Former NBA player's Nigeria-based online travel agency set to expand across Africa and internationally

26568322952 a6a342cdd9 zObinna Ekezie, a former NBA player, launched Wakanow, a Nigeria-based online travel agency which has now expanded into the UK and UAE, with plans to grow within the African continent

Wakanow, which went live in 2010, has a strong focus on Nigeria and Ghana, but Ekezie has plans to not only expand the business geographically but to offer a more diverse range of services. Ekezie told African Review that he became accustomed to booking and paying for flights and hotels online with sites such as Expedia when he lived in the US - "it was a very simple process" – but when he returned to Nigeria after retiring from basketball, he found there was not an equivalent online service for Nigerians.

In 2008 Ekezie saw the potential for a comprehensive online travel service in Nigeria because "internet penetration was growing at a fast rate". Before he returned to Nigeria, he invested in a software company in the US to create a similar platform to the KAYAK travel portal but the business venture did not work out. He said that he "lost a lot of money" but learned a great deal about the online travel agency business before setting up Wakanow.

"Online payments and electronic transactions, it was all starting to take shape [but] the infrastructure for  e-commerce was needed," he said.

To get Wakanow online, Ekezie and the company's co-founder Ralph Tamuno faced multiple technical and logistical challenges: "We had to build an engine, we had to get people to understand what we were trying to do. we had to work with the one online payment company [that was operating in Nigeria at the time], we had to create a whole eco-system, we had to work with the banks, we had to build connections with hotels and airlines – it was difficult but we got it done."

"It was a virgin OTA [online travel agency] space but the market was ready," Ekezie said.

The 2010 FIFA world cup proved to be a boon to Wakanow as it was an official travel partner for the event. "We had packages prepared for the event, it propelled us," said Ekezie. "We attracted foreign investment from the US and Africa."

The Wakanow website links to the DestinationsAfrica by Wakanow website which offers holiday packages across Africa for a wide range of travel preferences, such as spa and wellness breaks, safaris, beach holidays and cultural experiences. With the platform expanding to the UK and UAE, as well as plans to expand into East Africa and Francophone African markets and diversify with travel finance services, cargo services, visa services, retail stores, and money transfers, Ekezie said the technology is already in place to make this easy. 

"On one platform we can be multilingual, with languages such as French and Portuguese, and multicurrency – it is very dynamic," he said in regard to Wakanow's international expansion plans.

With the technical challenges now overcome, Ekezie said the new challenges include working with embassies to set up online visa processing services, and banks to set up online bank transfers for customers who do not have credit or debit cards.

"Nigeria is more focused on simplifying the visa process, it's an opportunity," he said.

In regard to helping people access finance for travel, Ekezie said innovations such as allowing online payment in instalments will fill gaps in "a huge market".

"We need to broaden our horizons – young people may not have much money but are keen to travel and we can make it easier. Also, the devaluation of the currency in Nigeria has affected even those who can afford to travel."

Ultimately. Ekezie sees his business venture as a means of changing global perceptions about Nigeria.

"When I played for the NBA, living in the US, there was a huge negative vibe surrounding Nigeria, with a reputation for fraud," he told African Review. "We need Nigerian companies with credibility to start to change the perception – there is a negative vibe for the country globally."

"We are building credibility and we have experienced a more positive vibe over the last eight to 10-year period – we keep creating more value."

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