How Wakanow Started

HOW WAKANOW STARTED – AFRICA’S No 1 TRAVEL AGENCY

WAKANOW – AFRICA’S NUMBER ONE TRAVEL AGENCY

Obinna Ekezie, is the founder of Africa’s number one online travel agency. He was born on August 22, 1975 in Warri but grew up in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State, Nigeria. His father was a prominent petroleum engineer and Obinna grew up dreaming of a similar career path. But today rather than working and aspiring to become the MD of any of the leading oil companies in Nigeria some day, he has moved from being a professional basketball player in the United States to found and head the innovation behind Wakanow – the fifth fastest growing company in Africa today. How did Obinna successfully make this shift? If you are among the many who are interested in this or the details about Wakanow then follow me?

Obinna Ekezie - Founder, Wakanow
Obinna Ekezie – Founder, Wakanow

FROM CLASSROOM TO BASKETBALL FIELD

He completed his primary education and started secondary school in Nigeria before heading to the United States in 1993 where he completed his last two years of high school at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. His successful years at this prestigious prep school set him up for a very bright future in college. While in Nigeria, Obinna never had the opportunity of playing basketball. But while in the states he picked interest in the sport and quickly excelled beyond most of his peers. The feat immediately began to draw the attention of college scouts.

Many colleges longed for Obinna’s signature when he finishedhigh school. But Obinna signed on to attend and play basketball for the University of Maryland at College Park in 1995.

AN INFORMED DECISION

In retrospect Obinna speaks of the various considerations that made him to choose University of Maryland ahead of others. First, he considered his education with key consideration to his ambition of being an engineer. University of Maryland has got a strong engineering faculty he said. Secondly, the IBM Total Quality Management programme run in the school was also a strong attraction. The same university was also part of the college basketball conference that Obinna considered to be the best at the time, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Obinna played on their basketball team, the Terrapins, throughout his college career. In the 1999 NBA draft, he was picked in the second round and joined the Vancouver Grizzlies. Throughout the six years that followed, Obinna played for five different NBA teams. He was also a member of three different international teams. Obinna sustained serious injury in 2005.  He took his recovery time to seriously consider what he would do professionally at the close of his basketball career. Although this was an issue he had forethought many times, but at that point he knew the next chapter of his life was right around the corner.

SPOTTING OPPORTUNITY AND NOT LETTING IT SLIP

While in the United States, Obinna often made occasional visits to Nigeria. But it was during his scheduled visit to Nigeria in 2005 that Obinna consciously noted with amazement the difficulty that can be associated with travel processes. He discovered that booking any sort of transportation to or from Nigeria was significantly more difficult than booking travel in and around the United States. He also learned that there was not a single online travel company already established in Nigeria.

The easier and more embedded option for most Nigerians in a situation like that is usually to complain and look for who to blame for such inefficiencies. But that was not an option for Obinna. In fact, it was the exact opportunity he was looking for to chart the course for the next stage of his life and career. He made up his mind that he will start his own online travel company. It will be a company to make it easier for people from his homeland to travel across the globe. So far as Obinna was concerned, it was an opportunity he would not let slip. You would imagine how Obinna kept wondering why no one had thought of taking up the challenge all along. He saw it as a huge lacuna-which clearly presented a massive business opportunity in his head.

OBINNA SHARES HOW THE IDEA OF WAKANOW ALL CAME ABOUT

In my interview with Obinna, he recounts the experience thus.  “When I came back to Nigeria and tried to book a flight, there were only brick and mortar travel agents and online booking was non-existent,” he recalls. “Booking arrangement was manual, tedious and opaque. I couldn’t see what the reps were doing behind their computers. I couldn’t see the fares nor the options available.”

Apart from the impediment of getting the best deals, payment was cumbersome; primarily through bulk cash. The diaspora-based Nigerian was without a local bank account. And foreign credit cards were almost useless in your hands then. That was the early years of electronic payment infrastructure.

