media and search engines. It was a wonderful journey, and in Kenya – we recently won an illustrious BAKE Award for being the best travel blog.

How many countries in Africa does Travelstart have a footprint in – Travelstart is currently in 9 African countries with a physical presence in 6 of those including Nairobi. Overall, Travelstart is in 16 countries throughout the world including the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Turkey where we are known as

How is the uptake of online booking especially in Kenya – Compared to 2012 when Travelstart first launched in East Africa, there has been an increase in demand for online travel in throughout the continent and Kenya is no exception. According to Travelstart 2014 data, the customer base has tripled since 2013. There has also been an increase in uptake of online booking due to mobile technology and high Internet usage. Kenyans are researching trips, planning their next vacations on mobile devices – a major trend globally.

 Can you please explain to our readers the background of Travelstart? – Travelstart was founded in 1999 by Swedish online travel pioneer, Stephan Ekbergh. The company launched in Kenya in 2012. Since then we have grown to be the online travel market leader in the country and the continent. Prior to Kenya, Travelstart first launched in Europe in 1999, and in South Africa in 2006. Our office in Nairobi is located in Westlands where a team of experienced travel professionals support bookings made on the website, email and phone bookings, as well as walk-in customers.

How does your platform generate revenue? –  Travelstart generates revenue primarily through the website where customers can search and book international and domestic flights, hotels and car rental. In addition to these three verticals, we also offer a range of holiday packages which can be customized to suit customers’ requirements and budgets, and travel insurances as an authorized financial services provider. Other revenue streams include our B2B solutions comprising an active Affiliate Program and neXt – an online booking management tool designed to develop new travel agents and meet the needs of independent travel consultants looking to start their own business. We also offer our channels (website, social media and newsletter) as an advertising platform to suitable partners such as airlines and hotels.

In 2014, we released a report titled ‘The Great Rip-Off” based on the research conducted by Millward Brown, a leading research agency in Kenya. According to the report, “Travelstart is cheaper than any other travel agents 93% of the time.”

Travelstart being an e-commerce platform. What are the current common risks for e-commerce and how do you mitigate them? – In terms of Travelstart, I think this is more a question of the challenges we face as an Online Travel Agency operating in Africa and other emerging economies such as Turkey and the Middle East. We have to ensure we can cater for an upwardly mobile and connected audience; that is an audience who exists across the income bracket. We have invested considerable resources ensuring our booking platform is one which is accessible taking into account the various payment methods (many of our customers are unbanked) as well as devices; we have customers who access Travelstart via WAP-enabled cell phones.

Our platform integrates with a variety of local, secure payment options such as M-Pesa.

Generic risks include fraud, cyber-attacks, lack of physical connection with customers – building trust, technical limitations – server crashing, changes to Google’s search algorithm.

What are the latest systems you’ve used to manage and optimise your e- commerce platform? – Personalisation has become the web’s hottest topic in recent years, and for a very good reason. If you are able to serve your customers with offers that are more relevant to each individual at the right time, they will be more likely to a) purchase and b) return, as you will give them the feeling that they found exactly what they were looking for. If you know what questions to ask, the data will always have an answer, it’s just about knowing how to go about it. At Travelstart, we are continuously working on ways to further optimize our customers’ experience and user-specific offers are definitely one of the main pillars.

What does the future hold for e-commerce in the travel industry –Price is always going to be an important point in the mind of the booker, however, it won’t always be the key selling point. Looking to the future online travel businesses who differentiate not only in price, but by providing their customers with an amazing experience from first search to day of travel, will thrive.

What’s your future out-look for Travelstart in 2015? – We will continue to provide richer information around flights so the booking process becomes more flexible allowing customers to make decisions based on more factors than just the price. We will continue to focus on providing an unmatched customer experience. As an OTA we’re an intermediary forced to look at ways to continuously add value.

We will continue to innovate especially in the mobile space. Our South African office recently went live with Flapp – the world’s first single route flight booking app for flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

A report by World Travel Market predicts mobile channel is expected to account for 30% of online travel value sales by 2017. What’s your take on this? – At Travelstart we are of the opinion that the momentous shift from desktop to smaller screens that everyone is talking about is already taking place furiously. As such, a mobile centric approach has for a long time formed an important part of our expansion strategy. We focus on developing tools that are responsive and user friendly no matter the screen size. On a higher level, we believe that mobile accelerates eCommerce growth as consumers are increasingly accessing and engaging the web on their pocket devices. Companies who cater for this trend stand to benefit from a new and plentiful audience.

What advice would you give to any brands looking to expand into the Kenyan market? – Assess the size of your target group in the country to ensure whether or not the market is even viable. Rethink your marketing strategy and forget about a one-size-fits-all approach. Look at the level of infrastructure – is the infrastructure in place to support your business? Be local – hire local, communicate in a manner locals understand, explore local payment options and execute accordingly. In the e-commerce context, scalability is key and you need to be thinking about how you are going to fund it when you scale. At Travelstart we coined the term ‘Glocal’ in reference to starting up on the continent – glocal meaning, “A global company with a local approach”.



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Nixon Kanali

Tech journalist based in Nairobi. I track and report on tech and African startups. Founder and Editor of TechTrends Media. Nixon is also the East African tech editor for Africa Business Communities. Send tips to

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