Jonas Schwarz Lausten is co-founder of the Nordic Hotel, rated by Trip Advisor as the leading hotel in Abuja, and known for introducing the #Nordicfeeling into the Nigerian hospitality sector. Ahead of the inaugural African Nordic Business Conference, aimed at bridging the gap between businesses in Africa and the Nordic region, Schwarz Lausten tells The Nerve Africa about the challenges of being an entrepreneur in Nigeria, and why creativity and innovation is an integral part of building a brand.
The Nerve Africa: How long have you lived in Nigeria and when was the ‘aha’ moment you realised this was the space to establish your business?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Coming to Nigeria didn’t come out of the blue. My father lived in Nigeria in the 70s, so my brother, sister and I grew up on stories about Nigeria – how he caught snakes in front of his house and drove around in the bush etc. Things a Scandinavian kid finds very exciting. I always knew I wanted to come to Nigeria and I did so for the first time in 2006, where I worked in Adamawa State, Northeast Nigeria. During my time there, I built the first playground in the State. Anders Mogensen, one of my two Danish partners, grew up in Nigeria and speaks Hausa fluently. So we have strong ties to Nigeria. I’ve been here for about six years. The first four years involved a lot of back and forth between Denmark and Nigeria. However in the last two years now, I’ve been living in Nigeria full-time and spend very limited time in Denmark. As for my ‘aha’ moment, it was actually my two Danish partners Anders Mogensen and Christian Schwarz Lausten (who happens to be my brother,) who had the idea of setting up a hub – a combined office and accommodation space but we soon realised how big the gap in the hotel market was. This spurred us to pursue the idea further and we expanded quickly after we first opened.
A conceptualised Nordic style villa and boutique hotel, why Nigeria and what has the experience and journey been like?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Back in 2006, before diving into the hospitality industry ran a new media consultancy with Nwaya Collins, our Nigerian partner. When we were looking for an office space we couldn’t find anything affordable. We were burning all our money in expensive hotels with no internet, worn down rooms and really bad service – basically no value for money. So there was somewhat a gap in the market. My business partners came up with the idea of a hub where we could work and stay, and invite Scandinavian companies to work together with Nigerian companies. So we found a villa, which was part of a twin-villa compound. We took the smaller one with few rooms and offices. We painted all walls white (which was unusual at the time in Abuja,) bought a very expensive internet connection and included it in the room rate (of course) and furnished the place, which we called The Nordic Villa, in a modern Scandinavian style. We did a good-looking flyer, a great website and were one of the first hotels in Abuja to have online booking. Two months later, we were rated number one on Tripadvisor. We realized the gap in the market was much bigger than we imagined. We expanded quickly and added more rooms after six months, making it a proper luxurious, modern, Nordic boutique hotel with great value for money and most importantly – great service, which we have won awards for. Last year we opened the Nordic Hotel with more focus and emphasis on design and experience. This time we stole the number one spot from ourselves because three months after we opened, the hotel and villa were rated number one and two by Trip advisor respectively.
The business environment in Nigeria is different to that of Denmark. Hence, how creative and innovative did you have to get inn order to set up your brand in Nigeria?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: At Nordic Hotel, we often talk about trial and error. We need to test if things are working or not. If not, we’ll change immediately. In that sense, we are very agile in our business approach and maybe react faster to market trends than the market. We have a background in the digital sphere and we also do voluntary work. Hence, creativity and innovation is part of our DNA. Furthermore, there’s no doubt that the word ‘Nordic’ itself also plays a part – people often connect Nordic with quality. Therefor we must deliver every time a guest chooses to stay with us.
How do you continue to innovate and be creative in order to maintain the quality of the brand you have built, given how disenabling the business environment can sometimes get due to unpredictable factors?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Creativity and innovation will always be a part of how we shape our brand and deliver our service in the hospitality sector. That’s also why when we opened Nordic Hotel last year, we wanted it to be more than just a fancy boutique hotel with Scandinavian designer furniture. We do art exhibitions with prominent Nigerian artists, wine tastings, craft beer tastings, talks etc. We are a creative space where we can inspire and create great experiences not only for our guests but also for people in Abuja.
