A decade ago, Sofia Getambu stood at the weighbridge in Mlolongo, on the outskirts of Nairobi, in search of trucks to transport her cargo.
She would walk up to each truck to find out where it was headed and the cost of transporting her goods. She realised this was not a simple task; it was tedious and time-consuming. Yet this was what traders who need transport all the time were continuously going through.
Ms Getambu got a practical taste of the extent of the challenge when a colleague from Uganda was moving his cargo and he wanted her help to find a vehicle. That exposed her to the myriad of challenges people went through to obtain transport services.
Ms Getambu then started to think of taking up the task of finding a solution that would easily connect cargo owners and transporters.
“Being a lady sourcing for transport services on the roadside was not fun,” she says.
Her frustrations led to the birth of East Africa Online Transport Agency (Eato), which she describes as “Uber for trucks’.
She registered the company in 2008, long before Uber and Whatsapp were a technology mainstay.
“Getting someone to build the portal was difficult. I met tech people, attended incubator hubs such as iHub. I have a passion and wanted to create a solution,’ explains Ms Getambi, the director of the firm, which she currently runs with her sister Wanja.
The system has now largely addressed logistics nightmares she experienced. The platform connects cargo and vehicles owners without the need for a physical meeting. Traders put up the cargo, the transporters bid on the cargo and negotiations on costs conducted online.
Ms Getambu and her team then follow up ensuring that the cargo is loaded onto the correct trucks and delivered safely and intact to its destination.
“I used the internet to get my hands dirty without getting muddy,” she says, recalling days she would stand in the hot sun along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway to get a list of available trucks to ferry the goods she was entrusted with.
She spent two years researching vehicles and cargo and got herself a diploma in clearing, handling and forwarding. She initially studied international business administration and has a master’s in business administration (MBA) from Strathmore University. Ms Wanja studied economics and has an MBA in finance as well as a diploma in programming.
Users log on to the Eato system and register. This is followed by a series of security checks before the application is approved and the member admitted into the system.
“A background check is run on the transporters because of the value of the cargo being transported,” she says.
Ms Getambu says being under Eato allows small and medium size enterprises as well as individuals to access logistics firms such as Bollore and Siginon.
“One of the greatest benefits for truck owners is that you can now fill backloads. Instead of the truck coming back empty, you can make extra income by finding cargo on its way to the return destination,” explains Ms Getambu.
The back end of the business ensures that the trucks arrive on time, cargo is offloaded through the offices in Mombasa, Nairobi as well as the employees on the ground at the Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Embakasi.
“Large truck companies at times have more trucks than cargo and can therefore take up cargo on our system to fill the idle trucks. Also for individuals with small cargo that would ordinarily not be accepted by large transport companies, they advertise the cargo and we match them,” explains Ms Wanja, the operations director.
Business is not always smooth sailing, the duo say. Election period, they add, is one of the heaviest strain on transport and logistics due to the volatility in some areas.
“The Northern Corridor is the main route and its passes through volatile areas. This puts the cargo at risk,” says Ms Wanja.
The Northern Corridor is the trade route that links the Port of Mombasa and landlocked countries of the Great Lakes Region. Trade and logistics along this route operates under the Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Agreement (NCTTA), a treaty for regional cooperation with a view to facilitating interstate and transit trade between Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan.
In 2017, the entire electioneering period brought business to a standstill with majority of trucks parked due to safety concerns. There was also a slowdown in the first six months of the year as the run-up to elections made investors sceptical meaning there was less cargo available for transport.
The extended electioneering due to the repeat election further slowed down business. This, explains Ms Getambu, happens every election year.
The company makes money through commissions on the system and its turnover is now in the region of Sh60 million ($600,000).
There are about three thousand trucks registered on the system. They are KAP stakeholders, part of the shippers council, as well as the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI).
The registered companies have their drivers on groups on messaging platforms to air and address any issues or complaints while on the road.