What a Rwandan motorcycle taxi startup can teach Uber

With its relentless expansion, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Uber is an indomitable force. But there’s another transport market, African motorcycle taxis (‘motos’), where Uber will have to go a long way to beat the leaders in the field — Safemotos — a fast moving startup based in Kigali, who were recognised in the 2015 NT100.

I was lucky enough to meet with Nash and Peter, a passionate and dynamic founder team, while visiting Kigali. Other than the obvious financial potential of the SafeMotos, they explained how it’s addressing a clear social need for improving motorcycle taxi safety. Given that 80% of all road accidents in Kigali involve motos, and that you’re currently 363 times more likely to die taking a moto than a regular vehicle in the UK, they have a good point.

But before I met them I couldn’t stop thinking that, for all their hard work, what’s to stop Uber adapting its system for motorcycle taxis and just obliterating the competition? Well for starters there’s Nash and Peter’s unrivalled expertise in the African motorcycle taxi market. Talking to them, you understand that building Safemotos is not just about digitally linking people to rides, but a far richer process of weaving together the culture of moto drivers and passengers, while artfully incentivising safety on both sides. When you understand the level at which they work, you see why Uber is a long way behind them in this market, and in my mind, why they should be more interested in buying them than competing.

For example, the Uber model of notifying drivers where to find their fare wouldn’t work in the Rwandan market. Firstly most moto drivers don’t have smartphones. So following GPS pins on a map wouldn’t work. But, more importantly moto drivers navigate through the city’s landmarks.

To overcome this, SafeMotos have devised ingenius new ways to support drivers to accurately find their fares which take account of these driver behaviours, but also that meet the needs of the customer. Just one they shared with me is that they have mapped thousands of landmarks in and around Kigali and linked these to GPS coordinates. This means that when someone requests a pick up, Safemotos can map their GPS location, but translate this to an appropriate landmark in the city. Drivers can find their pick-ups in the way they’d expect, but Safemotos can still understand the exact location that people are requesting motos from.

Talking to Nash and Peter, it’s clear they have a strong passion for their drivers and have made huge efforts to get to know them. That’s not just personally, like inviting them and their families around for a Christmas BBQ. But understanding the driver’s attitudes to risk and money, their target incomes, their driving preferences and habits. This knowledge is enabling SafeMotos to build strong incentives and service design into the system to get the most from each driver. Just one example of this is the way that they incentivise safety.

Nash and Peter’s commitment to detail and embedding digital in their work means they don’t stop with just talking to drivers about safety, or even adding incentives to support safe driving (though they do this too). They also use a careful balance of bike mounted sensors and computation to give them an unrivalled view of how safe their drivers’ behaviours are, when they are speeding or being held up, which routes to avoid because of their high accident rates and so on. It’s a brilliant piece of user centred design and data driven insight. Through this multi-layered approach of incentives, information, and data analysis they are creating the world’s first premium market around motos.

Despite these strides though, as with any start up, they face significant challenges. The investment market in Rwanda is not developed, so raising capital is harder than elsewhere. Nash, originally from Canada, mobilised friends and family investment as part of their seed round. And, even more acutely than in other areas of the world, there is a serious shortage of developers in Rwanda. Peter, originally from Kenya, is an enormously talented CTO (having had his own successful software business since he was 17), but there are limits on how much one engineer, however talented, can do.

Above all else, what inspires me about Safemotos is that they are a strong social venture, without being precious about it. They look and talk like any other tech start-up that is attracting investment and growing. Their social benefit is so deeply integrated into the business model and their operations that it’s an implicit part of work and subject to the same scrutiny as any other part of the business. Safemotos doesn’t see itself as a social business. It just happens that their business is saving lives.

Kieron Kirkland


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