When we talk about the sharing economy, there are a lot of connotations around it, both positive and negative. The first two companies that come to mind are Airbnb and Uber, with the latter having its fair share of controversies regarding regulation not just in South Africa, but around the world.

Airbnb has been a pioneer of the sharing economy, with currently over 3 million listings spread over 65,000 cities in 191 countries. Since its inception in August 2008, the San Francisco-based company has hosted over 160 million guests globally, and that number continues to grow.

The astronomical rise of Airbnb that has shaken up the hotel industry is now worth over $31 billion (at the time of print), and raised over $1 billion in its latest round of funding (March 2017), bringing its total raised to date at over $3 billion.

It’s crazy to think that the company putting a huge dent in the hotel industry owns no property, at all.

In March 2017, the company shared some interesting insights through a report called Women Hosts and Airbnb: Building a Global Community. It said that while it cannot tear down the obstacles to empowerment women face worldwide, its platform is powered by a growing community of women hosts who are connecting with guests, each other and their local communities.

Airbnb says historically, female hosts have outnumbered their male counterparts around the world; and an estimated over 1 million women host on Airbnb, making up 55% of the global Airbnb host community. Additionally, women host at 120% the rate of men.

The company’s female hosts have been earning a significant income around the world, and in 2016 alone, South Africa came third by most earnings per host at over R25,350 (nearly $2,000), behind the US at $6,600 and Spain at $3,600.

Airbnb estimates that over 50,000 women around the world have used income from its platform to support entrepreneurship for themselves, launching a business, or as direct investment capital for a new business they are starting. The report also stated that globally, 62% of single mother hosts use their Airbnb income to help afford their home.

The South African economy has been boosted by R2.4 billion ($184 million) in 2016, which is an estimated sum of guest spending and host income, said Airbnb in a post in May 2017.

South African hosts saw over 400,000 guest arrivals into their homes last year alone, a massive spike from the 38,000 back in 2014.

The estimated income and guest arrivals in South Africa came from 16,000 Airbnb hosts spread across the country who are ‘regular people’.

“A typical host is 45 years old and 40 percent of them are freelancers, entrepreneurs or self-employed,” said the company.

Lize Hartley, a 28-year-old executive head within the telecommunications industry living in the Cape Town CBD, lets out a property she bought that is five blocks away from her current apartment.

Making the decision to become a host on Airbnb was a ‘no-brainer’ for Hartley, who had been renting out her guest room initially.

“I crunched the numbers, working out what kind of occupation rate and average price per night I needed to cover my bond and other costs; I was lucky enough to put down a higher-than-average – in terms of percentage – deposit, which also helped remove some of the risk,” says Hartley.

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Most of Hartley’s guests are international travelers – she estimates this to be about 85% – and thinks her listing shows up relatively high on the list due to good reviews.

“Once people land on your listing, good reviews are important, as are good photographs, which I had done professionally as soon as the place was ready to be rented.”

Hartley thinks the biggest element of empowerment is that Airbnb is a means for people to own property, who otherwise might not have been able to.

“It is especially important to me as a woman; we know that women don’t own nearly as much property as men do worldwide, without even delving into patriarchal property rights, wage gaps, and other systemic injustices that hinder women from owning property.”

Moreover, there’s no income disparity between Airbnb hosts based on gender, so the platform acts as an equalizer in a world where women have to fight for equality every day, says Hartley.

Buying a property to let out on Airbnb has always been an investment for Hartley, who looks at the long-term focus, rather than a means of increasing her disposable income. “I don’t treat the money I get from this as supplementary income, instead, all of that money goes straight into paying the bond off more quickly.”

Guests that Hartley got to know better, even returning ones from the US, have been interesting, she says.

“From lawyers working in Baltimore alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, to former national cross-country skiers, and art lovers opening galleries on the other side of the world, we really have met some incredible people.”

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Another already empowered female with a successful career is 43-year-old humanitarian aid Belinda Bowling from De Waterkant, in Cape Town, whose Airbnb hosting has gone on to create a micro-business.

“It’s been fantastically empowering for my housekeeper and business partner, Nozi, who looks after the house on a day-to-day basis, without whom I couldn’t make this venture work successfully,” says Bowling.

Nozi has got an iPhone now, and we are able to communicate on bookings as if in the same room together, through the use of innovative apps that support the Airbnb phenomenon, she says.

“She’s also training up other unemployed women from her community, and sometimes outsources to them during busy times; she’s creating a micro-business, and becoming much more financially independent.”

“I’m enormously grateful for this outcome of this venture,” adds Bowling.

Belinda Bowling (Photo supplied)

Bowling built her house in Betty’s Bay nine years ago, which was more of an emotional investment, rather than a financial one, she says.

“It was a home for me in South Africa that gave me much-desired roots, bearing in mind my then transient and nomadic life working in humanitarian aid and international development.”

Due to her emotional commitment to the house, the decision to rent it out was something she avoided until 18 months ago, when it became a financial necessity.

“Returning home to work in Cape Town, I could no longer afford to maintain a second home that didn’t generate any income.”

Despite being wary of having strangers in her house and personal space, the perceived risks implicit in holiday rentals and the horror stories about nightmare guests, Bowling’s experience has been nothing but a very positive one, with a few lessons learned along the way, she says.

The experience and the income has both exceeded Bowling’s expectations, and some of her guests from Betty’s Bay have come to stay with her at her home in De Waterkant.

“I think Airbnb is a lot like Tinder, it matches people very successfully based on their interests, intentions and tastes. This is what makes it so disruptive and revolutionary – it’s highly personal, despite being a [impersonal] tech platform.”

Airbnb homes are (mainly) just that: (bespoke) homes, says Bowling.

“Not hotels, or mass market villa rentals all crammed with the same furniture. So the chances of the relationship being a positive one is much higher right from the starting point.”

Bowling loves hosting on Airbnb because being a part of ‘special family times’ has been most rewarding, from the ‘glam pad’ for the bride and her bridesmaids to a temporary home for first-time parents wanting to bond with their little one.

“These are intimate experiences that live with guests forever, and it’s an honor to be a part of that.”  – Written by Nafisa Akabor