Obinna eventually retired from professional basketball in 2007 and moved home to Nigeria to pursue his new dream. He contacted a then banker friend of his-Ralph Tamuno who co-founded with him a travel website in 2008, Zeeptravel.com. Zeeptravel would later metamorphose to Wakanow. Two years later, precisely during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Obinna and Ralph launched Wakanow.com. Through a series of aggressive business strategies and a strong concentration on customer service, it has become one of the fastest growing and largest Internet travel sites in Africa.

Ralp Tarmuno - Co-founder, Wakanow
Ralph Tarmuno – Co-founder, Wakanow (2nd from Left) with other Wakanow partners

WAKANOW IS A SELF-INNOVATED TECHNOLOGY

In the last few decades, competition in the business world irrespective of the sector has become so fierce that one needs to innovate and re-invent in order not to be thrown out of business. Obinna and Ralph understood this concept perfectly well. And that explains why they had to invest two full years to invent a self-innovated technology that has up till today proven very difficult to duplicate.

“The Wakanow online platform isn’t simply a website,” Obinna says. “It’s an innovative booking engine that took 2 years to build,” during its first few years. “Our front end is way more complicated than what you would see on a retail site. The real time information that displays on the front end is coming from somewhere. It’s real time. So it’s not just a website, it’s an engine. We had to build the technology and content from scratch because there was no blueprint to follow. We had to develop our own relationship with suppliers at a time when nobody knew what we were talking about. They did not know the benefits of being placed online.”

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FUNDING WAS A CHALLENGE

Expectedly, it was pretty difficult to get investors who will believe in such an idea which was alien to the Nigerian market. But they were so convinced of the idea and were not going to give up just because of finance. According to Obinna, “At first it was just my partner and my dad that were willing to support the idea in terms of finance. We (my partner and myself) had to throw in everything we had in pursuit of this dream”. It was a difficult time for the duo but they could literally see the end from the beginning. And for the joy that was set before them they endured all pain and sacrificed a lot. And that is what has brought them to where they are today.

SERVICE RANGE

As the nation’s leading online travel company Wakanow has expanded its operation and range of service to provide customers with everything they need to research, plan and purchase a whole trip to any destination in the world. Among the world class services of Wakanow are:

Flights

Whether you are preparing for a summer holiday, business transactions, honeymoon, official political trips, training or whatever. Whether you are headed to China, Australia, the United States, Europe or any part of Africa. As long as your desire is to have a hassle-free flight bookings, you already know the option to choose. With Wakanow.com, you can book flight reservations with top airlines from around the world. You can research airfares and schedules (and get unbeatable prices) by using Wakanow airline reservation search tool or any of its travel agents.

Wakanow

Hotel Accommodation

Wakanow does not just send anyone out of the country and leave him stranded. It enables interested customers to compare thousands of low negotiated room rates online. With Wakanow you can define your results by criteria you personally consider a priority. This makes it possible for you to select your preferred hotels before travelling. In addition to all these, as a value added service you are also provided with an experienced travel consultant.

VISA Assistance

Wakanow has got a good working relationship with all the consulates and embassies with operations in Nigeria. Irrespective of your nationality or destination a team of well-trained Visa experts are available to guide you in securing all necessary travelling documents from the concerned offices.

Faith Based Travel

Whether it is Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Rome, Wakanow.com is ever ready to assist individuals or groups package their faith based travels to any destination. Wakanow plans every step of the journey including transportation, tour of holy locations, airport transfers and hotel accommodation. In addition, Wakanow also provides travel seminars to prepare the travellers for the environment and culture of the land they are visiting.

Sporting Events

One of the areas where Wakanow has really made its mark has been in the area of sporting events across the world. Sports fans have the best possible options to any sport be it football, tennis, horse racing, polo, boxing, cycling etc. Since its inception, Wakanow has been the official travel and tour operator for many international sporting events including the 2010 South African FIFA world cup, the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 African Cup of Nations, the 2014 Brazil FIFA world cup and the authorized ticket reseller for Rio 2016 World Olympics.

School Field Excursions

Wakanow recognize the fact that excursion is a very integral and fundamental part of a child’s early education. They know that it leaves lasting memory in the mind of the child. With this understanding, Wakanow shares the responsibility of ensuring children’s success in school by a wonderful and memorable travel experience for all schools willing to give their pupils and students such an educational exposure.

