The AirBnb revolution has hit Africa. Though its offerings are still quite small compared to Europe or North America, the popular home-sharing site is rapidly gaining ground, allowing travellers to see a different side of Africa, save money, and make friends.
Instead of checking into an impersonal hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, try a private room in a house owned by Jerry and Eva. Their thoughtful attention and local knowledge instantly makes this chaotic city feel less daunting.
If Cairo’s calling, get a room with a view in the Pyramids Loft owned by Thomas, Zizo and Ahmed. Their apartment sharing a communal rooftop lounge is just 50m from the entrance to the pyramids at Giza. “Loved my stay there! The hospitality, the advice and the laughs!” wrote one delighted guest.
So far Airbnb.com only has about 60 listings in Egypt, including Ayman’s offer of a spare bedroom in Cairo, with a scooter thrown in.
Great swathes of Africa are yet to be reached at all, but more houses, flats and bedrooms are going online every day.
The US-based website is making serious efforts to expand its African footprint, with CEO Brian Chesky visiting Johannesburg last year to spearhead that campaign.
Of almost 2 million global accommodation options, just 30,000 are in Africa. Its biggest market is South Africa, with 10,000 listings, achieved because internet access is so widespread and tourism is so well established in the country.
In many other African countries, the Airbnb listings often belong to expats. They usually have the best internet access, understand the needs of foreign travellers, and are generally the ones with enough money to own properties in tourist- or business-friendly centres.
Like Costa, an Italian volunteer in Malawi who rents out a house near the small town of Namwera. Costa runs a volunteering programme in the village whose profile says “Feel free to be fully independent during your stay or benefit from being looked after and pampered like a king/queen! I can make time to show you around. The locals are very friendly and very curious about visitors.”
Fortunately, more home-grown Africans are finding out about Airbnb and letting it make money for them too.
Chesky says Africa is still a nascent market, but growing very quickly because it works for both sides of the equation: ordinary people can make money from their spare rooms, and travellers can save money and live more like a local. Airbnb takes a 10% commission from the owner and 3% from the traveller, and pays the owner the day after their guests arrive.
“We have a vibrant and welcoming community here, which we look forward to expanding so that even more visitors can benefit from the unique and local experiences our hosts provide,” Chesky said. “For the same price as you can get a double bed in a Holiday Inn you can get an entire loft suite in Johannesburg. But it’s not just about accommodation, it’s about experiences. When you travel and people open up their doors you feel a sense of belonging.”
Airbnb is an excellent option for those visiting places that hotels haven’t reached yet, or where they are extremely pricey. Skip the expensive hotels at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and try the 4-bedroom house owned by Soren and Jeanette. You can sit in their swimming pool and see the mist rising from the cascading falls.
If you want to explore the Okavango Delta, check into Otto’s place in Maun. His eco-friendly house is entirely powered by solar energy and sits on the banks of Thamalakane River.
In Joburg’s rejuvenated city centre you can rent a loft owned by brothers Keagan and Earl Buys. More than 60 guests have raved about this funky apartment and thanked the brothers for taking them to bars around the vibey Maboneng district. Try getting that kind of service from a hotel concierge!
Reviews posted by previous guests under every listing help you chose a place that suits your attitude. If you want to be left alone, pick a stand-alone house or a separate cottage. If you want an amiable host who might show you around, look for a shared space with reviews that rate the host as friendly and available.
It’s great for last-minute bookings too, with a search facility that shows what’s available in the exact area you want for the specific dates you need.
It’s not only demand from tourists that’s helping the service to spread across the continent. Chesky says about 10% of bookings are made by business people. “Business travel is one of the loneliest types of travel and business people like the service because it’s less lonely than staying in a hotel,” he says.
If business takes you to Harare, you can rent Farai’s 2-bedroom apartment, which previous guests rate as very secure, with nice hosts who are always there to help.
Renting privately is usually much cheaper than a hotel, although you can choose something more expensive and far more spectacular. Of all the houses, apartments, castles, lodges and bedrooms listed on the site, the one that earned the Airbnb Unique Listing award for 2015 is in Cape Town. It’s a glorious three-bedroom apartment in Camps Bay with a pool on the deck, a lovely garden, sliding doors and huge windows with stunning views of the ocean and Table Mountain. Guests arrive at Everview Suite to find freshly baked bread, wine on ice and the host, Michelle von Heynitz, going out of her way to make them welcome.
All three bedrooms are en-suite, with the master bedroom looking over the ocean and the other two boasting mountain views. Not surprisingly it’s almost fully booked for months in advance at £261 a night.
“I get little notes from guests saying they had such a great time and thanking me for telling them about great restaurants to try,” Michelle says. “I love telling them my favourite things to do because I know what it’s like when I have travelled – it’s the absolute highlight to get that local flavour that you don’t get if you stay in a hotel.”
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