In this exclusive interview conducted by Shalom Anosike, Ezra Anajonu, Co-founder and CEO of Bus54 talks about his professional background, giving insights on how Bus54 is changing the narrative of intercity transportation in Africa.
If you had to come up with a sentence to describe Bus54, what would it be?
Ezra:Revolutionise passenger road transportation in Africa.
What are the values of Bus54?
Ezra:As a values-driven organisation, one of our core values is trust, which we have built into Bus54's platform. Take the issue of security. This is a big problem, which is beyond our control in Africa. However, we have taken steps to ensure that our users are safe when using our platform. For example, have a feature that gives users a view of the gender of fellow passengers in the bus when during seat selection. So, you can make a choice as a woman/man about the gender you want to sit close to during your journey, obviously within the rules of data protection.
The second value is integrity which is also built into the platform. We will always be honest about our operations. If you have a look at the platform right now, you will see that there are limited routes. We could easily do what others have done i.e., showing all the cities in Nigeria and if you search for a route, the site will tell you the route is not available, or it’s coming soon. We made a conservative decision not to do that. Whenever you come to the platform and you find a route, you are certain that the route is active.
There is also a social enterprise dimension to what we do as well, which is being a catalyst for entrepreneurship in Africa. We realise that one of the key reasons why individuals and organisations (especially employee cooperative societies) have moved away from the transportation business is the problem we are solving and that is the lack of visibility or transparency around revenue collection. We believe that Bus54’s platform will spur a new generation of transport entrepreneurs.
We will support them by reducing their time to market so they have nothing to worry about technology, freeing them to focus on operations and growth. We are not only giving them the digital tools to run their transportation business, but also helping them to become operationally efficient.
How does your team achieve these values?
Ezra:It all starts with our vision of providing aviation-style booking and travel experience for road transportation to over 1 billion Africans. What is great is that every member of the team shares the vision. For us, it is more than just providing the technology, it is a passion. It is about solving a problem that goes to the heart of how people move efficiently from one city to the other and within cities in Africa, in a way that reduces congestion and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The clarity in the vision spurs innovation in the team because the question we keep asking ourselves when we take specific actions is if the action will take us closer to achieving the vision.
What are the challenges you have as a non-tech founder?
Ezra:I built a career in Talent Management and for me retaining and attracting talent is a hot topic in Africa. What we have done to overcome this challenge is that we have made a conscious decision to operate a hybrid model. We are not tied to physical locations which enable us to recruit from a pan-African and global talent pool. As a technology company looking to scale across the 54 countries in Africa, we’re looking at Africa in its totality as one big talent pool and building our processes with Africa as a single market in view.
Where do you see Bus54 in 5 years?
Ezra:In 5 years, I expect that Bus54 will be operational in a number of countries in the continent with millions of Africans relying on our platform for their inter and intracity transportation needs. I am bullish about Bus54 becoming a household brand in Africa.
Which two founders/tech companies do you admire and why?
Ezra:I’m a values-driven person, so my answer will reflect what my values are. A founder that I greatly admire is Tope Awotona, the founder of Calendly. It takes grit, determination, and sheer guts to build what he has built especially considering that after Calendly’s pre-seed fund-raise, he doubled down and grew the company via a combination of that pre-seed funding and revenue. which typifies the true African entrepreneurial spirit. You put your head down, really build an amazing product that people love and everything else falls into place.
I will say the company that I admire the most is Naspers, a South-African company. I admire them for their vision and foresight. As a media company, they had the foresight to invest in technology way before technology was a big thing. Apart from the huge portfolio of tech companies they have invested in, their investment in Tencent the owner of WeChat comes to mind. They had the vision to invest in Tencent which has grown to become what it is today. This tells me that Naspers is1, visionary, and 2, they were bold and courageous to invest in an area that wasn’t very popular at the time. I respect that.
How is Bus54 unique?
Ezra:What we are building is a model that we haven’t copied from anywhere, so we aren’t trying to be the National Express, Flixbus, or Uber for buses. What we are building is the digital infrastructure that would power passenger transportation in Africa. Going back to the question you asked me about where would Bus54 be in 5 years? Think about a transport operator or anybody who wants to go into the transportation business, whether it’s the government or a private individual or company.
