Returnee Spotlight: See How Mark Essien Is Transforming The Hospitality Industry Across Africa
Africa has many opportunities, but their benefits never come on a silver platter. It takes time, effort, and hard work to actualize an idea to the point where others take it seriously. Such is the story of many African returnees who have exploited—and continue to exploit—business opportunities in Africa. One of them is Mark Essien.
Years back while abroad, he spotted an opportunity in the hospitality industry in Africa. Subsequently, he decided to return home to build Nigeria’s largest hotel booking platform. Today, we walk you through his inspiring journey to success. Enjoy the read.
Who is Mark Essien?
Essien is a Nigerian entrepreneur and software developer. He is the founder and CEO of Hotels.ng, a hotel booking platform. He has developed this online platform to become the biggest of its kind in Nigeria. It was also the first to allow online hotel bookings in the country.
His contribution to the hospitality and tech industries has drawn international recognition. In 2015, Forbes listed him among the 30 most promising young entrepreneurs in Africa. He is one of the visionary African tech leaders who are passionate about developing a technology ecosystem in Africa. He is also a frequent TedX speaker.
What has made Essien Successful in Business?
Essien attributes his success in business to several factors. First, he managed to spot a viable business opportunity and pursued it. Second, he always establishes a system for everything he does to maximize the chances of achieving projected results. He also likes to measure goals to avoid wasting time on unimportant things to his long-term and even short-term projections.
Next, the Nigerian entrepreneur learned early how to manage a business without enough money. He understood cost-effectiveness and prioritizing for good turnover. This knowledge has helped him to manage his business even better than people with sufficient funds.
Essien’s Early Life and Journey to Germany
Mark Essien was born in 1980 in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. He started and completed primary education at Monika Kindergarten. Afterward, he pursued secondary education at Federal Government College, Nigeria, and completed it in 1998.
At the age of 18 years, he moved to Germany to advance his education. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from Beuth University, Berlin. Thereafter, he joined Freie University and graduated with an MSc in Computer Science.
Early Career in Germany
After leaving university, Essien started working as a ticket tearer at a German cinema center. He worked at this center for just two months before getting another job that involved taking care of a paralyzed man at night. This second job required him to be watchful and awake most of the time.
But he decided to use his free time to his advantage. At the time, Essien didn’t own a computer. Luckily, his older sister, who also lived in Germany, helped him with her own together with a dial-up internet device. So he used these devices to learn programming.
Subsequently, he bought some visual basic software and ventured into software development. His first project was to develop a file-sharing platform that he named Gnumm. The platform soon garnered attention and was eventually acquired by Snoopstar, a reality series platform that was under the Bertelmann company. The company was very impressed by Gnumm.
Consequently, it hired Essien as a software developer. This role provided an opportunity for him to acquire advanced programming skills. After working for Bertelmann for a few years, Essien decided to focus on computer programming. The programmer tried his hand at several projects, which he sold to some notable clients including the US military and Disney.
The reasons for his return to Africa
All along, Mark Essien had focused on developing software for PCs. However, the coming of smartphones made him rethink his strategy. After the popularity of smartphones skyrocketed across the world, he adapted accordingly. So, over the next couple of years, Essien built apps for Apple Inc. that had mixed success.
He also observed something impactful in the industry. The apps’ market in the West started becoming saturated. This realization made Essien think about a better market for his skills and products. He perceived an opportunity for his technologies in Africa. This followed research that he conducted in Africa regarding the start-up climate.
His findings were that South Africa was beginning to take off but the wider Africa was nascent. He also noted that Africa’s travel industry was active. Nonetheless, many providers didn’t have sufficient consumer experience, especially in the travel booking process. He, therefore, decided to return to Africa to create a hotel booking platform.
Genesis of Hotels.ngUpon settling in Nigeria, Mark Essien developed the first version of Hotels.ng. Although Lagos is the largest city in Nigeria, he didn’t consider it strategic for his business. Instead, the returnee set his sight on Calabar city in southern Nigeria. This city is a popular holiday destination and has a dense population of hotels.
Thus, Essien thought that Calabar was very strategic because it had many potential clients for his business. Initially, the Nigerian entrepreneur split his time between growing his hotel booking platform and visiting hotels to share his idea with their management.
He got many positive responses since hotels found his website was mutually beneficial. Each hotel could not only advertise its products but also gain new customers. The majority of hotels in Calabar city signed up on Hotels.ng.
Upon achieving this milestone, Essien thought that it was time to expand his business. But there was a challenge. Larger cities in Nigeria were not densely populated with hotels like Calabar. Also, high traffic meant that transportation would be quite challenging.
But amidst these Mark Essien, was determined to take his business to the next level. Fortunately, Jason Njoku, a famous African entrepreneur and the founder of iROKO Partners Ltd., was looking for an internet business to invest in at the time. So Essien approached him and got a seed fund of $75,000 through Spark.ng.
He use a significant amount of the money to hire sales agents to help sign up more hotels. With the help of these agents, Hotels.ng signed up many hotels across cities in Nigeria. Later on, Spark.ng offered another $150,000 to help Hotels.ng further expand its listing.
How Mark Essien is currently Coping
Founded in 2013, Hotels.ng has so far signed up over 13,000 hotels in Nigeria. Travelers from all over the world can search thousands of hotels in the leading destination cities in Nigeria including Lagos, Abuja, Calabar, Ibadan, and Kaduna. Before Hotel.ng, Essien says there was no way travelers could research hotels in Nigeria.
Also, they could not reserve or book hotel rooms. His hotel booking platform has made hotels in Nigeria searchable and bookable. Mark Essien plans to extend his hotel booking services across Africa. Poor internet and power are the usual challenges that Essien faces even as he continues to advance his business.
However, his biggest challenge yet is recruitment. Africa’s tech industry is still developing and this makes it difficult to find trained talent. This problem is compounded by startups and international firms that outsource IT expertise from outside Africa.
However, Essien doesn’t adopt this strategy. Instead, he is passionately working towards growing an African technology ecosystem. He aims to do this through HNG Internship, an initiative that seeks to train local software developers and expose them to practical programming experience.
Message to Aspiring Entrepreneurs in Africa
Mark Essien encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to explore opportunities in Africa. He says that the African business ecosystem brims with opportunities. Thus, people just need to identify what works for them. He however cautions that not every market is good.
You need to develop an uncanny sense to spot what is worth investing in and what is not. He also emphasizes that the market is everything because it is what drives a business. Thus, he urges aspiring entrepreneurs to “focus on the market.” If you target the wrong market, you might ultimately get foiled even if you have a great product.
Hotels.ng has taken Nigeria’s online hotel booking by storm. Through this company, Mark Essien proves that you can achieve your dreams by working hard and smart. Essien is on a mission to make every hotel in Africa searchable and bookable. With his passion for what he does and hardworking spirit, he is definitely going places. Likewise, you need to work hard to prove yourself worthy of every opportunity. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will.