The unfinished continent

Daniel Brown embodies the type of person that he himself prefers to be around: enthusiastic, engaged and adventurous. He is the founder and CEO of „dmAfrica“, a production company for exclusive agents, that hire him for his nothing-is-impossible-service. In this manner he brings travellers to the remote corners of the continent. Brown’s love for Africa runs in the family: born in London, he grew up in Tanzania and on the Seychelles, where his father opened up the islands for tourism in the 1970ties. Today he is considered a prominent expert on travel in Africa and lives mainly in Capetown.

Expert on Africa: Daniel Brown, founder and CEO of dm Africa

Where does Africa for beginners lie?

South Africa is a good starting point. You can go on safari, Capetown has a European feel to it and the wine and gourmet scene are vibrant. It’s a perfect gateway. It gives you wilderness, but you always have all kinds of amenities within reach.

And for advanced travellers?

The Vodoo festivals in Benin and Togo in January are fantastic. Same with the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana. Cultural interactions are so interesting. You can go to Senegal for music. Botswana is an iconic place, because their GDP doesn’t depend fully on tourism, so it’s very exclusive. And to some extent Ruanda is like that. It’s high-cost to see Gorillas and the country has high-cost accommodations. Most places in the world, that rely on tourism eventually welcome hordes of people, that ruin everything. And they are avoiding that.

You cover a huge and vastly different territory of Africa. Did you explore to all these places yourself?

Yes, I did. We have experts in each country, who we teach. It’s the experience that we sell. Since the last five to ten years and definitely since Covid, high-net-worth clients are not happy just staying at a “Four Seasons” Presidential suite. That’s boring. People now are quite happy to sleep on the floor in the desert with a helicopter and an interesting guide explaining to them the tribes from Ethiopia or some unique festival in Zambia.

The conception of luxury or high-end experiences has changed.

In travel the word luxury doesn’t mean much anymore, except than being in the right place with the right people, that you want to be with. That’s luxury. Luxury is not only defined by aesthetics anymore. It used to be: who is the spa manager, where has the General Manager been before? All over Africa you have places, where the staff doesn’t even have a formal hospitality education, but they learned organically how to deal with people. It’s more interesting because they have a different outlook on life.

What are the biggest misconceptions people still have about Africa?

Misconceptions about safety and diseases like Ebola. Something comes up in some remote area of West Africa and people think it’s a big continental thing.

What makes Africa structurally special from other destinations?

The beauty of Africa comes from the maverick pioneers, that operate there. Maybe not the best businesspeople in the world, but they do it from the heart. They are second or third generation cattle farmers or hunters and they run independent properties. You don’t get anything like that in the world. It’s people who have a passion for community and a passion for what they are doing.

What ignites this passion?

I think it’s the people. It’s always said that people come to Africa for the animals. And yes, people go to Africa because of the animals, but they come back for the people.

We always emphasize nature experiences, but cities are growing fast. Which of them are most worthwhile visiting?

Capetown is obviously recommendable. Dakar in Senegal has a vibrant fashion and music scene. We have clients interested in the slave trade history. Some come to retrace their roots or understand their place in history and the legacy Senegal holds. Nairobi is becoming the tech capital of Africa. Kigali in Ruanda has got an amazing coffee culture. It’s an amazingly vibrant city, with interesting business going on. And the streets are so clean. Every first Sunday in the month, everyone goes litter picking. It’s spotless.

The Switzerland of Africa?

Exactly. Every piece of land is basically cultivated. You drive into the Volcanic National Park and you see smiling faces along the roads. We always think of Africa as poor. They are. But they are not in their outlook of life. They don’t look inward and depress on things. People always say to me: ‘Oh, I should give money to these poor people.’ But often I look at wealthy people, who think just by giving them money you are making yourself feel good and help somebody. Actually, most of the locals are happier than the people giving the money.

Isn’t that a romanticisation of poverty?

In a way perhaps. But people who come to Africa often want to do something right for the community. They then give books to students or paint a school. But honestly it doesn’t help to have an Instagram picture of you doing something along that line to give affirmation to your friends that you are in Africa and that you are doing good. It sounds a bit arrogant, but we rather say we would like something more focused. It’s a conversation to have before traveling. Because unless you are supporting a legacy project with a long-term outlook, which means 25 years or more, you are not really making a big difference. There is a massive sector in philanthropic travel that has been missed.

So, what would valid philanthropic travel look like?

