Going after CBD traffic jams one bus at a time

Tech savviness of Kenyans is one reason it took SW six months to achieve what took two years in Egypt.

In Summary

•While the government piles on numerous  efforts to handle the gridlock, mass transit service hailing apps in the country are looking to solve the conundrum that is Nairobi’s traffic jam

One of the shuttles used by SWVL
One of the shuttles used by SWVL

Thousands of Nairobi commuters and motorists suffer routine traffic jams on a daily basis, costing millions worth of man hours. While the government piles on numerous  efforts to handle the gridlock, mass transit service hailing apps in the country are looking to solve the conundrum that is Nairobi’s traffic jam. Even as they receive constant blocks from local authorities.

The Star had an opportunity to talk to SWVL Kenya general manager Shivachi Muleji:

Having worked at Uber and Bolt before, how has that experience helped you at SWVL?

Coming from a ride hailing background has definitely been a plus. I do have a grasp of the basics. Despite that, SWVL is quite the surprise, and there are definitely some things that I had to relearn. There are some long held principles that I had to think through again. But overall the team have been very helpful in helping through the learning process.

What is the big vision for SWVL?

Our goal as SWVL is to create a solution for emerging markets that looks to eliminate one of the hurdles their citizens face. We envision building a reliable mass transit system that helps reduce the number of personal vehicles on our roads every day, thus declogging the extensive traffic jams experienced by commuters.

How has SWVL’s experience in Egypt helped you here?

Our biggest lesson is that having an amazing product and having solid operations is just half the job done. There is the regulatory landscape to deal with and that is a completely different environment. Governments do not think about businesses from the same perspective we do. We think about unit economics and about users. Governments think about impact on society, and where your business fits into the existing regulatory frameworks.

We have learnt to speak the language that regulators use, we have learnt to build strong relationships with government, invest in engaging with government, hire teams to manage these relationships and have a clear government relations strategy.

What is life at SWVL like?

The founders have done an awesome job of specifying what our culture stands for and what it doesn’t. What we do and what we don’t do. It’s a very close-knit family that cuts across three countries. But you don’t even feel the boundaries at all, it’s like we are in one huge room and you can work with whoever you need to so as to find a solution.

What benefit is there to working with young talent like you do at SWVL?

A trend across most emerging markets today is the proliferation of technology, and that has resulted in a rise in the number of tech savvy individuals with brand new ideas for their markets. When SWVL sets up in a country, they look for these individuals to help deliver SWVL’s vision. Young talent gives us a great springboard for success because those individuals find ways to innovate for the future in a way that is exciting and promising. There is nobody better to prepare for the future than those who will live in that future.

What is the most popular demographic of SWVL user?

We seek to solve the commute problem. If you think about the impact of that statement, you see just how expansive the market we serve is. Basically, anybody for whom time, money and comfort matter to them is a user for us.

We have served a wide base of users and every day we see users from different regions and different social classes use us.

The government has been looking to implement a BRT system. Is SWVL working with the government at all in this regard?

We think of ourselves as one player in an ecosystem of transportation solutions. It’s a continuum and we fit somewhere in there. There will always be a use case for bodas for example, a use case for ride hailing, a use case for BRT buses and a use case for us.

We think BRT is an amazing innovation for this city. Therefore, for us we must ask ourselves how do we design and plan our routes to complement these kinds of changes. How do we work together with the government?

How do you onboard captains and vehicles?

We have a very strict process for bringing captains and vehicles onto our platform. Before a captain is allowed onto the platform, they must meet certain requirements like having a PSV license. They must also undergo training by SWVL to ensure that the quality of service they provide is the same no matter which SWVL you board. When it comes to the vehicle, we are also very selective on those which can operate under SWVL. This is to ensure that they are comfortable and reliable, two aspects that are crucial to what we look to provide commuters. Simple aspects such as leg room and seating capacity are looked at when allowing a vehicle onto the platform.

Most technology firms centre their operations around the large urban areas. Why is this so?

Technology is a resource that can be expensive, both to acquire and maintain. In Kenya, for example, the most tech savvy people are found in and around urban centres. This is slowly changing though with smartphones being made more affordable and more people now acquiring them.

Technology firms also need to consider the human capital aspect of the business. A significant majority of possible employees are found in the urban centres and as such it makes more sense for the business to centre their operations closer to them.

To what extent has the penetration of internet and mobile technology in Kenya aided your work?

The tech savviness of Kenyans is one reason it took us six months to achieve what took two years in Egypt.