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Entrepreneur eyes city travellers with digital advertising

FlashCast director Jeremy Gordon during the interview at the Nation Centre in Nairobi last week. Photo/DIANA NGILA
FlashCast director Jeremy Gordon during the interview at the Nation Centre in Nairobi last week. Photo/DIANA NGILA  

A long, tiring and torturous wait while riding in a Nairobi matatu in characteristic morning traffic turned into a business idea for Jeremy Gordon.

There was not much to do but to stare at the long and winding stretch of cars or engage the hawkers displaying and selling their wares to motorists and commuters.

It was this experience that led the Nairobi-based American techie to think about putting up screens in public service vehicles to engage passengers with scrolling advertisement and campaign messages.

“I thought of something stimulating to engage travellers; and ended up with a solution for small businesses to advertise,” Mr Gordon, the brains behind the innovation dubbed FlashCast told the Business Daily.

In March last year, the Stanford University mechanical engineering graduate installed the first LCD screen in a public service vehicle and now has five such displays set up in buses plying several routes in Nairobi.

“The screens are fitted with global positioning system devices hence messages are programmed to be location specific,” said the engineer turned apps developer.

This means it is possible to preset a commercial on a supermarket to run when the bus is within its proximity and broadcast special offers, promotions, and goods available.

“The messages can be geo-targeted to the level of a specific community, neighbourhood, or street corner,” he says.

In places like the US, Japan and Korea, taxis and trains feature digital signage boards which display adverts, announcements and travel information. In cities such as New York, Tokyo, London and Seoul, geo-local transit advertising is a multi-million dollar business.

FlashCast is available on the minibuses christened StarBus on Nairobi’s route 22, which serve residents of Kinoo and on MOA Compliant buses on route 111 to Ngong Township.

Businesses located on the flanks of Waiyaki Way such as Westlands, Kangemi, Mountain View, Kabete and Kinoo can take advantage of this innovative advertising solution to reach their customers.

The service would also be ideal for firms on Haile Selassie Avenue, Kenyatta National Hospital, Ngong Road, Adam’s Arcade, Nakumatt Junction, Dagoretti Corner, Karen and Ngong Town.

Mr Gordon says he targets having 30 buses fitted with the displays in Nairobi in the next nine months and plans to venture to other major towns such as Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru.

The 32-inch LCD marquee displays are fitted inside the buses just behind the driver, where it is visible to all commuters in the bus. He does not intend to set up the displays in 14-seater matatus, saying they are “a bit small”.

The FlashCast displays can only scroll text messages and not video. This, Gordon says is strategic because it rules out broadcast of adult content or disturbing pictures.

It is estimated that about a third of Nairobi residents use public transport to work while only a paltry five per cent drive to work. The rest, 60 per cent, walk or cycle to work.

“Transit riders are a uniquely diverse and hard to reach audience,” says Mr Gordon.

The opportunity to reach this wide market is alluring for any business, especially small and mid-sized firms which cannot afford traditional media of advertising such as billboards, radio and newspapers.

“This is a rich and affordable platform for brands to engage consumers,” says Mr Gordon. The solution allows consumers to send feedback via an SMS short code free of charge and through social media sites.

The techie says it cost as low as Sh30 per hour to Sh30,000 per month to run an advert on the platform, on one vehicle.

“There are limited advertising options for SMEs in Kenya due to lack of innovation by the market.”

The business venture is timely since it comes when Kenya has enacted the Micro and Small Enterprises Act to provide the regulatory framework for the country’s vibrant SME industry.

The commercials are interspersed with news headlines from RSS feeds, which aggregates news from major media houses and sources globally.

“The platform is highly automated and is updated every five minutes,” says Mr Gordon adding that a team of three monitors the solution.

The platform also targets government agencies, politicians and civil society groups interested in educating wananchi on issues of public interest such as health and peace campaigns.

During the campaigns ahead of March 4 polls, the platform was used for civic education and invited passengers to submit peace messages which were scrolled live in the buses.

“The platform can be used to broadcast vital information to a notoriously difficult to reach demographic,” he says.

Mr Gordon has so far invested about Sh1.3 million in the venture. He plans to use part of the proceeds he won in November last year in a pan-African apps challenge to expand the business.

FlashCast was among the 20 winners of the first African News Innovation Challenge and he is waiting to receive a grant of between Sh850,000 and Sh8.5 million. The judges were impressed by how the project beams up-to-date news to commuters in taxis and buses, using smart, location-aware LED displays.

The techie will also receive mentorship from a team of four full-time developers at AMI’s jAccelerator lab in Nairobi and later linked to media strategists affiliated with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

In addition to FlashCast, Mr Gordon has also developed NikoHapa, a customer-loyalty card mobile app and Echo, web-based SMS tool for conducting market surveys and social research.

hdavid@ke.nationmedia.com