Little Africa founder Jacqueline Ngo Mpii connects the African diaspora with curated tours and experiences in Paris.
Some travelers treat destinations like amusement parks, hit all the major rides, wolf down copious amounts of fried food, snap a few selfies and violà, they check it off their bucket list. But that’s not how Jacqueline Ngo Mpii, founder of Little Africa, wants visitors to experience her curated tours of Paris. After launching Little Africa in 2014, Ngo Mpii has worked tirelessly to shine a spotlight on the rich African influence present in the City of Lights. “I needed to connect the diaspora. I also needed to get closer to my culture,” shares Ngo Mpii, who was born in Cameroon and moved to Paris when she was ten years old. Little Africa answers the demand for local experiences and Ngo Mpii and her team scour every corner of Paris to present a tour uniquely their own, melding French and African influences that leave an indelible mark on visitors.
A quick scroll through their Instagram page and you’ll find content celebrating culture and heritage through an African lens. Travelers come from all over the world to enjoy a piece of the African experience, whether that’s getting a new outfit at Maison Château Rouge or enjoying a meal at one of the many African restaurants in La Goutte d’Or. All of these experiences are outlined in Little Africa’s wildly popular pocket-sized book, City Guide – Africa in Paris. These days, Paris, and much of the world, is at a standstill due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, a deadly virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, and fewer travelers are willing to risk their health without a vaccine on the horizon. We asked Ngo Mpii about the impact COVID-19 is having on tourism and how Little Africa is weathering this current storm.
How Little Africa Came to Be
Ngo Mpii’s journey to launching Little Africa started with a trip Mexico and later to Puerto Rico. She’s always had a passion for Latin American culture and is fluent in Spanish. “During my free time, I took a vacation to Puerto Rico because I really wanted to go and I have always been fascinated by Latin American culture. I wanted to go there because I knew there was a Black culture there.” Ngo Mpii’s trips to Mexico and Puerto Rico were a revelation to her. Until her 20s, she’d only met those who identified as part of the diaspora in France and they were fellow Africans or of African descent from the Caribbean. “It started six years ago when I wanted to start a travel agency that would show another view of the African continent. I wanted people to explore and to see that Africa is not only within the continent but also outside of the continent,” reveals Ngo Mpii.
Ngo Mpii’s focus has always been clear. Her desire to connect “the diaspora that has been taken from the continent” motivates the works she’s accomplished with Little Africa. She went back to school to hone her skills as an entrepreneur. “At the end of the two-year training, I had to provide an assignment, a travel project, and my project was the travel agency that would eventually become Little Africa. I received positive feedback on that project,” Ngo Mpii shares. After completing her training program, Ngo Mpii began working and eventually felt her job was not in alignment with what she wanted to do. “I realized I was tired of working and not having the possibility to evolve regarding my field. So I took six months, almost one year, just at home, thinking,” she says about strategizing Little Africa’s launch.
COVID-19 Impact on Tourism
We’d be remiss if we did not mention the impact that the pandemic has had on the Black businesses in France. Ngo Mpii is candid about her approach to supporting these businesses during this unprecedented time of confinement. “We have hosted many Black businesses on our Instagram live sessions, two weeks after the beginning of the quarantine here in France. In general, they are doing okay. For brands that don’t have a brick and mortar, for restaurants, for example, the majority of them are doing okay. But, some worry when they will re-open and many wonder how to keep driving income [during the pandemic],” shares Ngo Mpii.
What’s saved Little Africa, aside from the much-needed aid from the French government that’s kept the cultural agency afloat, is relying heavily on the digital arm of their company. Ngo Mpii says, COVID-19 has hit Little Africa “hard,” but they will strategize and remain hopeful. “You know the saying, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’… at Little Africa, we are into publishing, content creation, advertising and tourism. That’s how we’ve been managing the many crises in Paris,” says Ngo Mpii. Paris has endured terrorist attacks, the yellow jackets political uprising, the recent rash of protests and now the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added another layer of complexity that’s impacted Little Africa and the countless businesses that rely on a steady influx of tourists each year.
Creating Community in the Time of COVID-19
Now that more eyes are glued to social media platforms due to the quarantine, Little Africa is keeping pace with the new reality by creating relevant content. “We are pushing our merchandise in our e-shop because all of our suppliers and resellers are closed now.” While Ngo Mpii admits they are “doing okay,” and they are handling the situation by being creative and connecting with their digital community, which spans every corner of the globe. They are evaluating their strategy so they can recalibrate and envision where they want the Little Africa brand to be in six months or even a year from now. The planning never ends as times change so quickly.
Ever proactive, Ngo Mpii started Instagram Live conversations as a way to create community via Little Africa. “When we started the live conversations, honestly, those live conversations have been our way to get over any stress or tension or dark spots that we could have had because of this pandemic,” Ngo Mpii admits. There has been a benefit to making room for more opportunities to connect with their global community. “Instead of staying isolated, we go out into the digital world to connect with our community of partners, of journalists, of bloggers, of customers [which has] have been really, really cathartic. A way for us to get over that crisis and to keep doing something daily and that has been really helpful for our mindset and even to keep our creativity afloat,” says Ngo Mpii. And for those diving headfirst into entrepreneurship this year, Ngo Mpii’s advice is to include the virtual experience as a new metric in the creative process.”
On the digital front, Little Africa is rolling out new content such as their new website and recently released Passport Collection. The newly launched Passport Collection includes coasters, notebooks, stationery, print art, tote bags and an interior design line of African masks commonly found in Cameroon, Gabon and Congo and are available in their e-shop. African proverbs and funny quips such as, “Better to have seen with your own eyes than to have heard,” decorate the notecards and posters in this new release. Ngo Mpii is excited to share the collection with the Little Africa community. She says it’s “a gate to African masks we just launched online, and we are hoping the images will be enough for people to fall in love with that collection.” She adds that the masks are often called “tiny masks” and can signify the social position of each individual in the village or the tribe.
A few more projects are in the works, such as launching a new live talk session, hosting pop-up stores and a walking food tour focused on African and Caribbean food. Also, Little Africa is launching a new reservation tool for the tours on their website where visitors can buy a voucher in advance. But it’s difficult to have an agenda when most major events have either been canceled or postponed.
“It’s really about how can we maintain what we have planned already for this year. That’s the real question for us now,” says Ngo Mpii. Preparing to weather this storm, after it passes she looks forward to welcoming visitors back so that she can once again share “le cuisine noir” in her beloved Paris.