African B2B start-ups seem to have the edge over their B2C counterparts. But those that tackle complicated business ecosystems often seem to struggle to overcome legacy patterns of behavior. Few ecosystems are as challenging as African city transport. WhereIsMyTransport's Co-Founder Devin de Vries explains his own experience of getting into this market and his recent seed fund round.
Disrupting business ecosystems is nearly always tougher than it looks anywhere but in Africa the bar is just that much higher, particularly in the public sector.
The African city transport ecosystem is particularly tough as it is a mix of anarchic private operators, publicly subsidized buses and trains and national and city Governments who often seem to have given up on making anything better for users.
So how did de Vries come to co-found WhereIsMyTransport and enter this tantalizing quagmire? It all started in June 2008 as a University thesis project at the University of Cape Town. The team got together to solve a real world problem. To do this they started by tackling the smaller problem of the University's shuttle bus:"We knew we needed to look a bit broader than one operator and wanted to do the thinking for the whole (transport) sector".
Shortly after completing the project and their studies, the founding team decided to enter the Microsoft Imagine competition in 2008: "There were 220,000 contestants (in 3-4 person teams) coming from over 40 countries. We finished in the top 3 globally in the category of most business ready solution. We realized that this may become more than a University project and thought maybe it has legs to become a commercial service".
But whilst the clear sightedness of youth had spotted the business opportunity, getting it to work was to turn out to be a long road.
The business has gone through three stages. Initially they wanted to build an app and put all the information there for transport users, making transport options and timings transparent:"We quickly realized that we were perpetuating untruthful information. There were issues of safety, predictability and reliability. Most of the solutions didn't deal with frequency. I need to know when it will arrive. So the B2C route was not the way to go".
So they turned the business round to go the B2B route. In major cities in more developed countries, the system can go online but the overall ecosystem takes time to mature:"Our role is to connect the parts together. In Africa, there's not as much technology infrastructure, nor the regulatory bodies to centralize how transport is dealt with, particularly in the highly subsidized sector.
Service level adherence is not the same as in the private sector. When the central digital stores of information (about routes, frequencies, delays, etc) have been created, you don't need to keep them secret".
"So in the second phase, we thought there would be central data stores. We thought the operators would have the tools (to create and share data) but they were using Word and Excel. We tried building out web-based, smart tools with things like route planning, timetabling, etc".
But it turned out that the operators (especially the private sector ones) didn't want to be open about the state of the data: they didn't want people to know how bad the data was. There also issues of overall attitudes to transparency:"Trying to sell tech tools to operators was like pushing a rope up a tree".
In the third phase, there was only one stakeholder left: government and this, de Vries noted ruefully, is not usually a very attractive area for a start-up. But they struck lucky in Cape Town.:"... we started to talk to the City of Cape Town and ask: what are your problems? They told us: We want to change the public transport imperative to be on users.
We want them to be able to say where they want go and get options. We won't have all the answers but need to acknowledge where we have challenges and opportunities. They were acknowledging the need for data and to decentralise the data. So we focused on B2G and enabling B2Cs to do this (transition)". And the transport users themselves as the data ecosystem improves.
"In October 2014 we launched this app. The first module was Writer which captures routes, stops, fares and timetables. It's a tool for operators. The second module (going live first) was Messenger which the official broadcasting of information that's been validated and can be smart tagged. The third module was Reporter which deals with the analytics of supply and demand".
Messenger updates all the different points of information in the system. WhereIsMyTransport has decided to work on two principles:"1. It can't be live (data). Where we don't have live data, we have to be honest about it. 2. We need to always be listening. Riders will give back information and we'll pass on the messages even to those operators not using the system".
The transit API has been built on Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, to leverage Microsoft's Platform-as-a-Service solutions, and combines data on formal and informal transportation from static and real-time sources.
This means that any transportation mode can be mapped and analysed through the API - whether it's city buses, metro systems or privately owned buses and minibus taxis. The platform will support the development of journey-planning applications for websites and smartphones, fare estimators, analytics for more informed infrastructure investment and city planning, and messaging capabilities to help optimise journeys affected by delays and cancellations.
At launch, the platform contains formal transport information for South African cities Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, George, and East London. It also contains the data for the new Dar es Salaam BRT system, and the Cairo Metro. Informal transit modes are being added to the platform, starting with the matatu system in Nairobi, Kenya, with this capability to be extended to other cities and agencies over the coming months.
To date, WhereIsMyTransport has added almost 10,000 stops along 40,000km of routes to the platform, which has involved cleaning and plotting half a million data points.
The API is designed to be intuitive (including a developer portal that makes it simple to get started), flexible (to accommodate individual developer needs), extensible (forming a sound base for developers to build on ) and scalable (capable of handling data from tens of thousands of agencies). It is a REST API, built in .NET CORE and uses OAuth 2.0 protocol and OpenID Connect.
Its first customer was the City of Cape Town and its second customer was Joahannesburg's Gautrain and Gaubus:"We're now focused on the municipalities and transport companies. We're speaking actively with potential customers in 11 countries in the Middle East and Africa and have some engagement in Latin America".
Along the way the company took a bold decision and decided to move its main base to London. It is now a UK company with 40 employees, 22 of whom are engineers. So why move to London if the main business is in Africa?: "In order to raise investment, capital has to be within the investment mandate region. There are also risks with the Rand. A lot of funding is hard to access if you're outside these domiciles (USA and Europe). We needed a fair valuation of the company and there are hidden costs to the South African base."
At the end of August it announced that it had raised GBP1.65 million in seed funding from Goodwell Investments; together with the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm created by eBay's founder; and Horizon Ventures, as the first closing of a £2 million Seed Round.