They won’t need to worry about technology to manage their transportation business. All they need to do is simply plug into Bus54. Secondly, we are a product and customer-centric company. We listen to the voice of the customer and build products that come from customer insight coupled with our depth of experience with the problem we are solving. Interestingly, for the founding team, we have all had personal experiences with the problem we are trying to solve.
For some members of the team, growing up, our parents went into the transportation business either full-time or as a second income to support the family and the business failed because of some of the challenges I mentioned previously such as lack of visibility around revenue collection and access to digital tools for routing, scheduling, and pricing. So, for us it is personal. If these solutions were out there in the market, probably some of our parents or loved ones who went into the business would have thrived.
We are therefore committed to tackling this problem and enabling more people to go into the transportation business, the same way people currently go into agriculture as a second income. In recent times, we have seen a trend where professionals go into agriculture as a team i.e., four or five friends pooling resources, buying land, and going into agriculture. We believe that Bus54 will enable a similar opportunity in the transportation space with our technology as an enabler.
What’s your background?
Ezra:My first degree is in Business Administration. I left Nigeria in 2004 for the UK to study for a master’s degree and stayed back to build my career in the UK. I worked for some of the top energy companies in the UK and worked both in energy generation and customer supply parts of the business. My passion for Africa, the desire to contribute to the development of the continent, and the fact that I did not have working experience in Nigeria or in the continent for that matter inspired me to move back to Nigeria in 2014 with a multinational in the building industry. The move back to Nigeria was a great opportunity to really understand the huge challenges and opportunities in the continent and enabled me to build an Africa-wide network.
Due to personal circumstances, a couple of years later, my family and I decided to move back to Europe but that burning desire to come up with practical solutions to Africa’s problems was still there. So, I set up SAVE n FLEX, where we negotiated discounts with retailers and passed on the discounts to companies as additional benefits or perks for their employees. The whole idea was to pass on savings that beat inflation to employees.
On one hand, it is affordable for companies to buy access to these pre-negotiated discounts for their employees and on the other hand, employees benefited because they were able to maximise their salaries by a factor of 20 or 30% depending on how they use the discounts. I ran SAVE n FLEX for a couple of years, and we had to pivot just during covid. What really brought the idea of Bus54 was Covid-19.
In 2020, just before the first lockdown, my parents who live in Abuja were visiting our hometown in the south of Nigeria. They needed to return to Abuja before the lockdown and unfortunately, the domestic airspace had been shut at the time. The only option they had was to travel by road back to Abuja. I recall speaking with my dad and saying to him “you know, you can easily book a bus to Abuja online’’ and in his sense of humour asked me to search and book two tickets for them. I spent over an hour and a half navigating from one poorly designed website to another. There were some good websites with limited routes but there was nobody aggregating routes, schedules, and pricing. I had to ask a friend to go to the bus terminal to book the tickets which is an avoidable trip.
A couple of weeks later, a friend of mine who was in Kumasi and wanted to get to Accra before traveling to London also had the same problem and so I started to do some research and found out it’s an Africa-wide problem; 90% of transport operators in Africa still operate offline. When you then consider that investment in transportation infrastructure by African governments is not going to keep pace with population increase one can deduce that for the foreseeable future, the majority of Africans will be stuck with road transportation either for intercity journeys or intracity trips. It makes sense for us to tackle a problem that goes right to the heart of improving the quality of life of Africans and providing them with aviation-style booking and travel experience for road transportation.
What gets you excited about the future of Bus54?
Ezra:I am a firm believer in sustainable inclusive development. The digital infrastructure that we are building will connect individuals, communities, and businesses, thereby facilitating trade opportunities between African countries, which is what the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) intends to achieve. Bus54’s technology enabling seamless aviation-style booking and travel experience for Africans traveling by road really excites me.
If you could pick two things to change in the transportation industry, what would they be and why?
Ezra:There needs to be a more efficient way for people to move within cities in Africa in order to build climate resilience and improve quality of life. More bus rapid transportation (BRT) networks that move more passengers and cover much larger distances compared to on-demand bus sharing that is in effect more polluting in terms of emissions is needed in African cities to reduce congestion and commuting time.