PUTTING THE CUSTOMERS IN PERSPECTIVE

Apart from its innovated technology, the next thing that has contributed immensely to the unprecedented success recorded in Wakanow has been excellent customer service. Obinna and his team truly believe that customer is king and the reason they are in business. This understanding has prompted them to look for better ways of serving and keeping customers happy. From Wakanow pay small small, to Wakanow Mobile App, to Wakanow International Travel Sim Cards, they ensure using any of the services and payment is made as seamless as possible.

GROWING PARTNERSHIP

It was a very difficult task getting investors when Obinna and Ralph first launched the service. But today, your guess is as good as mine-all this has changed. Several organizations are now seeking to be part of the success story of Wakanow. Most worthy of note among several partnership deals is the ground breaking partnership ceremony between Wakanow and Union Bank held at Oriental Hotel Lagos in 2014. That partnership has obviously enhanced the travel business in Nigeria. At that occasion were high-level representatives of both local and international airlines operating in Nigeria, tour operators and travel agents. These included those previously trading with Wakanow and new ones who immediately took advantage of the opportunities that were unveiled in the course of that event.

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Great news for the partners…

Speaking on that occasion Obinna said “We’re launching a one billion naira credit programme for independent travel agents. This one billion is being provided by Union Bank. And the way it will work is that any affiliate that has been trading with us for at least two years and goes through the criteria of qualification from Union Bank would be able to get up to two million Wakanow credit on their affiliate network portal. That two million naira is currency you can use to pay for your customers tickets. You can trade for up to one week before you settle your bill with us,” to the cheering applause of all present.

In essence, through the automatic ticketing technology, agents can issue tickets to customers without having to get in touch with Wakanow affiliate account managers to issue tickets. In practical terms, this means affiliates can do business say mid-morning, weekends and anytime necessary immediately without input from Wakanow.  Obviously this helps to increase trade and service delivery to customers which has always been a focal point for Wakanow.

Obinna further explained that to qualify for the scheme, affiliates must be a registered Nigerian company in the travel business for a minimum of two years with a monthly turnover of N2million and a clean credit bureau record.

Speaking on Union bank`s offer, Executive Director, Commercial and Retail Banking, Union Bank, Adekunle Adeosun expressed Union Bank’s excitement about the partnership stating that it gives the bank an opportunity to work with growing businesses and also exposes the banks revamped services to the public.

MORE INVESTORS COURT WAKANOW

In the same 2014 Wakanow  raised another investment of $20 million from investment from African Capital Alliance (ACA). With this investment the company  acquired Oya.com.ng, an online bus ticketing startup, for $2.5 million in 2015.

In December 2018 the company got another massive investment of $40 million dollars from Global alternative asset manager, the Carlyle Group.

WAKANOW VISION OF GLOBAL EXPANSION CONTINUES

As part of her efforts for global expansion and in a bid to consolidate its foray into Europe, the company in March 2017 formally launched commercial operations in the UK. The announcement was made just months after it launched Destinations Africa. This is a global booking platform that aggregates the best of African packaged holidays from over 23 African countries. The UK office is situated at Surrey, London.  That office provides cutting-edge booking portal that offer flights and hotel bookings and Transfers/Protocol services, for intra-Europe travel as well as for outbound travel into Africa.

CHANGE OF LEADERSHIP BATON

Obinna Ekezie is no longer the CEO of Wakanow. Even though he was the founder and the main visioner but today the company has grown to global status. And investors felt the need to get more experienced manager to move the company from the point Obinna brought it. It was not an easy decision to let go a company you have worked hard to establish. But this is also an important lesson for all entrepreneurs to learn. As a founder and entrepreneur you are most times driven by passion rather than knowledge and experience. And as the company grows it is important to know the exact time to bring in professional managers to support.

This is exactly what the investors/board saw in 2019 and decided to bring in and experienced manager to take over.