What is the unique selling point of the Nordic brand that sets it apart from other brands in Nigeria’s hospitality sector?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: The concept of Nordic and our #nordicfeeling (This is the hash tag we use on our social media platforms which has developed a life and following of its own.) We have a very high level of maintenance and service. We’re an award-winning brand for the service we offer our guest and it’s something we put a lot of emphasis on. People pay us money to stay in our hotels, so of course the experience and service they get has to be good. We don’t just sell accommodation. We sell an experience to our guests.
How confident were you that you could translate the Nordic experience and feeling into the Nigerian hospitality space?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: We had no clue. We felt there was a need for a concept where there was value for money. We know from around the world that the world Nordic stands for quality, and we did what we could to ensure its success at the beginning though we didn’t know for sure if people wanted to stay in a Nordic setting in Nigeria.
What are the joys and challenges of doing business in Nigeria, especially in the hospitality sector, given the state of infrastructure and energy (electricity)?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Yes, it’s a bit of a challenge with the electricity situation but then again we cope and plan for it. For me personally and as a foreigner, one of the most interesting things is working with Nigerians. I love it. We come from such different backgrounds, yet we find ways to work together and create success together. That’s fantastic!
What are the benefits of a platform like the African Nordic Business Conference?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: I think it’s important to tell Nordic businesses, stakeholders and organisations that the African market as a whole is extremely interesting but also point out that Africa is not one country. It is 54 countries with different cultures, business ways, climate and so much more. It’s certainly not impossible to do business in Africa, and if you’re willing to adapt to other conditions than your home market, you are likely to experience success – of course combined with hard work. I believe attendants at the conference will take away good ideas, connections that can help them further in their search to do business in Africa and hopefully also walk away with inspiration. Hearing the good success stories about Africa is important.
What are some of the best business and innovation practices, which you think Africa and the Nordic region can exchange for a balanced and mutually benefiting partnership?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Having an open mind and being willing to collaborate with Nigerian companies and adapting to the market – whether it’s African companies coming to Scandinavia or the other way around. We work a lot on being as agile and believe this is very important because we see the world changing all the time and this affects the markets. Hence, we need to be ready to adjust all the time.
Africa is bigger than the Nordic region, given your experience of both worlds, what has the Nordic region got to offer the Africa and learn from the continent at the same time?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: I’ll generalise and say due to the focus on few industries and commodities, many of Africa’s economies remain dependent on the volatility of commodity prices which are determined internationally. In this regard, I believe Nordic companies can bring new products, ideas and jobs to the market. We see companies like Lego, BoConcept and Pandora coming into Africa. Arla also have great success in Africa as do the Swedish companies Ericsson and Oriflame. In general consumer goods are sought after much more at present. Finland has done a tech bus tour around Africa to mark its 100 years independence. They’ve worked together with African tech hubs and taught children coding. This is a super cool way of building partnerships.
What does the business environment in Nigeria and ther parts of Africa give you, which you don’t get in Europe?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Great challenges. Working in a very different environment is very interesting for me.
Are there plans for an expansion of your brand across the continent?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: We’re excited about Nigeria, but we feel that the Nordic concept and brand could make it in the big cities around the continent. All I can say now is that next expansion will be in Nigeria.
What do you find exciting about the innovation space in Nigeria and across the continent?
Jonas Schwarz Lausten: Overall there are more than 300 tech hubs across Africa. In Nigeria alone there are more than 20. I’m a mentor at one of the best tech hubs and incubators in Nigeria, Ventures Platform and they’ve invested in some amazing tech start-ups solving real problems for Nigerians and potentially Africans. I see the innovation space as very promising, the potential and the talent pool is big. We have seen Facebook visiting Nigeria because of that potential. Nigerian tech start-ups like Paystack and Andela have also landed big foreign investment. Last year more than $100 million was invested in Nigerian tech start-ups. The total for Africa was about $350 million according to Partech Ventures. There are more than 700 million mobile phones on the continent and more Africans are changing to smartphones. Imagine the potential for information sharing and new ways of living.