Angeli Mehta reports on the startups helping to ease congestion across the continent and make travel safer
Can digital technology improve public transport in Africa, home to some of the world’s most congested cities?
While Uber claims to be getting more people into fewer cars across 15 African cities through its rideshare service, and launched a motorbike-hailing service on its app in Kampala and Nairobi last year, public transport users often can’t afford smartphones.
Getting hold of small-denomination currency is difficult and there were always rows with bus drivers, so it’s in operators’ interests to have a digital system
Dr Herrie Schalekamp at the University of Cape Town has been reviewing what’s happening with digital across the sub-continent. He points out that in Africa, public transport means minibuses owned by hundreds of thousands of individuals and operating on a cash basis, often under the radar of city authorities. They don’t want to be visible on a digital platform.
Where digital is working so far is in Lagos, in response to a particular local need. “Getting hold of small-denomination currency is difficult and there were always rows with bus drivers, so it’s in operators’ interests to have a digital system,” says Schalekamp. A new pre-payment platform, GONA, is enabling cashless payments on a fleet of minibuses. Commuters simply scan a QR code for the vehicle they want to travel on.
Ironically, the platform exploits a 20-year-old mobile phone technology called USSD, that means users don’t require a smartphone.
Earlier this year, Cairo startup Swvl attracted $42m in investment to help expand its minibus offering. Billed as an answer to unreliable public services, commuters book on a particular vehicle on a scheduled route. Schalekamp suggests it’s particularly valuable to commuters living in the new towns on the edge of the city, where there is no mass transit system.
Another, and expanding, means to get around in East Africa is by hailing a ride on the back of a motorcycle. In Kampala, it’s a notoriously dangerous way to travel, but Ugandan startup SafeBoda, like UberBODA, uses an app to connect passengers to drivers, who are equipped with spare helmets and trained in road-safety and bike maintenance.
This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Transport briefing. See also: