SafeMotos, an on-demand ride-hailing system focusing on motorcycle taxis in Kinshasa and Kigali is excited to be a first mover in Kinshasa, Africa’s third-biggest city.
Speaking to TechMoran, Barret Nash, co-founder and CEO CanGo, (formerly SafeMotos) believes that CanGo can grow into being a single app that provides many on-demand services in one. Think Glovo plus Lynk but SafeBoda.
TechMoran caught up with him and this is what he told us.
What inspired you to launch SafeMotos?
My Kenyan cofounder Peter and I were roommates in Kigali before we launched and would often take motorcycle taxis to meet at our favourite bars. We’d always jump off and go ‘wow, that guy almost killed me’. As aspiring entrepreneurs at the time we decided to do something about it: let’s make motorcycle taxis safe to use. We made a pitch deck, were approached by a startup accelerator, managed to get some seed money and we were off to the races.
Why motorcycles and not cars?
It’s a question about what do we want to grow into: cars on demand are a great service, but what we are very motivated by is how we can bring additional services to our users from within a single app. As soon as we decided to orient our future towards multiple on-demand services, then it’s a natural choice to focus on motorcycles as they are such a flexible way of moving a huge variety of goods and people.
How did you meet your co-founder? And how similar or different are you as co-founders and how do you support each other as co-founders?
My Kenyan co-founder/CTO Peter Kariuki and I met originally in Kigali as roommates. I was living in Rwanda renting a room from a friend of mine and one day Peter showed up asking why I had stolen his room: our mutual friend had been renting it to both of us while Peter was at university. The solution was to get a bigger house and we became friends, anchored on our passion for entrepreneurship and problem-solving. Peter and I are quite different people, and I think every startup cofounders have their share of ups and downs, but we both have the strong belief that we are stronger together than separate and that we’re on this crazy ride together.
What were the key factors for SafeMotos expansion to Kinshasa and not anywhere else?
One of the things about doing a startup is you learn a lot as you grow your business. What we learned in Kigali was that you need to solve real problems. We say ‘we need to be a painkiller, not a vitamin’. In Kigali, transportation is quite good already, and with the limited size of the market it means that we’d set a relatively low ceiling for our ambition. What we also learned was that the opportunity for disruption of on demand companies in African cities is bigger than we expected. We decided we wanted to go to where we could have the biggest impact and fight to own the biggest piece of the economic pie: for us this is Kinshasa, with 14 million people, good 3G/4G, no startups of note and some of the most challenging transportation factors in Africa.
How different are these two markets in terms of challenges and opportunities?
Kinshasa and Nairobi are very different. While Nairobi is, to me, the king of African startup ecosystem right now, where we even keep our technology team based since there is so much tech talent bursting from every seam, Kinshasa in many ways still feels pre-tech. Peter often says that the Kinshasa today reminds him of the Nairobi of his childhood. In terms of opportunities, obviously, we are hoping that we can turn Kinshasa into a Nairobi, while the challenges are that the startup ecosystem hasn’t been defined yet so there’s very little support infrastructure. Most companies in your space are for-profit ventures.
Why did you choose to be a social enterprise instead?
We are a for-profit entity.
Are there any plans to go all out and scale across Africa?
For us, the question of scaling is existential to our growth ambitions. However, we feel that first, we need to create a defensible ecosystem of services allowing us to turn Kinshasa into a ‘castle’. I believe there is a major strategic challenge for on-demand companies in that it’s just too easy to have competitors undercut you, we want to nail a defensible ecosystem, then look at the dozens of cities in Africa with more than a million people that don’t have a developed on-demand player yet and turn them into castles as well.
What led to the start of the SafeMotos Institute? What has been its impact?
The purpose of the SafeMotos Institute is to allow us to have a positive social impact in a way that doesn’t make ourselves as for-profit entrepreneurs have to make a decision between business economics and social impact. While SafeMotos Institute is still early in its impact, we have already trained a cohort of female drivers in Kigali, and are investigating opening a school for drivers in Kinshasa.
How is SafeMotos helping change drivers lives in Rwanda and the DRC?
These stories always make me feel positive. We have examples of drivers getting married and buying houses due to the stability that being with SafeMotos allows them.
Any programs to help drivers own their own fleet of motorcycles?
I believe that a startup benefits from discipline and focus: right now we’re wanting to nail the core customer experience before looking at widening the suite of services we can provide.
Most urban cities in Africa have banned the use of motorcycles in their central business districts and some sensitive zones. What are you guys doing to reverse this?
We believe that making our drivers recognized as being of a high caliber, as well as getting to the right level of trip volume, allows us to leverage stakeholders to allow access. At the end of the day, SafeMotos is a positive thing for a city as it professionalizes a highly informal marketplace.
Motorcycles alone cannot solve the urban transport and logistics problem. What do you think needs to be done to improve transport, congestion and logistics in African cities?
If I was a billionaire overnight, I’d put it into zeppelins, which I believe would be a highly viable solution to African intercity and intracity transportation challenges.
Most tech startups have their IT headquarters in Europe due to a perceived limited IT talent in Africa. Is this true and what do you think needs to be done to address this skills gap problem on the continent?
We’ve got our tech team proudly in Nairobi, which in both my and Peter’s opinion has a great bench of talent. Honestly, I think the bigger challenge is that most startups don’t have technical cofounders like Peter, which makes it very hard to build a tech team from scratch.
Any plans for an equity raise?
We’re watching with a lot of interest, specifically with how Lagos has boomed overnight. We are very interested in a different subset of markets though than the ones that we already perceive as crowded. As a startup, we’re always raising money and are always on the prowl for strategic investors who share our vision
How well-positioned is SafeMotos compared to its competition in these markets?
For us, we believe it’s still the pioneering days of transportation disruption in Africa. We believe if we can excel in Kinshasa, then we are very well positioned to expand into other challenging markets that have been underserved by technology providers. As with everything in startups, timing is a huge factor, right now we feel like the window of opportunity is open, but we need to move fast if we’re not wanting to miss it.