Original 04a4df2517a25adf7aeccd988f51184a.jpg?1450452238?ixlib=rails 0.3

Interview with Tastemakers Africa Founder Cheraé Robinson

Michaela Trimble talks to Cheraé Robinson, founder of an experiential travel company that is changing people's perceptions of travel to Africa

Cheraé Robinson, founder of Tastemakers Africa, is changing people’s perception of travel to the continent. With a slick and photo-forward website and app, as well as a team that spans Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and the United States, Tastemakers Africa curates and arranges local experiences in cities across the continent. These experiences are aimed at travelers who are interested in getting beyond the traditional stereotypes of Africa, and at locals who want to discover what their own country has to offer. I caught up with Robinson to learn more about the growing Tastemakers Africa platform.

What was the inspiration behind Tastemakers Africa?
I used to work in development for an international NGO, which took me to Africa often. I would post on Facebook that I was going to Zimbabwe or Sierra Leone, and people would tell me to be careful. But when I got to those places and shared photos, everyone was so interested. I met local influencers and tastemakers who invited me to experience their cities through their craft. I began sharing this on social media, and as I did, people wanted to travel with me. So I started a group called Afripolitans and took 80 people over to West Africa with me on a charter plane. The aim was to help share what the continent is really about, and I began to see this opportunity to talk about Africa in a different way. It started as a hobby, but I quickly realized there was a market for this type of travel.

So when did the concept of Tastemakers Africa become reality?
We developed a trip in 2014 called December in Ghana, and we promoted it on my Facebook page. We sold out the ten spots within a week. We launched the website soon after, in November. We saw an opportunity to change the often-negative narrative about Africa and to highlight the creative and unique aspects of life happening across the continent. Safaris are popular, for example, but they don’t involve people. We want visitors to enjoy the music scene, discover the art scene, and taste the different cuisines. So we have events like a pop-up brunch in Accra, Ghana, with a chef who says he’s not a chef but a gastronomist who likes to eat and share. We bring these experiences to premium audiences, especially Millennials.

Nigerian-based creative Velma Rossa in Accra, Ghana

Who goes on these trips?
It’s a mix. The majority of travelers (about 70%) are from the United States, and the rest come from the country where the trip is taking place or from surrounding countries. The latter market is growing really fast. Upper and middle class Africans are traveling within the continent at a larger rate. More and more we’re seeing our community consist of a South African traveling in South Africa, or a Nigerian looking to go to Kenya or Ghana. People who have the means to travel to Paris or New York are telling us, “You make me want to stay right here and go to the next country over.” It’s super exciting when people are commenting on Instagram saying they would never have wanted to go to that country before seeing our experiences.

How do you think your trips help further growth and development across the continent?
Every traveler that books with Tastemakers Africa becomes an ambassador for the continent. Over time, they’ll help change how people think about Africa. And the people working within this ecosystem develop a stronger sense of pride in where they’re from. Sometimes the government doesn’t support or understand tourism, but they do support small businesses, and are beginning to see how travelers can help make them more profitable. Incremental changes like these can result in something bigger over time. The tourism industry is vastly underdeveloped, creating a space for amazing opportunities that you can’t do anywhere else.

Steelo, an Accra-based Tastemakers ambassador at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, 2015

In addition to the Tastemakers website, how do you engage your audience on other platforms and social media?
Instagram is huge for us, and we do lots of takeovers. Our first was with Somali twin sisters who started a fashion line called Mataano. They traveled throughout the continent for a year, and I asked them to share their journey with the Tastemakers Africa audience. We doubled our following just from that, and it kicked off our Instagram influencer relationships. We’re also focused on our mobile app, TSTMKRS, which just launched in beta for iOS and offers such experiences as an art crawl in Johannesburg led by a fashion designer, and a vintage shopping session with a local DJ. It’s about unique experiences like these, not top 10 lists of things to do. We describe the app as your cool friend in every African city.

You have a network of local influencers and creatives that bring these experiences to life. Who are these people?
One of my favorite influencers is a Lagos-based photographer, cartoonist, and feminist named Yagazie Emezi. She is seen as the creative voice of Nigeria, and she does this through her visual storytelling. She’s also an experience scout for us. When we want to launch in a new destination, we will send Yagazie there to search out unique experiences. Many of the influencers we work with in Lagos came out of our relationship with her. She knows it’s not just about expensive or luxurious experiences, but about people finding connections in a place—the human side of things. Working with people like Yagazie, ambassadors for the brand, has been hugely helpful for us and continues to grow our audience.

Nigerian cartoonist and photographer Yagazie Emezi in Sirigu, Ghana

How does travel play into your business and life?
Travel changed my life. I’m originally from Long Island, New York, where I grew up in a single-parent household. There wasn’t a lot of money, but I’ve always been curious about the world. I first went out of the country at age 22 while I was working for the Center for Disease Control. I went to Guatemala to train microbiologists on how to react in an outbreak. It was life changing on so many levels, introducing me to so many people in different stations of life and forcing me to deconstruct what I thought about my place in the world. Every job I had after that involved travel, and I even lived in Mexico City for three years. I’ve now traveled to 38 countries, and every one of them has imparted new knowledge to me.

What’s your most memorable travel experience in Africa?
Sierra Leone, 2010. My arrival flight landed in the middle of the night and to get to Freetown we had to take a motorboat across the ocean in the pitch black. I was scared out of my mind to be on the boat, but there was an overwhelming sense of home for me and I was immensely grateful to be there. The second reason it’s my most memorable trip is that I realized how many people are just like me. I had a driver that was a college student. He invited me to a fraternity party. I didn’t realize that was a thing in Sierra Leone. I ended up going to the party, and it felt just like a house party in Brooklyn. It was no different. I was young, only 23, and I felt such a connection with everyone around me. It blew my mind that this subculture existed in Sierra Leone, especially considering the recent civil war.

Favorite destination?
South Africa. There’s such diversity in what you can do there. There’s the urban scene, beaches, nature—everything is there.

What is your number-one piece of advice for someone planning a trip to Africa for the first time?
My number one piece of advice is to be open. Throw out any preconceived notions you have, and be open to what the experience can offer. 

What’s next?
In a business sense, I’m continuing to build Tastemakers Africa through our mobile app. We believe it will disrupt the Africa trip booking cycle, by offering curated experiences available in a few taps. I also have a bunch of travel coming up. I’m headed to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda in January. I’m very excited to see what I can discover there for our community and users.

>>Next: Where to Go in 2016