Geographies in Depth

How technology is upgrading traditional mobility services in Africa

Passengers pass their fares to minibus taxi driver Zakes Hadebe as they commute from Soweto township to central Johannesburg February 21, 2014. South Africa's minibus taxi industry, scorned by other motorists for reckless driving and dogged by a reputation for violence, moves 15 million people every day, most of them lower income blacks. More like buses than the taxis of New York or London, the rumbling 16-seaters are the wheels of Africa's largest economy. Picture taken February 21.

Passengers on a minibus taxi as they commute from Soweto township to central Johannesburg, South Africa Image: REUTERS/MIke Hutchings

David Taylor
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  • Minibus taxis have been a fixture of many African cities for decades.
  • Applying modern e-hailing technology to private mass transport could produce mobility solutions that reduce congestion and car usage.

In the international arena, the buzzword ‘mobility’ conjures images of high-tech mass-rapid-transit systems in international cities, linked with entrepreneurial, tech-driven start-ups such as e-hailing companies, micro solutions like e-scooters and share bike programmes linking efficient, high speed rail and air solutions modernized to meet our contemporary transport needs.

In South Africa, however, ‘mobility’ denotes the urban transport imperative that is integral to our economic activity, an informal modality all but void of innovation, propped up and supported by our often ominous minibus taxi industry.

The minibus taxi is an often colourful 14-16 seater minivan, loved and hated by both the 15 million passengers who use them daily, and by those who share the roads with them. These taxis operated illegally from 1977 until they were formally legalized in 1987, carrying passengers from outlying areas dedicated by the Apartheid Government’s spatial planning regime into racially exclusive city centres and economic hubs. Road-favouring transport policy, lack of government funding and a lack of reinvestment in the extensive rail infrastructure have led to a situation where minibus taxis are able to punch above their weight by offering provincial commuters a nimble solution to their transport needs – in a country that possesses 75% of the African continent’s track, and where, therefore, rail should be untouchable. The resulting environment is one in which minibus taxis are responsible for 25% of South Africa’s passenger transport mix, placed between private car use (38%) and walking (21%), whereas rail is responsible for only 4% of the market.

Transport usage by type in South Africa
Transport usage by type in South Africa Image: Transaction Capital

Beyond South Africa, other nations on the continent rely on similar mobility systems. East Africa’s minibus taxi equivalent is the matatu, which is possibly even more colourful and erratic than its southern counterpart, and which enjoys an even stronger position in the transport mix of the average East African. Where East Africa differs is in the use of motorcycles, known as boda-bodas, to address micro-mobility requirements. In South Africa, once again, the minibus taxi addresses this segment.

Applying Africa’s unique transport system to international mobility trends, we see an interesting convergence. Global cities are focusing policy frameworks and public mandates on reducing emissions and congestion by reducing the number of vehicles on their roads, with goals such as the Mayor of London’s transport strategy, which aims for 80% of all trips in London to be made by bicycle, walking or public transport by 2041. Cities are encouraging modality shift (people replacing their cars) through modal densification with the use of innovative tech-driven solutions.

Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, famously said that his company's service would lead to a decrease in congestion in our cities, however the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that ride-hailing solutions have made congestion worse. Although e-hailing may have increased congestion, it has also paved the way for entrepreneurial entities to innovate. Applying the e-hailing solution to systems designed to efficiently increase mobility such as privatized mass transport, you have an ideal currently sought by many global cities.

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One such solution is ViaVan, a partnership between an American mobility-as-a-service (MAAS) company, Via, and Mercedes Benz Vans, which uses a proprietary algorithm to aggregate demand on particular routes, promoting a densification of passengers who require a vaguely similar origin/destination trip to share a vehicle. They do this by taking the riders needs into account, creating a virtual bus stop or pick-up point, and pooling their riders to achieve efficiencies not yet seen in our major tech-driven mobility start-ups. This solution emulates Africa’s minibus taxi method of operation, except instead of contested routes and taxi associations, algorithms and big data run the aggregation.

SWVL – an Egyptian based start-up, founded in 2017 and already operating in five countries – is possibly moving into this space. SWVL has managed to merge tech with Africa’s established mobility offerings and is capitalizing on the efficiencies gained. The efficiencies are enjoyed on the supplier side, with better demand forecasting, market accessibility and certainty. The demand side enjoy planned rides, app-supported transactions and being able to book your seat. This solution, which addresses the gap between expensive on-demand ride hailing and inconvenient, unreliable public transport, has been widely accepted by both its daily riders, as well as investors, raising over $80 million in funding to date.

Challenges certainly exist on Africa’s path to fully realizing the benefits of MAAS. Operator buy-in is key, as an efficient system relies on participant co-ordination and access to open-based data gathered from across the transport mixes to efficiently aggregate demand across operators and sectors, ultimately integrating these services into the most efficient offering. This approach, when coupled with a strong policy framework where governments no longer are providers of public transport but rather issue permits and licenses for the private sector to assume services, will allow competition to further increase rider satisfaction and modal shift.

Further to the benefits of decreased congestion, emissions increased access to economic hubs and ridership, this would encourage further innovation through the private sector building a stronger skill base to develop different kinds of MAAS supporting systems – further increasing efficiencies, possibly allowing Africa to compete on the global stage.

The African minibus taxi industry leaves a lot to be desired; however, is the world of mobility taking a leaf out of our book? As public transport is the backbone of technology-driven mobility solutions, ride-sharing services have shown to work best in environments where public transport is widely available. Competencies and efficiencies shown in the African environment are now applied in cities across the world, conversely, the space for innovation in our own nodes and links is immense. We need to change our perception of the minibus taxi being a competing mode, and rather allow technology to manage it with its competitive characteristics in mind, a cog in the system rather than a system on its own.

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