If South Africa is home to the Cradle of Humankind, then the East Africa region can perhaps lay claim to where much of the continent's technology-led evolution is now taking place.
But this being a corner of Africa which has been ravaged over the years by civil war and famine, nothing is ever completely straightforward.
When a fire raged through Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta Airport in early-August this year, there was a sharp intake of breath not only from the Kenyan capital's citizens and national government, but from others in the region.
Over the past few years the modest sized airport (5.8 million passengers in 2011) has become a gateway for inbound traffic to East Africa, both for the safari tour operating industry and for those outside looking to invest in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.
The early pictures of the damage caused by the blaze looked devastating.
Could the 2013 safari season cope with the disruption? What would rumours of emergency services looting before fire-fighting do to the reputation of a country desperate to position itself as one of the more forward-thinking nations on the continent?
Typically for a country (and wider region) which seemingly copes with all manner of knocks that would ordinarily cripple a so-called developed nation, services at the airport were restored quickly.
In short: officials in Kenya know how important the airport is to sustaining the tourism sector and fuelling further investment in other industries.
Travel sector overview
Inbound tourism, for example, reached around 1.3 million visitors in 2012, with the UK sending the largest proportion of travellers followed by the US and Italy (2010 figures).
These statistics are encouraging to the likes of John Chirchir of the Kenya Tourism Board. The agency has seen overall numbers more than double since the mid-1990s despite the US embassy bombings in 1998 and the controversial election and its aftermath in 2007-2008.
In 2012 tourism brought in around $1.1 billion to Kenya, mostly via wildlife and safari-led products but with an increasing amount going to new adventure, eco and beach trips.
Chirchir says the government is pushing Kenyan and external organisations to develop boutique and lifestyle hotels both in the national parks and ocean resorts, raising the "spend profile" of visitors further as well as encouraging corporations and MICE planners to select the country for conferences and exhibitions.
It's inevitably a slow task, not least given that the government needs to continually fund and encourage investment in the country's infrastructure, such as upgrading the airport in Isiolo and the development of marinas, but especially the road network (Nairobi's roads, for example, can be jammed in and out of the city during peak hours).
So what about the tech?
Kenya (and to a lesser extent, Tanzania and Ethiopia) is aggressively pitching its tech potential to the outside world, in an effort to sustain the current 6.5% growth in GDP to the East Africa region (Western Europe's is 0.1%).
Silicon Savannah is the rather inevitable title given to a movement in the country to encourage developers, startups, digital designers and entrepreneurs to consider Kenya as a base.
iHub is one of the platforms coordinating such efforts, and counts high profile brands such as Intel, Google (and elsewhere in Africa) and Samsung on its roster of international partners.
This stream of investment and enthusiasm for all things tech is rubbing off on the populace and the authorities (it likes to call itself a "digital government").
Members of the growing middle class have an average of three devices to their name and many of the urban slum areas have subsidised mobile schemes, as well as free wifi zones to encourage internet use and sharing of information.
Yet perhaps the most significant and eye-catching development is the M-Pesa service.
Little known to many outside of the region, M-Pesa (Mobile-Pesa - Swahili for money) is a device-hosted money transfer and micro-finance system and is considered by some to be the most advanced mobile payment service in the world.
Developed by local students in Kenya in 2007 (short video about its history), M-Pesa is now used by a third of the country's population in shops, food stalls, buses and offices.
Ask many what has fuelled the rapid rise of mobile payments - despite large scale poverty and relative underdevelopment of other forms of infrastructure - and it can be summarised easily: a hands-off approach to regulation by the government and the fact that many citizens have completely skipped desktop computers.
Their first experience of ecommerce is coming via a mobile device.
M-Pesa is spreading to countries around with similar structures and positions on the tech development curve, such as India and Afghanistan, and has caught the eye of a string of mobile operators around the world.
Some other significant stats to bear in mind:
Travel industry moves
- Average age in Africa is 20 (40 in Europe).
- Africa will have larger workforce than China in three decades.
- Seven of the top ten fastest growing economies are in Africa.
- BRIC countries trade more with Africa than they do amongst themselves.
- 750 million Africans have a mobile phone (1 billion by 2020).
- 54% of Kenyans never or infrequently use a desktop.
- Data produced from organisations based in Africa has increased by 30,000% in three years.
It is this rapid development of technology and infrastructure, alongside a burgeoning outbound tourist and business travel sector, which has led organisations such as Travelport to invest in and focus on Kenya and the wider region.
Having taken over its local National Distribution Company (known, rather ironically, as an NDC) agreement from Kenya Airwaysin April this year, Travelport sees establishing its own hub as a significant stepping stone to capitalising on the cultural and technical evolution currently taking place in the region.
"Travel's new big game" is company's slogan (and a nod towards the traditional, safari-led image of Africa) as it looks to bring the agency and wider tourism sector in the region up to speed with the pace of tech-driven change hitting other industries.
In particular is a focus on providing web and mobile services, not least because it seems imperative for travel businesses to start catering for the obvious fondness in the population for mobile and tablet devices, but also because traditional offline agencies are finding they will need fully functioning search and booking websites very soon.