The second thing I would love to change or improve is connectivity between countries; transportation is so important that it not only connects people but also communities which means that there are greater opportunities for business within communities that are interconnected. Improved connectivity in terms of road transportation between neighbouring African countries, I believe will spur trade, and with it, opportunities for people to make a decent living for themselves.
How do you deal with the government and legal registrations?
Ezra:What we’ve done is ensure that our onboarding process is developed with best practices. We collect certain information from our transport operators used not only to know our customers but also to ensure that they are compliant with all the registrations. In terms of dealing with regulators, I have a strong background in a heavily regulated industry (nuclear energy) and with that comes a depth of experience in dealing with regulators.
We embrace regulation, we believe it’s a good thing and we will be working closely with governments in all the countries we will operate in to ensure that transportation is as seamless for people in the continent as possible. Lastly, compliance with various legislations in multiple countries is one of our top risks that we constantly assess to ensure that we are operating ethically and responsibly.
What do you want Bus54 to be known as?
Ezra:I would like Bus54 to be known as the company that bridged the gap in the road transportation sector in Africa. We want to be known as the company that brought aviation-style booking and travel experience to road transportation in Africa.
What obstacles are you still working through presently?
Ezra:We don’t think in terms of obstacles, we think in terms of opportunities. For example, we are working on a process that enables us to build a pipeline of transport operators and onboard them at scale so that adoption is quicker, and more routes are opened up for our users. In the coming weeks, we will be announcing a number of partnerships that will benefit our transport operators and users.
Other than Bus54, what are you passionate about?
Ezra:I am passionate about sharing my knowledge and experience with the next generation. I have been fortunate at different times in my career for individuals more experienced and knowledgeable than myself mentoring me. I feel a sense of duty to pay that forward. I also look forward to teaching perhaps as a visiting lecturer at a pan-African university.
If you weren’t building Bus54, what else will you be building?
Ezra:Well, between raising twin 4-year-olds with my wife and building Bus54, my hands are quite full. Balancing working on Bus54 and raising a young family, especially at such an important phase in the life of the kids takes up most of my time.
At the moment, how do you measure success? What are your metrics?
Ezra:The top three metrics we use to measure our progress are: 1) Time to onboard transport operators. We actively track that from when we have initial contact with a transport operator to when they are onboarded, and their tickets can be sold on Bus54.
Secondly, we track the number of monthly tickets sold to ensure the numbers are moving in the right direction. The third thing we measure is the percentage of repeat customers vs new customers won.
Lastly, customer satisfaction scores along with driver ratings give us actionable insight into what to improve to ensure that we continue to delight our users.
In a few sentences, what do you offer? And to whom?
Ezra:What we offer is a transportation booking platform where on one hand, we provide transport operators with digital tools, including payment integration, with which they can manage their end-to-end operation. The routing, scheduling, and pricing data from the operators is aggregated on Bus54’s platform and presented to users as a search, compare and book tool. Users are given the choice to search, compare and book for transport operators on the routes they are traveling using different search criteria.
For example, search for an operator that has air-conditioned buses with a good safety record. An operator’s safety record is derived from aggregated passenger ratings at the end of their journey. In a nutshell, Bus54 has a two-sided product; on one hand, to transport operators, giving them a solution to manage routing, scheduling, and pricing. On the other hand, travellers are able to search, compare and book their journey in easy steps.
The biggest benefit for transport operators on our platform is the fact that they’re able to manage their end-to-end operations online. The platform also gives them control over revenue collection, booking, and managing their employees. Using our solution over time will result in operators having the digital tools that will enable them to build their business credit rating, which will position them to access the financing they need to increase the buses in their fleet.
The booking experience for most interstate travellers today is poor as they still need to go to a bus terminal a day or two before their journey or very early on the day of travel to book their travel ticket. By booking online in easy steps on Bus54, they avoid the unnecessary trip to a bus terminal a day or two before their journey which costs time, money and is a source of avoidable emissions. So, users can reduce their emissions, save money, and time by booking on Bus54 platform and turning up at the bus terminal on the day of travel.
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