In recent years, there has been a surge in domestic travel within Ethiopia. Avid travel lovers, most of whom are young, are more frequently visiting tourist attractions in regional states, leading to a budding local tourism scene.
Destinations like Wenchi Crater Lake, Awash National Park, Langano, Mount Erer, and Suba Forest Park are particularly popular, providing a temporary escape from city life and an opportunity to immerse oneself in nature.
These trips are mostly organized by travel enthusiasts and typically last for a day or two. Information about upcoming trips is circulated on social media platforms such as Facebook and Telegram, where hiking and travel communities share these messages within their groups.
According to data from the Ministry of Tourism, domestic tourism is an industry that was valued at around 61-billion-birr in 2022 with 970,000 tourists.
However, this burgeoning industry encounters several significant challenges, one of which is the fragmentation and elusive nature of these events. While community members might hear about the trips, information on domestic travel is not always readily accessible to the public when needed.
In addition, these excursions are primarily organized by independent operators. Aside from the digital marketing aspect, the business operates in a traditional manner, where trips are booked through phone calls and fees are paid via bank deposits, often requiring users to send screenshots as payment proof.
One startup has identified the gaps in Ethiopia’s domestic travel scene and is developing a platform to address these challenges. utentic is a travel-focused startup that connects passionate adventurers with the country’s top trip organizers. In addition to bringing independent operators who create travel packages together in one place, it also offers a booking platform. These travel packages are consolidated on the utentic platform, providing users with all the necessary information in a single location.
Derived from the words “authentic” and “you,” utentic places emphasis on people and their experiences. It offers a wide range of activities on its platform, including hiking, camping, paragliding, cycling, ballooning, and trekking, all conveniently accessible in one place. The platform also maintains a thriving Telegram channel with over 5,000 subscribers, ensuring that travelers stay updated with the latest adventure information.
Co-founded by Hiwot Medhin, Ezana Fitsum, and Bethlehem Amanuel, the origins of utentic trace back to their university days in 2020. Initially, the three founders were experimenting with the idea of creating an African version of TripAdvisor, with a specific focus on Africa.
“It started as a side gig. But while it led us in the right direction eventually, our early approach was different. Initially, we were building a product before truly understanding the problem,” said Hiwot, who studied software engineering at Addis Ababa Science & Technology University.
However, after participating in an incubation program, the team realized their approach needed adjustment. They shifted their focus to building a product that aimed to address the problems faced by travelers in Ethiopia. “So, we adopted a fresh start and began researching. When we delved into the local travel industry, we were intrigued by it. We hadn’t realized its existence before and started digging deeper,” explained Hiwot.
Among the issues the founders identified was the inefficiency of the booking system. Moreover, they recognized that the industry operated within a niche market, relying heavily on the community they had built.
“They had the potential to go mainstream, but numerous operational challenges were holding them back. For instance, tour organizers operate at a loss. To arrange a single trip, they have to book a car, the destination, catering, etc. All these expenses have to be paid in advance. It was only after these arrangements that they would go out and try to attract clients,” she added.
Additionally, several concerns arose from the travelers’ end. “When people booked for the first time, they feared the possibility of organizers scamming them because there was no way to hold them accountable. There were a few instances of such scams, which affected people’s trust in the industry,” Hiwot informed Shega.
To tackle these challenges, the team decided to address one issue at a time, gradually building their business around these solutions. “We initially collaborated with major operators to establish our reputation. Gradually, others started reaching out to us, and we have worked with over 50 organizers so far,” she noted.
With utentic, users can currently secure their spot on the utentic website, receiving a guarantee for the expenses they paid. Integrated with the Chapa payment gateway, users have access to various payment options to settle their payments. If any issues arise concerning refunds, utentic handles them. The startup generates revenue by charging a commission per booking, typically ranging from 5 to 10 percent.
The team is currently developing their second minimum viable product (MVP) with the aim of streamlining operations further. They are creating a dashboard that provides organizers with more insights and real-time data for their operations. “By sharing the utentic link created for their trip, organizers will be able to track their data live, monitor their earnings, and receive SMS notifications when payments are received, as bookings happen across all marketing channels,” said Hiwot.
utentic also harbors a grand vision of empowering individuals to become independent organizers. “From our research, we found that most trip organizers are driven by passion. They go on a trip, realize they can organize it, and then dive into the business,” explained Hiwot. utentic envisions a reality where passionate individuals can effortlessly come together and plan their trips on one platform, simplifying the process.
Beyond being merely a booking platform, utentic aims to serve as a hub where everyone involved in the domestic travel and trip value chain can connect. This includes different vendors such as vehicle drivers, caterers, travel guides, and other stakeholders.
“We want to empower people to organize their events more easily and conveniently whenever they wish,” emphasized Hiwot.
In alignment with this vision, utentic joined Mesirat, a program co-created by the collaboration of the Mastercard Foundation, Gebeya Inc., and its Consortium Partners. Mesirat is a 5-year, multi-phase initiative that aims to create opportunities for 1 million skilled workers by establishing and nurturing 100 multi-sided gig and professional marketplaces across Ethiopia.
Mesirat offers entrepreneur support, custom-branded marketplace technology, vetting, training, certification, and onboarding of gig workers for businesses. Its support also extends to business development, access to finance, and market linkages.
“Mesirat provides us with valuable resources and enables us to experiment with things that otherwise would not have been possible. utentic is at an early stage, where we are still learning. Mesirat can fast track the learning progress, and we hope to launch a market-fit product with their help soon,” Hiwot added.