Meanwhile, in terms of GDS segment growth, Africa outperforms the rest of the world considerably - Americas, Europe and APAC were relatively flat at 1-2% in 2012, whereas Africa was almost 15%.
Travelport's managing director in Africa, Mark Meehan, believes the time is right to give the region such a large focus because the agency community is "very tech-savvy" and "their expectations of what can be achieved are very high".
Interestingly, Meehan firmly believes the problems that beset bricks and mortar agencies in Europe and North America in the late-1990s and early-2000s (i.e. declining numbers in the face of new web-based services) will not be felt to the same extent in Africa.
"The pace of change here [in the industry] is not the same as elsewhere and the regulatory environment is different," Meehan says. "Agents have the technical infrastructure to compete, alongside the tools and platforms."
In other words: when previously many Western-based agents scrambled around wondering how they would compete with the likes of Expedia, now the availability of services and the business infrastructure (broadband, data storage, etc) in 2013 means the barriers to upgrading to a multi-channel service are far lower.
The ecosystem of industry will evolve as a whole, rather than there being widespread bloodshed as a result of a revolution which agents can't control, Meehan believes.
Nevertheless, despite the industry environment in Africa in 2013 being markedly different to that in the west ten to 15 years ago, it is up to companies such as Travelport, in partnership with their customers, to make sure this happens.
This isn't the spin from the company, but the reality. There is a significant opportunity for the existing players in the region to capitalise on the changes in the structure and processes in the industry, rather than sit idly by for outsiders to come along in the same way they did so devastatingly in other parts of the developed world.
On the ground
At the sharp-end of the agency world, Kiiru Mahiaini (CEO of Incentive Travel) has been in business for 17 years on the outskirts of Nairobi, both as an outbound air ticket and hotel booking service as well as an organiser of inbound safari tours.
Around 80% of his agency revenue is from business travel, servicing Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the increasing number of large corporations which have settled in Kenya and the wider region (such as Coca-Cola, Nokia et al).
As companies have thrived on the back of the local tech-led business revolution so have the needs of employees, with traditional destinations in Europe (London, Istanbul) giving way to a rapid rise in travel required to the Middle East, India and China.
At the moment his team of 16 staff mainly process travel queries that come in via email (around 60%) or telephone, with very few actual "walk-in" customers.
The agency's tools and how its staff use them are changing, Mahiani says. Younger members are using point-and-click platforms (Travelport's Smartpoint is one) and he oversees the entire operation from a reporting and productivity point-of-view using Agentivity, a system which was developed initially for agents in South Africa by UK-based startup, Inside Group.
Mahiani concedes that there is now - as broadband and smartphone connectivity really kicks in - a growing need for the fully functioning web service.
This, he predicts, will change the make-up of his revenue model as he estimates the agency could boost its leisure travel bookings by as much as 20%, simply with the launch of a consumer-facing website.
Not resting on his laurels (and in stark contrast to the general mood amongst many agents in the west), Mahiani is capitalising on the growth his agency is experiencing ($400,000 a month in just air ticket volumes) and is opening an agency in London this year, catering for academic and so-called "mission" (pilgrimage) travel.
Despite the technical advances with its infrastructure, increased wealth and the growing enthusiasm of the population to travel, evolution of the travel industry in East Africa is not going to be easy.
Martin Herbert, who leads Travelport's operations in the region, concedes that a number of hurdles remain or could come along and stall development.
There are significant issues around fraud (on and offline), smaller airlines which connect the some of the far flung reaches of the continent are prone to collapse and improvements to infrastructure (broadband, roads, airports) may not materialise as quickly or indeed at all.
Furthermore, many governments are inherently unstable and, unlike during the development of the M-Pesa service, often interfere negatively in the development of industries within their countries.
Within travel in particular, Herbert says there may not be enough hotels in the region to cope with both inbound and inter-regional demand, essentially stifling any growth.
And in terms of safety, some cities are still considered extremely dangerous, especially for overseas visitors, with heavy security at many hotels and restrictions placed on movement without a guide or local representative.
Such potential reality checks on development of tourism should not be ignored.
Wide open Savannah
Potential pitfalls aside, many in the industry (Travelport and no doubt others in the future) see East Africa has having enough promise for it to be considered an important cornerstone of a growth strategy in emerging countries beyond the usual Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) markets.
Yet, obviously, many of the eye-watering data-points thrown around exist simply because there is still a relatively low base from which to climb.
One particular forecast, however, illustrates perfectly the growth potential on the continent: there are currently 670 commercial aircraft based in Africa. It is estimated that a further 900 will be required to meet demand by 2020.
But there is a lot more than simply the chance to gush over heady statistics when it comes to East Africa and the development of the travel sector and its relationship with technology.
At this stage the region appears to be learning from the mistakes (some unintentional) that affected the industry when technology became the engine room of travel around 20 years ago.
Combine this with the sudden switch from being never-connected to always-connected for large swathes of the population and there is a recipe for growth and success that could be as rewarding for the industry as the reaction of tourists seeing their first wild lion on safari.
NB:Africa circuit board and Nairobi safari images via Shutterstock. M-Pesa shop via Fiona Bradly on Flickr.
NB2: Disclosure – travel and accommodation for the author’s visit to Kenya was supported by Travelport.