African innovators are turning to technology to solve transport problems

After a minibus taxi driver threatened to throw her out on the street for asking her to slow down as he ran down the highway, South African nurse Lebogang Matjila scoured the internet for a better way safer and cheaper to visit his patients.

When she found Planet42, a car rental company that said it would help her own her own vehicle, she thought it sounded too good to be true.

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

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

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

To help people get around safely and affordably, Afrioca innovators are turning to technology, from a data-driven company that helps South Africans with bad credit buy cars at a App-based truck service delivering potatoes and more to Rwanda.

“Transportation is a very important piece in the puzzle of people getting jobs, feeling included and realizing their potential,” Planet42 founder Eerik Oja said 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 over the past five years, Oja said.

Planet42’s machine learning tracks thousands of public credit bureau data points — 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 become better at determining which customer is a good risk to take, so we can continue to lower the price of our service,” Oja said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed tens of thousands of South Africans into arrears, he said, adding that these are the types of “blacklisted” customers Planet42 can help as they try to rebuild their credit ratings.

For Matjila in Pretoria, it was unpaid store credit from her student years that destroyed her score and prevented her from getting a loan, even after she paid it back.

Since getting her car, she says her income has doubled because she can visit more patients every day.

“There are so many other blacklisted South Africans stuck with no solutions and no safe transport,” she said.

“The technological solutions they can access from their home or their phone could also be life-changing.”

DEMOCRATIZING MOBILITY

Transportation inequality – the unequal distribution of travel resources such as cars or public transport – reinforces socioeconomic divides while impacting livelihoods and security, transport researchers say.

In Africa, vulnerable groups living in informally developed urban areas on the outskirts of cities can face long, expensive and often dangerous journeys to work, according to a 2020 report by the research funding group Volvo Research and Educational Foundations.

As 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 with everything move, from cows to coffins.

Launched in March 2021, OX allows customers to rent a seat in one of their eight trucks on a pay-as-you-go basis, all coordinated through a driver-managed app.

For many OX customers, the previous options for moving their stock were bicycles, donkeys, or porters, which limited the quantity and speed at which they could sell.

The company has won more than 300 customers since launch and is growing 40% month-on-month in revenue and volume, chief executive Simon Davis said, adding that one customer – a pet food supplier – has tripled his sales since he started using the service.

“If you move stuff, you make more money,” Davis said. “If you make more money, you can afford to access health care, send your kids to school, take care of yourself…all by-products of economic progress.”

NO SILVER BULLET

As in the rest of the world, mobile phone usage is increasing in Africa, leading to an increase in apps designed to help people get around their cities safely and affordably.

By the end of 2020, more than 45% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had subscribed to mobile services, with nearly 20 million people having signed up the previous year, according to telecommunications lobby group GSMA.

“We are seeing a massive increase in carpooling platforms for cars and motorcycle taxis,” said Sam Clark, program manager at transport charity Transaid.

In Uganda, where a study published in the journal Transportation Planning and Technology estimates there are half a million motorbikes and three-wheeled taxis, SafeBoda uses an app to connect commuters with trained and reliable drivers.

Female drivers interviewed by the researchers said they felt safer not having to negotiate prices with drivers and being able to identify and track their journey on the app.

But tech fixes aren’t a silver bullet, Clark warned, citing poor connectivity in rural areas and noting that half of Africa’s population still doesn’t have access to a smartphone.

More work needs to be done to make regular public transport more accessible to all, he said – and that includes more investment in infrastructure and more women in leadership positions.

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

“As more women participate in the decision-making process, more attention will be given to the needs of women as passengers.”

For nurse Matjila, completing this online application means she can now choose to be a passenger or drive her own car, which has made her feel safer, increased her income and spent more time with his family.

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

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