ADEBAYO ADEDEJI TAKES THE BATON

Adebayo Adedeji was a Senior Finance Manager at Amazon.com, in charge of fulfilment supporting product teams in 16 countries. He was also responsible for driving top-line, profitability, inventory optimization, seller promotion and improved customer experience through technical product innovation. Previously, he served as a senior finance professional in the consumer retails sector, including with Petsmart and Walmart Stores. When the board of Wakanow decided that there was need for a change they approached Adebayo. They brought him from US in May 2019 first as the Chief Transformational Officer(CTO). From that role he transitioned to the Chief Commercial Officer(CCO) where he was responsible for driving the transition programme of Wakanow. Then in November 2019 he finally took over from Obinna Ekezie as the compan’s CEO.

The company also in 2021 appointed Adenike Macaulay as the Company’s Chief Commercial Officer, effective 5th July, 2021.  Mrs Macaulay is a dynamic leader in the Airline industry. She is the first female and also first Nigerian to be appointed as General Manager for Lufthansa Group in Nigeria & Equatorial Guinea. Her career at Lufthansa spanned a period of 12 years where she held various positions across Sub-Saharan Africa. She oversaw diverse teams as Regional marketing manager, Senior Manager Customer Products & Marketing, Head of Sales products & programs. And rose through the ranks to become the General Manager of Lufthansa Group. As the General Manager, she led the sales, marketing, servicing and commercial activities for Lufthansa in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.

Adebayo Adedeji - Wakanow CEO
Adebayo Adedeji- Wakanow CEO

WHERE IS WAKANOW NOW?

From being threatened for lack of capital five years ago, Wakanow today with over 500 staff has grown to become the fifth fastest growing indigenous company, an award conferred on it by All World Network in association with Tony Elumelu Foundation. It now has over 500,000 domestic and international hotel partners. Every single international and domestic airline operating in the country is now available on Wakanow.com. It also has smart airport pick up services in over 800 cities globally. Wakanow is today a Master Card’s certified online travel partner that provides travellers with co-branded credit and debit card from partner-financial institutions. The company has facilitated millions of travel bookings since inception.

Though Wakanow started as an online travel company, to accommodate every class of Nigerian it has expanded its mode of operation having as much as 25 physical travel centers cutting across East, West, North and South with additional offices in Dubai, Ghana, Kenya and UK. Travellers can visit and interact with company representatives in any of these outlets and book their flights easily.

The company has also continue to leverage technology perfectly in its operations. For example it has developed Wakanow’s video and social media selling network. With this a bot attends to customers across all social media platforms including WhatsApp. And this has further enhanced customers’ experience.

ADVICE TO WOULD-BE ENTREPRENEURS

If someone has to speed from far away United States to Nigeria to start one of the most innovative companies of the twenty first century, if someone that lived, schooled and worked in America can believe that Nigeria is the best place to go when it comes to starting a business then it certainly calls for each of us to sit up and pay attention to what we have here.

FROM THE FOUNDER

Having filled a vacuum left for years and found a great company in Wakanow, Obinna has this advice for young and aspiring entrepreneurs in Nigeria. “The first thing I want Nigerian youths to understand is that there are lots of opportunities in Nigeria. I want them to believe in this country. They should believe that if only they can think in terms of solving problems then they can make it big here more than in any other place. After all there is no country where jobs are picked on the road.”

Obinna equally talked about the need to have a change of mindset about the essence of going to school. According to him “it is only as I came back to Nigeria that I learnt this ideology that everyone goes to the university so that he can come out and get a job. It is not like that over there. When people graduate over there, many of them are prepared to create jobs. They will look to solve one national or local problem or the other.”

Those are the wise words from the founder.

FROM THE CURRENT CEO

But the current CEO also has some words of advice for young entrepreneurs in Nigeria. He said, “I always tell founders that one thing is critical; know when to stop and know when to get help. Talking to people isn’t what you need because, in Nigeria, we talk a lot and do very little. We spend a lot of time on PR.  The next thing I tell founders all the time is not to spend time looking for the glam. Yes, sometimes, it brings in money, but it also brings in chaos. Spend the time, put your head down, and get the work done and you will be celebrated tomorrow”.

Other inspiring stories of how Nigerian brands started:

I STARTED COSCHARIS GROUP WITH JUST 200 NAIRA

I BLOGGED FOR 4 YEARS WITHOUT MAKING ONE KOBO – LINDA IKEJI

HOW TANTALIZERS STARTED

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