I’m Founder Of An African Travel Startup… & Here’s Why I Didn’t Post About The Ethiopian Airlines Crash
Three days ago 157 people lost their lives in my worst nightmare. Just six minutes after takeoff, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 heading for Nairobi, crashed near Bishoftu, Ethiopia after a struggle by the pilots to gain control of the aircraft. Initial reports predictably focused on the safety record of the airline (we see you Financial Times) and the number of Western lives affected or lost (a fail). However, just 48 hours later outlets like The Points Guy, The Atlantic, and NewsOne quickly called BS on the hierarchical value of lives evident in early reports and the fact that Ethiopian Airlines has BEEN winning in the safety and service department for years.
Yet — today is the first time I’ve spoken publicly about the crash.
If you’re new here you might be wondering why that matters so I’ll let you in on the jig — I’m the founder and CEO of Tastemakers Africa, a travel startup disrupting what the world thinks about Africa — one trip at a time.
This year has been an epic one for travel in Africa. With the exception of the terrorist attack at the Dusit2 in Nairobi, it’s been stream after stream of good news. Ghana reached the top 5 in CNN’s “Best Places to Travel in 2019” list, tourism arrivals in Africa are outpacing the rest of the world with a growth rate of 7%, and African content creators are reaching millions with fresh takes on African cities and culture on Instagram. This has all made my job a lot easier. The initial idea for Tastemakers came during the 2014 Ebola crisis in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. At the time it was hard to convince investors that travel in Africa could ever go mainstream. Fast forward to today, and we are backed by one of the sharpest early stage VC’s in the business, have delivered more than 3,000 experiences across Africa, and are on target to drive nearly USD 1M in earnings to young African creatives and entrepreneurs by the end of the year.
With all of this in mind, I was paralyzed when I got the news via Whatsapp last Sunday. I took a moment to pay my respects to the victims, blown away by the catastrophic loss of life and then I thought, and thought, and thought about what to do knowing full well that “Africa” could be somehow blamed for the incident. This carried on through today when I spoke to my team who was at this point looking to me for leadership on how we would address things. I shared with them the same truth I’m sharing with you — I was scared that the crash in Ethiopia would somehow move us backward in our progress on convincing people that Africa is safe and desirable. I had flashbacks to people canceling trips to South Africa when Ebola broke out in Liberia (3,000 miles away) in 2014. I remembered investors telling me straight up that travel and Africa are two of the riskiest sectors and that I might be a bit crazy trying to tackle both with one business. I predicted almost immediately that although this was an issue with the manufacturer (see the Lion Air crash with the same aircraft), it would somehow be placed as another marred moment because…Africa.
My fears aren’t without merit, The Associated Press ran a story today categorizing the crash as a “setback for Ethiopia’s rise,” and many a commentator is acknowledging that this incident, unfortunately, reinforces negative perceptions about Africa that persist even when easily invalidated.
For a plane crash that was clearly a result of manufacturer error to roll back the progression of an entire country who has successfully invested billions in being a competitive economy is outrageous.
This is an ongoing saga that we must address head on — the impact of disasters and negative stories on our perceptions and understanding of Africa weighs far too heavily in our collective psyche even when we’re heavily embedded in Africa’s diversity and opportunity (case in point — me!).
This is not to say that we are not without huge leaps forward. In a recent Lear Center report titled “Africa In The Media” John Tomlinson from Synergos commented:
“[US media portrayal of Africa] is simplistic, but less stereotyped than in the past, because there’s a lot more diversity of voices out there, and a little bit more of a consciousness among consumers and news producers that they haven’t done a good job in the past.
The quick shift in reporting and diversity of contributing voices around the Ethiopian Airlines crash underscores this sentiment while revealing that there is still more work to be done.
My heart and spirit are with every soul lost in the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the families that are coping with an unimaginable tragedy. At Tastemakers Africa we will continue to shine a light on the brilliant things and people that make Africa and its 54 countries incredibly dynamic places to visit. In that same stead, we will also tackle the thorny issues facing the continent’s rise head on and be a nuanced voice in the conversation.