Uganda: A tech solution for making public transport less ‘hectic’

This article was first published by Renew Capital

In most cases, a simple commute in a matatu, the local name for 14-seat public minibuses in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, isn’t actually simple or pleasant. Getting from point A to point B involves long queues and delays which can cost commuters hours of their time. Due to the informality of the transportation sector, matatus in Uganda operate with little regulation. And the same applies to other major cities on the continent.

Easy Matatu is one of investment firm Renew Capital’s portfolio companies that is working to solve this urban mobility challenge through a tech-enabled solution. The Easy Matatu app allows commuters to book and pay for a seat in advance, reducing wait time and minimising delays. The company aims to make Uganda’s public transportation system safer and more reliable. It also plans to bring their solution to other African cities with similar problems.

In this interview, CEO and co-founder of Easy Matatu, Lema Carl Andrew, explains how the company was started and shares his thoughts on the future of transportation in Africa.

* This interview has been shortened for length and clarity.

What got you interested in solving the challenges of public transportation in a place like Uganda?

Initially, Easy Matatu was started to solve a simple transportation problem. How do I get to work on time? How do I get back home predictably? I live in Entebbe, which is located 34 kilometres from the city, and I have to commute in and out of the city every day. For anyone who lives that far out, traveling is extremely hectic. To get to work on time, you have to be up before the crack of dawn, or you will be late. You also have to contend with long queues and literally have to fight at the bus terminal just to get a seat because there are not enough matatus during rush hours.

Entebbe to Kampala is a pretty straightforward route. Easy Matatu started by creating this simple route with a single matatu that would leave in the morning at 6am, and arrive in the city just before 7am, giving the commuter ample time to do a connecting journey to work. In the evening, you’d have the option for the 5pm matatu that would get you home at 7pm at the latest. Soon after we started, we quickly saw that the problem we were solving was not unique to us. It was common to pretty much everyone that lived more than 10 kilometres away from the city. Commuting to work was a hassle, and returning home was even more hectic.

What gave you the idea to create a tech-enabled platform to solve these transportation challenges?

Before we started Easy Matatu, I had recently traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. Kigali pretty much had transportation like every other African city – chaotic, dangerous and unsafe. But a few months earlier, the government had intervened and partnered with a local tech startup that provided a payment solution that helped to address the problem. Traveling in Kigali became efficient and smooth. Back in Kampala and seated at the back of a matatu at 9pm, my co-founders and I were reflecting on how difficult it was to get back home from the city. What was supposed to be a half-hour journey took about three hours. It dawned on us that everyone is digitising different parts of the economy. At the time, there was a company called SafeBoda, that was digitising boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis). Uber had come into Kampala about three years earlier and had changed the way people used cabs, but still, nothing was being done about the matatus, which were pretty much transporting about 80% of all commuters in the city.

Having seen what happened in Kigali, and since I am a software engineer and I had worked with a couple of startups in East Africa, we launched Easy Matatu. It’s bigger than just the app. Now our mission is to fix public transport in Africa’s cities, using technology. This looks different in different African cities. In Kampala right now, for example, we’re using 14-seater minibus taxis to provide reliable, safe and clean rides. But if you go to Nairobi, it’s a different story. They have 30-seater matatus. In Tanzania, there are dala-dalas, which are even in worse condition than most other African cities. That’s the mission we are on. That’s what keeps us energised.

Who is your target market?

Women are our biggest user demographic making up eight in 10 of our repeat customers. This is because of the convenience and safety that our service provides to them. With our service, customers can book a seat and have it waiting for them when they leave work and get to the terminal. With Easy Matatu we vet the drivers, train them and onboard them. The app provides users with the name and phone number of the driver.

The second demographic that we are impacting is the matatu drivers themselves, who are primarily male. Prior to working for Easy Matutu, most drivers were undereducated and untrained and operated in an extremely stressful environment with daily targets that they had to meet to be able to get a wage. Our business model aims to flip this as we now engage them as drivers and use our platform to pull customers which makes their jobs easier, especially during peak hours.

What are the most significant changes and challenges you’ve seen in mobility and transport in Africa over the last 10 years?

Over the last 10 years, African cities have grown very rapidly. Kampala itself has become increasingly congested. The city is bulging at the seams and the transportation infrastructure cannot sustain that. It’s projected that our cities are going to continue to grow over the next 10 to 20 years while the governmental response in many cases does not look like it will catch up to meet the demand. What I believe is needed are partnerships between the public sector and private players to further develop the transportation infrastructure.

What do you think the private sector in Africa, especially as it relates to transportation will look like in 10 years?

My hope is that we will have more blended modes of transportation that make it easier for commuters to get to work and get back home and have a well-balanced life. Although informal transit is not ideal, it supports millions of livelihoods. Blended modes of transport that help commuters move about are unique to Africa. It’s really unlikely we’re going to have subways all over the place in a decade. We’ll still have people sharing 14-seater buses, whether they’re electric or not. We’ll still have people hopping on boda-bodas. There is nothing inherently wrong with these informal modes of transportation as long as they are efficient and they work hand in hand with the more traditional mass transit options.