Tanzanian-born Franck Leya, co-founder and managing director of Honest Travel Experience in South Africa, has had an interesting trip and is now working to get people to experience the continent on solar-powered scooters.
BY NAFISA AKABOR
I wasn’t a fan of the way tourism was done in the city center because a lot of what people were consuming was poverty porn, which shows people the 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 Congo (DRC) for fear that his father, a political journalist, would be executed.
“My passion for travel practically started as an immigrant. After my father was accused of treason, we started migrating to African countries based on the diplomatic relations the countries had,” Leya tells FORBES AFRICA.
A Congolese born in Tanzania, Leya had to travel by bus and on foot over the years, having lived in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola, before reaching his last stop: Johannesburg.
“When we arrived in South Africa it was different because my father had been granted asylum. The laws here were different compared to other African countries,” says Leya. “My love for storytelling started 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 careful of certain places and buildings, Leya says.
“Even though downtown was considered ‘unsafe’, it was the only place I could call home due to its diversity and acceptance of all.”
Within walking distance of his home was the iconic Ponte Tower, which he calls “the United States of Africa”.
“I was constantly reminded that if I don’t do well, I will end up in this building. At the time, the building was a symbol of failure,” says Leya.
“Curiosity led me to later move into this building, which gave me the opportunity to challenge people’s perception of my neighborhood and expose them to the beauty of downtown,” he says.
Leya eventually won a scholarship to attend St. John’s College in Johannesburg, where he used to whisk his friends out of rugby festivals to show them around Yeoville and when demand increased he started charging. “The first tour I ran was in 2013, I took a group of college kids for a nighttime experience in Yeoville.”
While studying economics and ecometrics at Unisa, Leya met his mentor at Ernst & Young, who had started a tourism business called Dlala Nje. He was employed as a tour guide while living in Ponte City.
“I wasn’t a fan of the way tourism was done in the city center because a lot of what people were consuming was poverty porn, which shows people the bad side of something during that you profit from it and make money from it,” he says. “Essentially, what was being sold was my reality. I felt like it could be done better. That’s what inspired my brand.
Leya worked at Dlala Nje for five years, but after graduation he started his travel agency, Honest Travel Experience. It has been running since January 2019, with experiences offered in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. It includes walking, biking, and electric scooter tours that cover food, history, graffiti, nightlife, arts, and markets.
He credits Airbnb Experiences for helping him grow, which ultimately drove daily bookings for this Johannesburg nightlife tour.
As a tech fanatic, he started offering virtual tours before Covid hit, which later morphed into Zoom tours, silent discos and hosting international guests via online forums during the lockdown.
“The pandemic took our 10-year plan to two years, we were already equipped for those cases, like reaching out to international schools to give them an African experience without actually being here.”
“When we read the Covid protocols, they fit into our checklists like social distancing, small groups and being outdoors. We have always been attentive to two things: the planet and the people. Many people who buy our products are conscious travelers.
The right circumstances led Honest Travel Experience to offer electric scooter tours through a partner.
“It allowed us to have a faster impact on a traveler who had very little time in Johannesburg. He has now evolved into something beyond us.
Leya and her business partners decided to cut out the middleman and use their last 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 bringing in more investors so that we can launch electric scooters as a short-haul travel model in Johannesburg.
“We are also looking at ways to make scooters solar-powered. Electric scooters could revolutionize the way people think about short-haul travel in Africa, where we would ideally like to branch out.
“It was a strategic decision that we made to pursue this idea of moving to transportation. This money could have done wonders for our travel business, but I truly believe this is the new way. Electric scooters in the African continent will make people think differently.
Leya is confident that the company will receive its 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 has always been a partnership for us, we are not in competition with each other. We create jobs within the local communities in which we operate.
“I believe I can use tourism as a catalyst to build communities and change the narrative of this beautiful continent through fair trade between visitors and communities.”