How Tech Can Fix Africa’s Transportation Problems
Nairobi-based digital marketing executive Beverly Khaimia has quite the commute.
Commuting from her home in Embakasi Village to work in Hurlingham, Khaimia in theory only has to take two buses. But it is a lot more complicated than that.
“Getting to town from Embakasi Village depends on the time you leave the house because of Mombasa road traffic,” she told AFKInsider.
“The major problem we always face is we have few matatus (public transport minibuses) at our end, if you get to the stage at 6.10am, the possibilities of not getting a matatu are high since all of them are stuck in traffic on their way to town.”
All of this means Khaimia’s daily commute takes several hours in total, a problem shared by millions other of Kenyans, and indeed Africans across the continent. Three million people and 400,000 vehicles are moving around Nairobi every day, meaning commuting is tough, especially without access to formal schedules and traffic information.
At least Khaimia has found a solution to her problem of sorts, in the form of a tech innovation. Local Kenyan company Ma3Route has developed web, mobile app and SMS platform that allows travellers to share transport information online. It has proven popular, and now has over 500,000 users.
“On Ma3Route, all road users can engage with each other to foster more efficient and enjoyable commutes for everyone,” said Stephane Eboko, Ma3Route chief revenue officer.
“Our crowd-sourced smart transportation model allows people to resourcefully and efficiently manage transportation modes and allied transport infrastructure with technology. We collect para-transit data from individuals at a dramatically lower cost.”
For Khaimia and many other users across Nairobi, it has been godsend.
“The Ma3Route app is such a saviour, since I always use it on a daily basis to decide what time to leave work,” she said.
It is not just in Nairobi where such solutions are being used to fix transportation issues.
Another such company is the South African transport tech startup GoMetro, which recently raised funding from Tritech Media, the media technology investment firm controlled by the Kirsh family.
Launched in 2012, GoMetro maps and report on public transport in South African cities. Its proprietary Flexible Mobility Platform simplifies transport operations on public transport services within a specific geographic footprint.
Whereas in places like London, local transport authorities have rolled out app and web-based solutions allowing commuters to check schedules and be notified of issues, in Africa that role is falling to startups like Ma3Route and GoMetro.
This is a vital role. Transport is at the heart of how people live and work, and making it affordable and accessible is key to economic success.
The City of Cape Town’s transport authority, for example, reports that lower income individuals can spend up to 46 per cent of their monthly income on transport. That is too high, and hence impact investment firms like Goodwell Investments are looking at the transport space.
One Goodwell portfolio company, South Africa’s WhereIsMyTransport, is digging even deeper than the likes of Ma3Route and GoMetro, in that it looks to provide access to the data that can be used to build similar journey planner apps and services.
Its platform already provides formal transport information for South African cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, while it is also mapping Cairo’s Metro and Nairobi’s matatus. The provision of data on African transport systems will allow for the creation of more services like those mentioned above. WhereIsMyTransport is also well backed by investors.
Fixing the problem
It is not just in getting people around towns that tech can play an important part, but also getting goods around cities and countries, and even across borders.
African governments have mostly failed to provide the required infrastructure, with almost half of Africans living on unpaved roads. That is a disaster for commerce, as there are high costs associated with delivering goods.
Previously, companies would have relied on expensive courier services like DHL. But, increasingly, Uber-style courier apps are springing up in Africa, such as Kenya’s Sendy and South Africa’s WumDrop. They are seeing strong uptake.
“Two years ago we were excited when we processed ten orders in a day. We now do several 100s of deliveries each day,” said Sendy marketing manager Michelle Miller.
“Our success with motorbike deliveries has allowed us to expand into other mediums of delivery: pickups, vans, three ton trucks, and even larger inter-city vehicles.”
The use of tech in this space goes even further, with the likes of Ghanaian startups Aquantuo and Swiftly allowing for the easy transportation of goods overseas, also using the on-demand model. It is an exciting time in the transport and logistics space, and tech is at the heart of it.
Tom Jackson is a tech and business journalist in Africa, and co-founder of startups news portal Disrupt Africa. He splits his time between various African cities covering the latest development in the continent’s exciting economic story.