African Travel Tips for Buying Local

The African Development Bank’s most recent figures on tourism indicate that 9.3 million jobs are associated with the tourism industry in Africa. Increasingly, African Americans and their cousins in the Caribbean are visiting “the Motherland” in greater numbers seeking a change of scenery. Many are seeking social and business opportunities as they book travel to the continent. Ghana and many African leaders have hailed 2019 to be the “Year of Return,” a clever historically tied marketing tool to draw in some of Africa’s greatest supporters: Africans of the Diaspora.

While the scant statistics available indicate that White (European/American) baby-boomers and Chinese are among Africa’s most frequent visitors by volume; data now indicates there is a growing number of African Americans choosing any one of Africa’s 54 states as a travel destination. Unfortunately, real data indicates many African Tourism Boards do not target Africans of the Diaspora at all. In contrast, Ghana has crafted and aggressive plan to tap into that market with their “Year of Return,” which targets African Descendants of Slavery in the Americas and elsewhere. Ghana’s Tourism Authority estimates it will receive 500,000 visitors in the coming year.

In 2016, I traveled to Ghana to see the place where famed African revolutionary and Father of African Independence, Kwame Nkrumah descended. My trip in 2016 came with great research and became one of the defining moments of my life. Two years later I would visit Nigeria, the Giant of Africa and stay for two months. whether you travel to Ghana, Togo or Senegal, here are six tips to help make your trip more comfortable and help you support local businesses.

Tip 1: Research:

The first and most important step in traveling to West Africa is research. It’s important to understand the geography, history and layout of the country to which you wish to travel. Take a moment to read a few articles, watch online travel videos and talk to people directly from that country. I also find it helpful to national read online newspapers to understand the sociopolitical climate. Also remember that African nations are usually comprised of more than three distinct tribes that often have complicated histories. I encourage you to obtain a map of the country where you are traveling and acquaint yourself with it before your trip. Try to understand the customs, culture and maladies before you go; it will help you significantly in your travels. If you are an African American or African visiting from another part of the world, this step is even more important for you because your reception will be different from a European, Asian or Middle Easterner in the country.

Tip 2: Preparation

the Second most important step in Traveling to West Africa is preparation. You will want to visit your doctor or state agency to determine the immunizations you need to travel. Usually, a Yellow Fever immunization is really all that is needed. You may also wish to take anti-malarial medication by prescription in the U.S. If you have a layover in the UK, you can buy anti-malarial without a prescription at a pretty affordable rate. You can also buy them at many West African Pharmacies.

Urban African cities usually have shops, malls or markets where you can pick up items like toothpaste, soap, deodorant or shampoo. Unless you are going into the bush, you should be fine for personal needs. However, prices are likely to be high for some products.  When I was in Lagos, Nigeria, I found it hard to find soap that did not have a bleaching agent in it. So you may want to bring a few bars of soap to preserve your pristine melanin.

Also, many West African cities struggle with power supply, so it is a good idea to carry a pocket flash light and a self-powered lamp. In some places power can be out for up to 24 hours. It’s a good idea to pack a pair of sturdy sandals and rain boots. West Africa receives high rain fall which leads flooding–particularly during the rainy season. In my visits I neglected to bring rain boots and so, I learned to skip across rocks, climb gates and depend on men to pull and lift me across giant puddles. The heat is real, so also be sure to bring a hand towel to carry daily and body spray deodorant.  Also, be sure to bring insect repellent. Generally mosquitoes are not a problem, but after a rain and at night, mosquito tend to emerge. Even without the threat of malaria, the bites often leave unsightly discoloration–so be vigilant.

Tip 3: Eat Local

As a visitor, the best way to support local industry is to eat local. Bring a bottle of fruit wash with you on your trip and make use of the local market. When I was in West Africa, I often bought food from street vendors. Generally visitors from Western countries do not have the adequate gut bacteria to process many naturally occurring germs in local foods. This means you might get diarrhea or a sick stomach from time to time.  Bring Imodium (loperamide) tablets, hand sanitizer and travel size toilet paper. Eating local means you will often find yourself away from urban enclaves and among local people where food preparation standards can be quite different. Eating local is a great way to help circulate “new” money into an African city on the microeconomic level.

