Tanzania-born Franck Leya, the co-founder and Managing Director of Honest Travel Experience in South Africa, has had an interesting journey and is now working towards getting people to experience the continent on solar-powered scooters.
BY NAFISA AKABOR
I was not a fan of how tourism was being done in the inner city because a lot of what people were consuming was poverty porn, which is showing people a bad side of something while you capitalize…
FRANCK LEYA’S FIRST TRAVEL EXPERIENCE BEGAN in the late 1990s as a refugee who had to flee the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) out of fear that his father, a political journalist, would be executed.
“My passion for travel pretty much started as an immigrant. After my dad was charged with treason, we began migrating to African countries depending on the diplomatic relationships the countries had,” says Leya to FORBES AFRICA.
A Congolese born in Tanzania, Leya had to travel by bus and foot over the years, having lived in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola, before reaching his final stop: Johannesburg.
“When we arrived in South Africa, it was different because my dad had gotten asylum. The laws here were different when compared to other African countries,” says Leya. “My love for storytelling began because I migrated so much that everywhere I went, I had all these cool stories I wanted to share.”
Growing up in Johannesburg, his mother warned him to be aware of certain places and buildings, says Leya.
“As much as the inner city was considered ‘dangerous’, it was the only place I could call home due to its diversity and acceptance of all people.”
Walking distance from his home was the iconic Ponte Tower, which he refers to as ‘The United States of Africa’.
“I was constantly reminded that if I don’t do well, I’ll end up in that building. At the time, the building was a symbol of failure,” says Leya.
“Curiosity led me to move into this building later on, which gave me the opportunity to challenge people’s perception about my neighborhood and to expose them to the beauty of the inner city,” he says.
Leya eventually won a scholarship to attend St. John’s College in Johannesburg, where he used to sneak his friends out of rugby festivals to give them tours of Yeoville and when the demand grew, he began charging for it. “The first tour I ran was in 2013, I took a group of college boys for a Yeoville nightlife experience.”
While studying Economics and Ecometrics through Unisa, Leya met his mentor at Ernst & Young, who had started a tourism company called Dlala Nje. He was employed as a tour guide, while living at Ponte City.
“I was not a fan of how tourism was being done in the inner city because a lot of what people were consuming was poverty porn, which is showing people a bad side of something while you capitalize and make money from it,” he says. “Essentially what was being sold was my reality. I felt like it could be done better. This is what inspired my brand.”
Leya worked at Dlala Nje for five years but after graduating, started his tour company, Honest Travel Experience. It has been operating since January 2019, with experiences offered in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg. It includes walking, bike and electric scooter tours that cover food, history, graffiti, nightlife, arts, and markets.
He credits Airbnb Experiences with helping him grow, which eventually brought in bookings daily for this Johannesburg nightlife tour.
As a fan of technology, he began offering virtual tours before Covid hit, which subsequently turned into Zoom tours, silent discos and hosting international guests through online forums during lockdown.
“The pandemic took our 10-year plan to two years, we were already equipped for these instances, like reaching international schools to give them an African experience without actually being here.”
“When we read the Covid protocols, they fit in with our checklists like social distancing, smaller groups, and being outdoors. We’ve always been considerate of two things: the planet and the people. A lot of people who buy our products are conscious travelers.”
The right circumstances led Honest Travel Experience to offer e-scooter tours through a partner.
“It allowed us to make an impact quicker on a traveler that had very little time in Johannesburg. It has now evolved into something beyond us.”
Leya and his business partners decided to cut out the middleman and use their last bit of funds to invest in their own fleet of e-scooters to keep tours affordable and accessible. The company owns 58 scooters.
“We are in the second stage of launching and getting more investors to come on board so that we can launch the e-scooters as a short distance travel model in Johannesburg.
“We are also looking at ways to make the scooters solar powered. E-scooters could revolutionize how people view short distance travel within Africa, which is ideally where we’d like to branch out to.
“It was a strategic decision we made to pursue this idea of moving into transportation. That money could have done wonders for our business in the travel space, but I genuinely believe this is the new way. E-scooters on the African continent will get people thinking differently.”
Leya is confident that the company will receive their first sample of a solar-powered scooter by June 2022. “The goal after that is to mass-produce it and get it to the rest of Africa.”
Honest Travel facilitates tours using hosts but partners with locals in each city for authentic experiences. “It’s always been a partnership for us, we don’t compete with each other. We create jobs within the local communities that we operate in.
“I believe I can use tourism as a catalyst for building communities and changing the narrative of this beautiful continent through a fair trade between visitors and communities.”