Africa’s innovators turn to tech to tackle transport woes

Sub-Saharan Africa’s vulnerable populations face lengthy, dangerous and expensive commutes. Technology innovations are increasing helping people get around safely and affordably.

Lebogang Matjila, a South African nurse, was threatened by a taxi driver in a minibus if she asked him to slow down and go slower down on the highway.

She was skeptical when she heard about Planet42, a company that rents cars to buy.

“I had been scammed once before, but I filled in my details and applied online because desperation can do that to you,” said the 42-year-old mother of two from Pretoria.

“Some may say it’s just transported, so it’s not so important. But you can only say that in South Africa if you don’t care about your safety,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

About 33% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population has access to public transport, in contrast to 75% in Europe and North America, according to United Nations statistics.

To help people get around safely and affordably, Africa’s innovators are looking to technology, from a data-driven company that helps South Africans with bad credit buy cars to an app-based truck service delivering potatoes and more in Rwanda.

“Transport is a very important piece in the puzzle of people accessing jobs, feeling included and realizing their potential,” said Planet42 founder Eerik Oja in a video interview.

Using algorithms to detect applicants who have been “unfairly ignored by banks”, the social enterprise has helped put some 8 000 insured cars on the road in the past five years, Oja said.

Planet42’s machine learning tracks thousands of public data points from credit bureaus – such as credit scores – to calculate who is eligible to rent a car from them and eventually buy it at a reduced cost.

“As we get more data, we get better at determining which customer is a good risk to take, so we can actually keep lowering the price of our service,” said Oja.

The Covid-19 pandemic pushed tens of thousands of South Africans into arrears, he said, adding that those are the kinds of “blacklisted” customers Planet42 can help as they try to rebuild their credit scores.

Matjila in Pretoria said it was her unpaid student credit that destroyed her credit score, and she couldn’t get a loan even though she paid it off.

She said that her income has increased by twofold since she got her car.

“There are so many other blacklisted South Africans stuck without solutions and without safe transport,” she said. “Tech solutions that they can access from their homes or phones could change their lives, too.”

OX, a new truck company in Rwanda's Western province, is helping small business owners move everything from cows to coffins. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Handout via OX
OX, a new truck company in Rwanda’s Western province, is helping small business owners move everything from cows to coffins. Photo by Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Handout via OX

Mobility is democratized

Transport inequality – the unequal distribution of travel resources such as cars or public transport – reinforces socio-economic divides while impacting livelihoods and safety, transport researchers say.

Volvo Research and Educational Foundations have released a 2020 report that reveals that vulnerable African communities living in informally developed urban areas in the city’s peripheries may face lengthy, expensive, and sometimes dangerous journeys to work.

While Planet42 focuses on car ownership to advance what it calls the “democratization of mobility”, OX, a new truck company in Rwanda’s Western province, is helping small business owners move everything from cows to coffins.

OX was launched in March 2021. Customers can rent a space in one of eight trucks for a flat rate, or pay as you go. All this is coordinated via an app that the driver manages.

For many of OX’s customers, previous options for moving their stock were bicycles, donkeys or porters, which limited how much and how fast they could sell.

The company has gained more than 300 customers since its launch and is growing 40% month-on-month in terms of revenue and volume, said managing director Simon Davis, adding that one customer – an animal feed supplier – has tripled his sales since he started using the service.

“If you move stuff, you make more money,” said Davis. “If you make more money, you can afford to access healthcare, send your kids to school, look after yourself … all byproducts of economic progress.”

OX is a new truck company in Rwanda’s Western province. Photo: Supplied/Ventureburn

No silver bullet

Like the rest of the globe, Africa is seeing a rise in mobile phone usage. This has prompted a surge in apps that help people move around their cities cheaply and safely.

By 2020 more than 45% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population subscribed to mobile services, with nearly 20 million people signing up just in the previous year, according to telecoms lobby group GSMA.

“We’re seeing a massive increase in ride-hailing platforms for motorcars and motorcycle taxis,” said Sam Clark, head of programmes at transport charity Transaid.

SafeBoda, which uses an app to connect commuters with reliable and skilled drivers in Uganda, according to research published by Transportation Planning and Technology.

Researchers interviewed female riders who felt safe not having to negotiate rates with drivers. The app also allowed them to track their drives and identify them.

Clark warned that tech solutions are not a panacea. He cited poor connectivity in rural areas, and noted that half the African population has no smartphone access.

More work needs to be done to make regular public transportation more accessible to everyone, he said – and that includes more investment in infrastructure and more women in senior roles.

“Many of the decisions concerning service delivery are made by men, for men,” said Clark, whose work at Transaid includes efforts to boost female leadership in transport.

“When more women are part of the decision-making process, greater consideration will be given to the needs of women as passengers.”

Matjila is a nurse and filling out that online application allowed her to choose between driving her own car or being a passenger. It has made her feel safer and has increased her income. She can also spend more time spending with her family.

“To be honest, it changed my life,” she said.

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