Tip 4: Travel Small

Perhaps not as popular, is the concept of using local transportation to get from place to place. On short rides, it is possible to take local transportation modes, like motorcycles, motorized rickshaw carts (Keke), and small buses. By using the local transportation you are infusing the local transport system with finance and enabling operators to buy better vehicles, make needed repairs and hire staff. You are also helping to make the local transportation better for local people.

After a prolonged stay in Lagos in 2018, I did master the local bus system to some degree. But this was after several trips into oblivion, where only the kindness of strangers and the goodness of God got me back on track. Longer trips are not advised (unless you know the route and the stops); Bus stops are often unmarked in most West African cities  and local accents can make it difficult to understand stop names when they are announced.

Also, be sure to bring lots of small bills and small money when you do anything local. Most people deal in very small amounts of money each day, so finding change for a large bill can be nearly impossible for a driver or a local vendor. Sometimes, people may refuse to give you change. So be smart. Also, you may be tempted to take Uber or ride-shares everywhere, but it is better to take Taxify or local taxis because having a driver only puts money back into an oil industry that is often inaccessible to local people who pay exorbitantly even though oil is locally produced. Buying gas only helps elites and foreigners who most often own the gas stations in West Africa.

Tip 5: Buy Domestic

African Malls can be fun, social places to go, especially if you have a typical West African phenotype. In Lagos, malls were buzzing and full of life and lively people who were smartly dressed. You can buy from Armani, Adidas or Ralph Lauren there, however, such purchases rarely bring any direct benefit to the local people. Sure, we African Americans; Afro-Caribbeans & Immigrated Africans like luxury when we travel for vacation, but consider buying most things from local vendors. This is another way to increase liquidity in the nation you visit. Buy your souvenirs, clothing, jewelry and similar items from local vendors. Mom and pop stores or sellers are everywhere. People often set up a little shop in front of their house or women will spread a blanket and sell small jewelry or electronics beside the road. I found buying things in the market to be fun and very affordable. Also, have clothing items made by local tailors and seamstresses who can make many lovely items. If you’re going to be in the city a while, it’s a great idea to hire on a good seamstress/tailor to make the things you need.

Tip 6: Live Close By

Many people are not aware that West Africa is home to many lovely properties. Particularly luxury apartments and hotels. These are great ways to experience the “Western” standard of living you may be accustomed. However, I used Airbnb, Expedia and local hotel websites to book trips. While this is a convenient way to travel, you may also want to rent guest houses from local people too.

I have found in my travels in West Africa, that many big box luxury hotels are owned by foreigners; which means your fees will not make a big impact on the local economy. An Airbnb or other home-sharing site might be a better choice if you want to be sure your payments go to the local community. It is unfortunate that the hospitality industry in West Africa is not actually locally owned and operated. However, when I traveled, I did seek locally owned hospitality ventures and whenever possible, I chose those locations to lodge.

Tip 6: Invest Africa

Whether you are traveling for sight-seeing, visiting family or taking an extended vacation, there is always an opportunity for Africans of the Diaspora to connect. I encourage having good conversations with local people and vendors,  rather than sequestering yourself at resorts and high-end enclaves. Africa will not experience the major change it needs until prosperity reaches the local level. Businesses cannot scale to size because few people can afford to pay or patronize a store more than once. I and other African-Americans who travel and buy local have seen small shop keepers, maids, lodging facilities grow simply by own individual patronage. When I was in West Africa, I was frequently asked to partner with local businesses and merchants seeking capital, new ideas and new connections. As an individual with a West African Phenotype, you will have a unique opportunity to connect in meaningful ways and support local industry. Don’t waste all of your time at the pool or the beach, be sure to see what Africa truly has to offer.

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