The scenes of Lagos’s gridlocked rush hour roads are infamous.
Staggering numbers of cars and buses puff out fumes, intermingling with reckless motorbike taxis, street hawkers and colourful graffiti-clad minibuses. The scene repeats itself in cities across Africa, where road infrastructure has failed to keep pace with urbanisation and car ownership.
City roads in Africa are not just crowded. They have the world’s highest regional road fatality rate. The majority of African countries record road death numbers are far above global averages.
According to the World Health Organisation, the African region sees an average of 24.1 deaths per 100,000 people. The global average is just 18. In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, for instance, Facebook pages are dedicated to documenting absurdly overloaded vehicles and terrible driving.
Change is afoot, however, thanks to a number of innovative startups, These companies are looking to address Africa’s traffic congestion, safety, and emissions problems through mobile technology.
Power of the crowd
Kenya’s Ma3Route uses crowdsourcing to create a pool of real time information on road conditions, traffic events – such as accidents – and driver safety.
The platform aims to solve the mobility issues facing Nairobi, the capital‘s three million road users who drive 400,000 vehicles on the city’s roads each day.
The company operates a web platform, mobile app, and SMS-based service that allows users to send in road information they come across on their journeys. This information is accessible to all members of the community in real time, allowing them to make decisions on which routes to avoid due to congestion or which minibus drivers are thought to be drunk driving.
The service is proving popular. Ma3Route has more than 500,000 users to date. Stephane Eboko, the company’s chief revenue officer, says the key to their rapid success is the services relevance to its users and accessibility across multiple platforms.
“Crowdsourcing has the advantage of leveraging hyper-local and contextualised information that is simultaneously originating from and relevant to the people who directly use it,” he explains.
“It’s a two-way communication model where content providers are also consumers, with a powerful network effect that gathers a community around common concerns.”
In Rwanda, 80 percent of road accidents in capital city, Kigali, involve motorcycle taxis. This is due to the dangerous, “kamikaze”-style techniques of local drivers, says Barrett Nash, chief executive officer (CEO) of local startup SafeMotos.
SafeMotos is working to make the motorbike taxi industry safer by leveraging technologies commonly used in the insurance industry combined with smartphones.
Drivers are equipped with Android smartphones with an accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS chip. This allows the company to measure acceleration and braking, and to compare data to speed limits.
SafeMotos’ programme then places this data into algorithms used by the insurance industry. But while insurers use this information to determine premiums, SafeMotos uses it to cut out drivers falling below a certain safety threshold.
The company currently has 75 drivers in its network, 10,000 people registered, and 650 using the service on a weekly basis.
According to Mr Nash, technology will prove to be transformative for road safety in Africa.
“[In] the way airbags, anti-locking brakes (ABS), seat belts, and crumple zones made cars safer, technology will create new solutions that will make African roads safer. Motorcycles in particular can benefit,” he says.
Back in Lagos, Damilola Teidi is trying to get vehicles off the city’s overcrowded roads by encouraging ridesharing.
Her company, GoMyWay, has created a web platform where users can invite people to take a space in their car, or search for spaces in cars going in their direction. Drivers charge a small fee from passengers.
Trips within Lagos range from around 250 to 400 naira according to users, whereas a similar trip on a bus – which many consider unsafe – goes for about 500 naira (around $1.50).
All users are put through a four-step verification system to ensure members are identifiable, as a safety measure. Currently, more than 5,000 are listed on the platform.
Ms Teidi says that while ride-sharing already exists informally in many African markets where drivers often pick up hitchhikers, technology makes the habit safer and more efficient – and often more reliable than public transport.
It also has the benefit of combatting the environmental impacts of heavy traffic by decreasing emissions. “What we need to do is to ensure we reach more people who are familiar with the concept, and educate those who are not, on the benefits of ride-sharing to them and their environment,” she says.
According to Michael Nielsen, chief advocacy officer of the International Road Transport Union (IRU), Africa is a “green field” with the potential for successful implementation of innovative transport-focused technologies given the lack of legacy infrastructure to replace.
However, Mr Nielsen says the roll-out of technologies needs to be accompanied by government regulation and real investments in infrastructure. The IRU is set to launch a public-private platform in east Africa this year to work towards sustainable, safer and greener public transport systems.
“Road safety is one of Africa’s priorities. Technology can provide efficient and effective solutions if combined with adequate policy measures,” Mr Nielsen says.
“A clear step forward to improve mobility…in African cities and rural areas, will happen only through a combined action of governments and technology providers.”