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Will Bongalo rescue me from Airbnb woes?

Will Bongalo rescue me from Airbnb woes?

Over the past ten years or so, I have been a regular fixture in Airbnb properties across Africa. Between 2017 and 2019, I used to promote the platform as an affiliate marketer. Through the company’s now defunct affiliate marketing program, I would earn travel credits and use them to pay for accommodation whenever I traveled.

Airbnb’s model enables me to stay in residential areas and experience the daily lives of my hosts. While in Rubavu, I participated in community work known as umuganda. In Zanzibar, I planted cloves with members of the host community. In Lomé, I cheered for my neighborhood’s soccer team. Did I say my neighborhood? Yes, I felt at home.

When I visited Mombasa in 2012, I got along with my host very well. A decade down the line, we are still in touch. Our host - guest encounter was the foundation on which a lasting friendship was built. Through Airbnb, tourists meet wonderful people, make new friends and create useful connections.

Things are not always rosy. There is a dark side of Airbnb. In 2017, I booked an apartment before traveling to Kampala. Upon arrival, my host’s number was not on air. After finding the location of the apartment the hard way, the caretaker had no idea how Airbnb works.

My Kampala incident happened when the host was harvesting timber in the South Sudanese jungle — far away from cellular networks, let alone internet connection. I had to effect a second payment in cash and file a complaint that was never addressed. In other words, I was double-charged.

Earlier this year, I used the same platform to book an apartment in Rubavu. Unfortunately, I was unable to enter the apartment because my would-be host lost the key a few minutes before my arrival.

"What do we do?" I asked him. "Let’s break the damn door." He said. I didn’t want any part of breaking doors. Instead of breaking things in the middle of the night, I checked into a neighboring hotel. We had a gentleman’s agreement to reschedule the booking, but he has been playing games ever since. Long story short, he will neither refund nor reschedule as agreed.

When issues arise between the host and the guest, Airbnb steps in to mediate. However, the company’s inability to enforce rules in every region is a loophole exploited by crooks and scammers quite often.

Similar incidents, in the loosely controlled marketplace, are common. Cases of theft, rape and murder have also been reported. Airbnb’s toothless approach to safety is its most threatening legal liability.

Recently, I stumbled upon Bongalo’s website while looking for an alternative booking platform. In a bid to learn more, I booked a meeting with someone from its youthful Pan African team. The in-person meeting took place at the company’s work station in the premises of Norrsken House Kigali, a futuristic hub for tech-savvy entrepreneurs.

Bongalo is a start-up. The African version of Airbnb has a long way to go. So far, the company offers limited options in Rwanda and Cameroon, but plans for expansion around the continent are underway. The youngsters are doing the right things. As a result, they have earned funding from Google. Will the new kid on the block end my Airbnb woes? Time will tell.

The author is a Pan African travel writer currently visiting Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana and Togo. Follow his awe-inspiring expeditions on Twitter @GeoExposure.

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