Give money to smaller projects. People like us precure ideas and projects for visitors they wouldn’t find otherwise. A lot of small projects in Africa don’t get looked at, so people like us are on the forefront of information and community. This can also be considered a luxury. Giving away money to some meaningful legacy projects.

Many countries in Africa are at a point in their history, where they must decide, where they want to take their approach to tourism.

I think there has been greater alignment with sustainability. It has been mostly understood that you can’t exploit wildlife. Kenia for example used to be a bad example for tourism. But not anymore, necessarily. The Masai Mara Park and Serengeti, yes, in July, August, September you get more people, but there are other times to go. There has been a lot of pressure to increase revenue for GDP and tourism has been the outlet for that. But it has shifted, because there are more people standing up and they have pockets of land, which are privately owned, and they can work there sustainably.

The private sector seems to be very important.

Yes. For example, if you look at Kenia, the Northern region called Lakipia you have many wealthy owners there who have their own properties who allow companies like ours to sell. It’s all for non-profit. So, every penny you spend there goes into conservation and community. Companies like Singita or andBeyond, they have been around for decades, and they have earned their rights to be in Africa as opposed to other places, where it is sometimes unclear where the revenue is landing, whether it is going back to the people or leaving the continent. The question now is: Can we stop this commercial juggernaut of ruining the world, because a handful of a few hotel-chains own everything now?

What do you see as the most pressing problems on the continent?

One thing I am worried about is the colonization of Africa. Historically we had the Germans, British or Belgians, but today we have to deal with the emergence of powers from the Middle East and more so from China doing colonization by stealth. They take the land because they need to feed their people. You have huge chunks in Zimbabwe, which are now owned by Middle Eastern states, bringing in migrant workers for harvest from outside the country. They are now the bread baskets of the world, the new places to exploit. China builds infrastructure like airports or train lines with Chinese workers. It’s unclear how people win these contracts and what the implications are if important parts of infrastructure in Africa is owned by China.

What were the wildest trips you have organized so far?

There are so many, most of which I can’t really talk about for privacy reasons. But for example we once worked for a family with two children, who travelled for 360 days to all the best parts of Africa. They did cities, properties, Namibia, Togo, Kap Verde, Benin, everything. One week here, another week there. But the highlight of the trip was sleeping in a bird’s nest. We created four nests in trees for them in Tanzania. This family now bought a property in Northern Kenia, that we now sell to other clients. It’s called Ol Lentille and they work with the Samburu community. So, the story has gone full circle.

What parts of Africa still triggers your imagination?

Congo (DRC) gives me a whole romanticism of Africa. It has been exploited by the world, every single iPhone has some material from Kongo in it from mining. But from the point of view what they are doing in Virunga National Park, which is the oldest national park in the world it is unique. But the problem is security. But there are more gorillas on the DRC side. You can go in by helicopter. It’s a really hard sell, but we can make it possible.

You told me you would recognise every beach in Africa.

Yes. I have this amazing knowledge by looking at a beach, I can tell you where it is. You can test me.

I’d like to challenge you on that, but where are the most beautiful ones?

On the Seychelles, because they are granitic. There are not many granitic island in the world. Most islands are coral atolls, apart from Polynesia.

Could you go to the Seychelles on a budget?

A lot of people do. My father would not go back to the Seychelles, because he said it’s ruined, because of big corporations. There are still some small guest houses though and you can stay with a Seychelle family. Or even if they are expats: Swiss, French, Germans, that opened Bed&Breakfasts. You still get the beaches, and you get freedom and little restaurants, sit with the local fisherman and have a beer. That’s what’s missing when people go to resorts. You don’t get into the skin of things. And Seychelles allows you to discover Creole culture, but only if you let yourself explore.

What’s your outlook for the future of Africa?

We need these maverick people to be in Africa and fight for their causes. The rest of the world has gone corporate. Don’t let Africa go that way as well. People today go on their iPad and people pay on search engines to show up on top of the list. But you can’t go on Instagram, TikTok or whatever and research the experience that comes for example with the 50, 60 years of experience that runs in my family. Travelers think there is a pot of gold that is accessible through technology and it’s not. I always say to people that coming to Africa is like skiing. When you go on the slope for the first time you might fall, but you keep getting up, because it’s so worthwhile. You are never done with it. That’s why you need experts like us.

Unique: Granitic beach on the island La Digue, Seychelles