Disruptive. That is what innovation anchored on technology has been referred to in Kenya and globally.
The new age of innovation has been leveraging on technology to solve everyday problems, thriving in the chaos of sectors that provide public utilities.
Kenya’s public transport system can best be described as chaotic. This despite the ‘improvements’ proposed by the government to streamline the segment such as the introduction of co-operatives to keep tabs on rogue crew.
This, has created room for innovators to operate alongside and even parallel to the existing players. These innovators are targeting Kenyans who would ordinarily drive to work or use taxi services as their preferred transport modes.
“We are looking to provide an affordable service, not a cheap service,” says Mr Mbugua Njihia, Sure Corp Head of Business and Partnerships, whose flagship product is Safiri Express.
Last year, Safiri Express began a pilot on several routes with branded buses in a system that operated much like Uber — use an app to book, select pick up and drop off points and the app will notify you when your bus is five minutes from your pickup point.
“The first pilot was in early 2018. It was a market validation and the market is ready for this,” says Mr Njihia.
In January, Egyptian company SWVL expanded its shuttle service to Nairobi. The service offers fixed bus stops, fixed timings and fixed prices.
“It started with an observation turning into a realisation, too many cars on the streets, wasting our limited resources: time, space and money. We had to question why we depend so much on our cars? and what are the consequent pains of moving around the city? Rush hours, traffic, terrible driving habits and unavailability of parking spots came rushing through our minds in addition to the pain of high cost of on-demand services,” says SWVL on its webpage.
All routes plied by the shuttles have multiple stops listed, allowing users to select varied pickup and drop-off points along the way.
Little have also expanded interests into the mass public transport system after launching into the e-hailing taxi segment. The company on boarded the shuttle service in its pilot in February before it went live in March.
“Just like the taxi, owners own the buses, while we provide them with riders. Because we also want to learn and improve since this is the new service, we also have some buses that we pay for, so that we can understand any need for the changes in the product,” says Kamal Budhabhatti, CEO Craft Silicon, which owns Little.
Both Little and SWVL have been using Coaster buses for the routes, while Safiri is about to run a second pilot, this time to gauge price sensitivity of the market.
The buses are constantly on the move, mainly during rush hour, keeping stops to a maximum two minutes.
The driver’s contact and registration number of the vehicle as well as live map update appear on the app interface for easy identification once the buses arrive.
Each booking generates a boarding pass that is shown to the driver at the beginning and at the end of each trip.
The fact that the buses only spend two minutes at any stop reduces the congestion caused by the huge number of public service vehicles at the stage trying to woo customers.
The pre-booking systems that also features the option of prepaying for the trip mean that the crew is aware of how many people, if at all any are at a particular station. This gets rid of unnecessary stops and allows the owners of the vehicles to gauge the best route and hours of operation for maximum returns.
“There is no impetus for commercial benefit because the system is responsible for sourcing customers,” says Mr Njihia. This means the crew will not need to stop at a single point for an extended time period, touting as is the norm in the sector.
The traffic situation in Nairobi, however, serves a challenge for fixed- time stops at pre-specified stations. With unpredictable traffic conditions and the lack of dedicated bus lanes, there is the challenge of meeting the time stated for pickup and drop-off of passengers.
For Safiri Express, they are not seeking to address the traffic situation, but instead work with the demand. Rather than having a fixed-time schedule, they deploy vehicles depending on the demand on the particular route.
According to Mr Njihia, in addition to presenting an alternative for operation model for transport, the digital platform provides a data collection and analysis opportunity.
The segment of e-booking for public service vehicles is currently in its infancy stages but offers an alternative for those not interested in the rush to get vehicles especially during peak times as well as the predictability of the fare and schedules.
President Clinton 1M$ Hult Prize winners BuuPass have been running a booking and payments service for long-distance buses, creating the same convenience for users. Originally piloting in Kenya as Magic Bus Ticketing, the developers began by allowing users to book through a short code (USSD) on buses registered on popular routes. The concept allowed users to select the vehicle of choice, while also tracking the position of the vehicle in real time.