“Boda bodas,” or motorcycle taxis, are the main form of transit in Kampala, Uganda. There are five times more boda bodas driving around Kampala – 80,000 in total – than yellow taxis in New York City. While boda bodas are popular, they are not uniformly safe. Less than 1% of boda boda passengers wear helmets, and as a result, roughly 40% of trauma cases in Kampala hospitals are attributable to boda boda accidents.
SafeBoda, a company started by Dalberg San Francisco alumnus Alastair Sussock and three co-founders in November 2014, aims to provide Kampala residents with safe, convenient boda rides. SafeBoda drivers have two helmets – one for the driver and one for the passenger – and an easily identifiable reflective jacket with that driver’s name embossed on the back. In addition, they are trained in road safety, motorcycle maintenance, first aid, and customer service. Customers of SafeBoda can call for drivers using the SafeBoda smartphone app, similar in its functionality to the Uber and Lyft platforms. SafeBoda’s revenue currently comes from SafeBoda drivers paying a weekly fee for a package of trainings, equipment, and technology, but over time the company will look to use mobile payment technology to more efficiently capture revenue.
Tell us a little bit about SafeBoda. What makes it stand out from other transportation startups?
Essentially, we’re trying to make a market for security, safety, and reliability. For Uber customers in the US, for example, convenience is the biggest issue. In the East African market, and particularly in the world of moto-taxis, we need to be more than that – it’s about safety and security. Our drivers signal that they have been trained and are accountable to the SafeBoda community by wearing our branded, orange, high-quality helmets and bright orange vests with their name on the back.We brand on safety on security.Our next app iteration will look to develop a rating system for our drivers to reduce adverse selection problems in the market. Other transportation start-ups in East Africa have attempted to replicate Uber but not many have succeeded, in part because they haven’t focused on safety and security. Even Uber has had challenges – in India, most recently, for example.
SafeBoda drivers importantly see an economic return to being safe and providing great customer service. Drivers make more money – simple. People in Uganda have been trying to get boda drivers and passengers to wear helmets for a while, but so far efforts have been very ineffective – the police can’t really enforce these rules, and NGOs have given out helmets for free but drivers don’t strap their helmets, rendering them useless when you hit the brakes. But we think if we can reach 3,000 drivers, it might be a tipping point in the market. Already we’ve heard that police in Kampala saying to boda drivers, ‘Why can’t you be more like the SafeBoda guys?’
How did SafeBoda get started?
One of SafeBoda’s co-founders, Ricky [Thompson], started as a boda driver. He was born in northern Uganda and worked his way up as a boda driver in Kampala and then formed a boda tour company for visitors in Kampala. He liked doing that, but had always been thinking about doing something along the lines of SafeBoda – building a community of drivers. Maxime [Dieudonne], another co-founder who was working at One Acre Fund at the time, had been thinking about a similar idea: using technology to connect safe drivers and passengers. They eventually came together and started bringing the idea to life.
I came along to be part of the co-founding team after leaving Dalberg. After I realized how great our team was, how strong their work ethic was, how much fun we had together every day, and the potential for the concept, it was a no-brainer. Since then, I have been working full-time running operations and many other aspects of SafeBoda from Kampala. With the help of HeHe Labs, our tech co-founders based in Rwanda, we built the first generation of SafeBoda’s website and customer app. HeHe are becoming known in East Africa, and Clarisse Iribagiza, the CEO, was listed as one of the 30 most promising young entrepreneurs in Africa by Forbes magazine. Maxime and I have similar backgrounds, though he has real skills from his work in finance and M&A, and Ricky is an exceptional entrepreneur – together we try and find structure in the chaos and make things happen. It’s a bit of a cliché in the start-up world, but it is really about the team – we’d definitely go that extra mile for each other and that is what makes it so fun!
Have you found your Dalberg background to be helpful at all in your SafeBoda role?
The Dalberg experience definitely helped me navigate the crazy world of running a startup in Kampala –managing multiple work streams, synthesizing information for our pitches, and also thinking through strategy to figure out what are the most critical tasks at any given moment. It’s all about the hustle right now – doing the most important and urgent tasks every day. The Dalberg platform has also enabled me to connect to people who are much smarter and more successful than me! For example, Dalberg Alum Gaya Datar, who is CEO and co-founder of Earthenable, is based not far from here in Rwanda. We have regular chats and she’s been a great source of advice and inspiration for us. Ravi Chhatpar, Co-founder of DIG, who lived in Uganda for many years, has also been giving us words of wisdom given his vast experience in product design and innovation in developing markets.
What has been the most surprising aspect of launching SafeBoda so far for you?
On the customer side, we’re finding a bottom-up movement for safe transportation – SafeBoda is seen as cool! Some women don’t want to wear helmets because they might mess up their hair and also culturally it’s not normal for women to wear helmets. To combat these norms, we’ve provided some drivers with hairnets and have also made flyers specifically targeting women. Without us doing anything, though, women have tweeted and posted selfies of them wearing helmets on SafeBoda rides. It’s great to see that young people are viewing SafeBoda as not just safe but cool.
What responses to SafeBoda have you received so far from drivers and customers?
In a driver meeting we held recently, we asked drivers, ‘What is the value of SafeBoda to you?’ They said things like, ‘On the road I feel special, more immune,’ and ‘I know the police aren’t going to stop me because they know I am qualified.’ One driver, Richard, told us he’s already increasing his revenue by about 50% through working as a SafeBoda driver.
Perhaps even more impactful, several people have told us, ‘I wish SafeBoda was around when this terrible boda accident happened to my loved one.’ It’s moving to hear that people whose lives have been so dramatically affected are seeing the value in our company.
What is SafeBoda’s ‘endgame’? What are you hoping for over the next few years?
Our endgame is for SafeBoda to be in countries that need a market-based solution to solve transportation challenges – we want to be making cities smarter! Our model can work in many other countries – specifically, we’re beginning to look at West Africa and India given their large informal transportation markets.
We think working with drivers is key to growth – it’s slower, but has deeper impact than something like Uber would have in a developing market. In our last training we talked to drivers about what they would do with the extra money they’ll earn now– in other words, what’s your dream? Everyone wrote down different things, such as improving their house in the village or paying for their child’s school fees. But what is just as important is this community of drivers are sharing their goals and helping each other achieve them together.
In Kampala, our endgame is to change the market so that everyone wears helmets, for us to be viewed as the best service in Kampala, and to foster community between boda drivers and passengers. To get there, we’ll need to make parts of our service even better, like making the customer experience more seamless and letting customers learn more about the driver through the app. Right now, our top priority is raising money so that we can continue to grow. We’re now in the process of reaching out to investors from the various worlds that SafeBoda touches – venture capital, social impact investors, tech, and those who support safety initiatives. SafeBoda crosses across all of these groups so it’s about finding the right partners and opportunities to grow SafeBoda. Ultimately, we hope people get as excited about SafeBoda as we do!
Interview conducted and condensed by Sara Wallace.