Obituaries

Looking at the Untimely Death of BookNow, Kenya’s Uber for Buses

BookNow, a bus booking platform was founded in September of 2013 and headquartered in Nairobi – Kenya, and was the first and only bus travel market place for East Africa.

BookNow aimed to aggregate multiple bus companies in East Africa in a move to help users to easily search for and book buses to their destinations via their mobile phones. BookNow aimed to take this time-wasting and offline service totally online and it was a noble move.

88mph saw the move as noble too and together with various investors such as Mahendra K.D. Shah, Ravi Shah, Ritesh Doshi among others put in $75,000 in July 2014. Confirming to TechMoran on the funding, Francis Gesora, Co-Founder and CEO of BookNow said, “We have raised $75,000 from angel investors and the bulk of this is going to be used on hiring customer support staff and to accelerating growth and also improve our product offering.”

Earlier the firm had raised $15,000 from 88mph alone putting the investments into the the firm at $90,000. Withn the cash, the firm embarked on signing up as many bus companies as possible to allow its users get as much information about various trips and the charges from the various players in the market. They had information about bus travel, ticket booking and how to make payments, print your receipts and locate the bus before the journey commenced.

The firm also marketed itself as a secure marketplace enabling bus travellers around East Africa to view bus schedules, choose their best bus company, select seat, place their bookings and plan their trips anywhere in Kenya, Uganda or Tanzania.

What users needed to do was simply visit the site, search for buses that ply the route they plan to travel and by the date of travel. There were more than fifty bus operators in East Africa at that time and each operator had their own routes, fares and departure and expected arrival times as well as amenities provided en-route.

BookNow also had special packages for groups or corporates willing to book a bus to a different destination than normal especially during company functions such as weddings’ burials. competitions among others. With the cash, the firm set up a 24/7 contact center attending to customers via email, voice calls among others. Payments were done via mobile money during a reservations window. The passenger then gets his or her tickets via their mobile phones then they produce the message at the bus for verification before boarding.

Just why do you think caused the death of BookNow?

Software online

BookNow didn’t totally die. Though the website is still online, the company behind the software has gone into oblivion after being heavily hit by a failure to raise a follow-on funding to stay afloat. The platform’s front-end reservation engine works but no one is sure if bus companies still get the SMS reservation alerts or they have ignored categorically decided to ignore such reservations and there is no follow up or conversion of a reservation into a real booking and payment.

This makes a direct call to a bus company more effective. As a marketplace, BookNow can be used by one to search for available bus operators but no one is going to pay for this; therefore the business of BookNow is essentially dead even though the software is accessible online and 30 percent functional.

Dependency on data

Another reason and one of the biggest causes of its ineffectiveness is the dependency on data for both the bus staff and passengers and data was expensive then and there was no added value from book now apart from the promise of filling up bus seats.

Most of Kenya’s Bus booking industry is still offline because of a poor relationship between bus staff who are mostly semi-educated and the developer community which has a savior syndrome. Most developers see a problem and think of saving the industry than helping stakeholders cut costs, save time and become effective. A USSD platform would have come in handy.

Cash-based economy

To earn revenue from BookNow, the firm had to charge a commission on every booking. This means, bus operators had to hike the fares or lose some of the money in commission which they were not ready to. Commission scared many away from fully going online. The need for cash to pay touts, loaders and bribe police also makes the transport system a cash sector as its harder to pay such bribes or take home a loot if all the money is paid into a company account or an M-Pesa Pay Bill account; thereby making it hard for BookNow to really take over the whole passenger on-boarding process.

Bus operators are less interested in such sector reforms because of lack of time, fear of scrutiny by tax agencies and many of them in advanced ages and are rigid to change.  System breaches make automation a challenge to many  family owned businesses.

Advent of Lipa Na M-Pesa

The advent of Lipa Na M-Pesa for merchants opened a door for bus operators to do their own online ticket booking via their social media pages and websites minus relying on a third-party providers such as BookNow who needed to be paid a commission.

These buses also need cash to pay for fuel, bribe the police, buy stuff on the way and even do minor repairs and leaks which might occur on the road. by relying heavily on a cashless BookNow, most of these operations would be a nightmare; this led to slow and to almost zero adoption.

As the first bus booking platform in the region, BookNow aimed to avoid the congestion and commotion associated with last-minute bus bookings in the region by providing travellers with a pre-booking option but most of the bus operators profit from the commotion and chaos associated with bus booking.

Profit from chaos

It’s easier for bus operators to set up such an online system. However, bus operators do rely on goons and unemployed touts to fill their seats for their major trips. The chaotic touts force some of the gullible passengers to take a bus they have never heard of or one they never planned to travel with in the first place. By introducing such a system, bus operators think they would take a long time to fill their buses and they will have fewer trips a day hence reducing their revenues.

Read more about other startup deaths here.

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