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Fixing the mare’s nest: making inter-city travel work in Africa
  • 19 Sep 2022

Fixing the mare’s nest: making inter-city travel work in Africa

Road transportation is the primary way of moving from one city to another in Africa. Rail infrastructure is patchy, waterways are not navigable for long distances, and air transport is simply too expensive. To travel from one city to another, people rely on buses, mostly privately operated. x Africa’s burgeoning tech sector has taken notice and its entrepreneurs want to untangle this mare’s nest.

African roads carry 80% of goods and 90% of people that need to move around on the continent. Despite poor road networks—there are about 31 kilometres of paved roads per 100 square kilometres in Africa, compared to 134 kilometres of paved roads in other low-income countries—the road is the most reliable way to get around in Africa. Most people who travel by road, do so in buses, especially mini-buses. And it has been that way for some time. In the last century, passengers endured rickety lorries with unfixed wooden benches with tarpaulin sheets thrown over metal frames as roofs. Later, state-operated bus schemes were introduced in many parts of Africa, with some like Zimbabwe’s ZUPCO failing soon after.

Lorries  ''mammy trucks'' are the predecessors of today's danfos, matatus and omnibuses that ferry passengers from home to work and beyond.
Photo: ''Mammy trucks'', George Alhassan, 18/7/1968. Source: R/R/9175/13, Photographic section, Information Services Department, Ministry of Information, Accra, Ghana. Accessed from t2m.org

Today privately-operated minibuses dominate both urban and inter-city travel in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The often overloaded bus ferries passengers and goods to and from work in towns and cities and carries them between cities. It is how millions of Africans travel every year. But this inter-city bus travel experience is unappealing and easily wears down passengers, bus operators, and the vehicles themselves.

A combination of uncoordinated urban growth, a fast-growing and young population that need transit services, and government disregard has made intercity travel a flourishing if chaotic enterprise. In most cases, you cannot book your trip earlier. And with only a handful of intercity bus ticket offices indiscriminately scattered throughout cities, passengers are left to guess which bus line is available and at what price.

Added to this mental juggling are the sprawling parks which are themselves often chaotic, with bus “loaders” and touts jostling over passengers, and loudspeakers overhead blaring bus destinations to passersby. The scene is much worse during festive periods like Christmas or Eid al-Fitr. Prices rise arbitrarily almost by the hour, and the jostling over passengers and luggage is much more intense. For bus operators, the chaos is profitable business. For the passengers, it is suffering.

But chaos has consequences. Both operators and passengers lose significant sums to wasted time and operational inefficiencies. 

If passengers’ time is not wasted, bus seats are not double-booked and travelling by bus is less chaotic and more reliable, operators could earn more revenue and fewer passengers would take the risker roadside buses. 

Easier road travel means more travellers and more revenue for operators and businesses along the road. 

As Ezra Anajonu, co-founder and CEO of Bus54 told TechCabal over a call, “Africans are stuck for the foreseeable future with road transportation as the primary means of moving from point A to B.” 

Enter Bus54

Anajonu’s Bus54, an online booking management system for bus operators is the latest platform to take on the disarray in intercity bus travel. Anajonu says he and his co-founder, Joseph Lumbahe, initially wanted to build a platform that aggregated online bus tickets but “we then discovered that almost 90% of transport operators are offline. The challenge there was that we could try to aggregate data—schedules, routes, and pricing—from the 10% of transport operators that are online.” Or attempt to bring the informal operators online.

Bus54 founders opted to provide end-to-end white-label transport management software for bus lines while allowing passengers to search and book trips with the company’s partners from the Bus54 website. Bus54 is also offering a number of perks, including data-free browsing for online ticket booking, trip tracking alerts, and a feature that allows passengers to choose if they want to sit beside a male or female passenger.

These are nice-to-haves. At its core, Bus54’s solution is similar to T40’s Intercity or Kenya’s Quickbus. Like Bus54, Intercity offers bus operators end-to-end transport management and like Quickbus, it aggregates routes, schedules and prices—but only from its partners. The key difference is that Bus54 wants to build closer relationships with its operating partners and remain asset-light by facilitating passenger payments online and operator management via a mobile app. Anajonu says the company is focused on building a structured marketplace, “where transport operators can manage their operations”.

There are other benefits to building close-knit but still white-label relationships with offline operators. “With that structured marketplace comes opportunities for embedded procurement,” Anajonu added. By which he means that Bus54 can embed insurance products and help procure maintenance parts for their bus partners. Later this year, the company will participate in a GIZ-backed transportation pilot in 5 states in Nigeria.

In the future, the startup hopes to power long-distance bus travel in all 54 African countries.

Both founders of Bus54, Ezra Anajonu, and Joseph Lumbahe participated in an incubator programme run by Antler, an early-stage VC firm, and pack a combined 24 years of corporate, startup, and technology product experience.

The road ahead

Digitising anything in Africa is a challenge, and trying to digitise how thriving but offline bus operators manage their transit operations is nothing if not bold. Even governments have failed when they tried their hands at this.

Bus54 is not a solution to the structural issues that make road transportation the hassle it is today. And these challenges will affect how the startup delivers on its promises.

For starters, Bus54 will need to maintain the quality of trips booked through its platform. This is hard enough if you are operating your fleet, but for third-party technology providers like Bus54, it can be very challenging. Working with rigorously vetted partners with extensive service delivery agreements can help. It may slow down the pace of growth, but it can be a powerful lever for growth in the long term.

If Bus54 was simply an aggregator, it could limit some of the risks to which it is exposed. But aggregation is a very narrow and tough scope to make any meaningful impact or capture good value. Instead, the company wants to build an ambitious digital service ecosystem for and through bus operators. This will be challenging as they will need a strong B2B salesforce and an even stronger value proposition to persuade the more digital-savvy operators to switch from in-house or outsourced tech to Bus54 and to convince the other informal operators that a digital operations backbone is not a nice-to-have but a game changer.

It’s incredibly hard work. But if they succeed, Bus54 will be in a better position to transform the backbone of passenger transportation in Africa and who knows what may come after that?

The conversation about intercity travel in Africa is much more than how operators and passengers find each other. But it is a crucial early step towards removing the inefficiencies that affect how African trade in talent, skill, and goods move throughout the continent.

Source: https://techcabal.com/2022/08/05/bus54-intercity-travel/

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