Big in Japan: UP alumni develop cultural exchange app to connect travellers with locals

Posted on May 19, 2019

Three University of Pretoria (UP) alumni are making waves with an app named Doot, a dining platform for travellers to Japan to connect with locals over authentic meals away from tourist traps. Travellers get to experience local cuisine and learn about Japanese culture, while the host gets to practise English.

Brandon Josi, who has a master’s in Supply Chain Management, developed the app in partnership with Sbusiso Buna (BCom Law and LLB) and Louis van der Walt (BCom Business Management).

Josi said he got the idea for the app while in Vietnam, where locals would constantly ask him if he had eaten yet. “I didn’t know why at the time, but it turns out they were trying to practise English with me.” Doot was developed to fill this gap in the market, and Josi and his partners received training in Kobe, a city in central Japan, by 500 Startups, a venture capital firm based in California that helps talented entrepreneurs “create successful companies at scale”.

Doot offers travellers 11 experiences to choose from, including sushi bars, sake bars, izakaya (a Japanese tavern) and regional cuisines. A local then chooses their favourite food spot and the traveller simply joins them to have a conversation in English over a meal. Locals not only get the opportunity to practise English but earn some money too, about 1000 yen (R130) per tourist at the meet-up.

Josi explains that most hosts are handpicked by the team after meeting them in person. “Locals who are personable, friendly and display an interest in meeting people from abroad are chosen to be hosts on our platform.” Other hosts join either by referral from existing hosts or after having come across Doot through search engines or publications. Hosts are rated after the meeting.

Sbusiso Buna 

The best restaurants, says Josi, who spent a year in Japan, were the ones that his local friends showed him, not the ones he’d found. “Without a doubt, locals know the best restaurants.”

He chose Japan to launch Doot in as the country will be hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games. “Japan has been the fastest-growing travel destination over the past decade, but there are intense language barriers for visitors to the country, along with a large local population that is hungry to learn English and become ‘more international’,” he says.

Doot hasn’t yet turned a profit, but will soon incorporate a website service fee. “For now, we’re just making it as accessible as possible for people,” explains Josi. The app is gaining more and more traction in Japan. “We have a database of more than 100 locals available for travellers to meet, and we get new traveller sign-ups and meetings every month. Referrals to the website come in weekly, so we know people enjoy the product or, at the very least, enjoy its concept.”

Encouragingly, travellers are reserving meetings up to three to four months in advance. “It’s quite nice to know they’re locking us in as part of their ‘Japan experience’. The furthest in advance I’ve seen so far is seven months.”

Other than keeping their main social media pages active, Josi and his partners are not engaging in active marketing yet. Local networks in other countries are being developed as a basis for taking the concept abroad. “We just want to get things absolutely right in the Japanese market first,” Josi explains. “Things change all the time in early stage businesses, so we are going to consolidate what we have learnt in Japan before expanding.”

Brandon Josi

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