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My experience with SWVL bus sharing: Can technology disrupt matatus?

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After close to four months using SWVL, I want to share a couple of thoughts on the service, plus a couple of suggestions based on some of my observations and interaction with customers, and drivers.

SWVL is an Egyptian startup that started way back in 2017 in Egypt. They launched in Nairobi early January this year.

Explaining what the company does in a few words isn’t easy. Are they a commuter bus company? Yes. But like a digital bus company. The best explanation I can think of is something you may have heard: they’re like Uber, but for buses. Though I feel that doesn’t quite explain the service very well.

Let me try a full explanation:

The idea is to have a way to get to where you’re going using organised buses that use specific routes, and leave and arrive at specific time frames, all done using an app.

The app shows you different routes where there’s different SWVL buses that leave at certain specific times. So for example there’s a Kikuyu – CBD route. Different routes have different buses departing at different times. You can book say a bus for 6.05am, or a bus for 9.10am etc. When booking you can choose drop-off points. For example if you book a bus on the Kikuyu – CBD route, you can choose to drop off at Regen, or at Kinoo, or at Westlands, etc. Different routes have different drop-off points, which also act as pick-up points for other customers. Meaning your route name can be Kikuyu – CBD but since you live in 87, that becomes the route you book.

I’m using the term book, because essentially that’s what you’ll be doing. For example there’s a 6.05am bus on my route. It is always on high demand, and so to get a seat on that bus, I need to book it like a day before or it will be full. SWVL has been adding extra buses (as you’ll see down below) to ensure you can get a bus at different times of the day.

What I like is you that you don’t have to always rely on scrolling through the listed routes to go somewhere. You can enter a destination, and the app will check within a radius of you which buses you should board, and what times.

Worldwide, the bus hailing idea seems to only be available, and working in Egypt and Kenya (Of course some other countries may have similar ideas, but not on this scale, perhaps?). In fact SWVL is only available in Egypt, and Kenya. There was news of them expanding to Uganda, but I am not sure they have.

UberBus is also only available currently in Egypt where they launched last year December. Egypt seems to have over 3 different similar bus services.

This year, after SWVL announced their presence in Nairobi, Safaricom backed Little also announced a similar service called Little Shuttle.

SWVL and Little Shuttle have sort of the same model, and I would conclude from my few months using SWVL that things seem to be working well for both.

Is it an idea that can work?

Many months ago before trying the service, or even understanding how it worked, I had many doubts on whether or not it could be viable in Kenya. Was there really a way for money to be made?

I believe my doubts have been answered from my experience using the service. Not only can the idea work, I think it has potential to become much more.

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Over the weeks I’ve seen changes:

  • Many many new routes: At the very beginning the company only had like 2 major routes. There’s now over 38 routes! This probably means the company has seen the viability, and are pouring money into expanding to more areas around Nairobi.
  • More buses on the same route: A route I frequent had like 5 buses in the morning, and 3 buses after 3pm. There’s now 9 buses in the morning hours, and 5 buses in the evening. So it’s now more flexible for people at different times of the day. Other routes have even more buses spread out at different times of the day. I think SWVL is trying to have you be able to use the service anytime you want to go anywhere.
  • Changes to promo codes: There’s a fixed 200 bob per ride prices. At first, we had like a weekly promo code that sliced the prices by 100 bob making each ride 100 bob. This was on for many weeks. Nowadays however, the promo codes seem to be different. Sometimes its just 20% off, sometimes 80 bob off, or sometimes 100 bob off for 5 rides only etc. I believe this is the company experimenting with that fixed 200 Shillings per ride, and testing whether more people will be willing to pay.

So let’s talk about Pricing:

SWVL has a fixed price of Ksh. 200 for any pickup and drop-off. So if you use the Kikuyu – CBD route, whether you alight at Regen or in the CBD, you should pay the 200 bob.

To quote them on pricing, they’ve said, “(we are) a premium transportation service that offers reliable and safe transit hence the price points.”

Which makes sense. Their target market isn’t necessarily everyone who uses a matatu, it is people who drive to work, or use taxi hailing apps like Uber, Safeboda etc. The solution here being: Instead of driving to work, or taking an Uber, or a motorcycle, use SWVL and get to work on time, while spending less, and not being tired.

But I believe they won’t and shouldn’t stick to their target market only. I think they’ve seen they can serve everyone. If they get things like pricing correctly.

Yes, SWVL can and should keep their premium charges. Because they offer premium services. But the premium charges should be fair, to make it more sensible to use the service. A flat Ksh. 200 charge is okay if you’re plying the whole route, but not sensible if you’re doing a distance that would normally be less than 30 bob on normal matatus.

SWVL should find a way to make sure there’s value for everyone using the service whether they are going a long or short distance. They have the data, they know the numbers, they can work something out.

Future?

I think it is obvious, seeing the full buses in the morning and evening that this idea can work. Especially in a Nairobi that’s day by day getting more congested, with impossible traffic jams.

However, if you’ve used the service during certain hours, you’ve most likely ended up being alone in the bus. I think its up to SWVL to find a way to get more people aware of the service so as to avoid empty trips.

Many passengers agree the idea is solid. Many drivers think the pricing can be tweaked to find a good common ground that ensures full buses at most hours. The same drivers believe SWVL should do more to get more passengers aware of the service.

I learnt about SWVL from YouTube. I’ve seen them on Facebook, and on Twitter. I don’t know if they have other channels where they tell people of the service, but social media only won’t work. They need to do more because many people, even agemates (who should be always aware) haven’t heard of the company.

The Toyota Coaster buses they use are good, way better than matatus. I have only seen a couple of them with the SWVL branding. I believe all of them should be branded to get the attention of everyone wherever they drop-off or pickup customers.

I don’t think SWVL, or Little Shuttle are in the business of disrupting matatus. If they are, then that will take very very long in a country like Kenya. I believe they actually are disrupting taxi services.

In the long term, I believe, they can be a way of life, if properly adopted, and supported not only by the customers, but also by legislation. Hear me out.

Nairobi roads are full. Very full. The CBD is congested. People spend hours on end in traffic doing nothing. And most of the vehicles you see in traffic are personal cars carrying either one, or at most two passengers. Next time you’re in a traffic jam, whether driving or in a matatu, check and see how many buses can fit the people on that jam. You’ll see that most of our traffic snarl-ups can be fixed by people using public transport.

People have been avoiding public transport because of time, confusion, noise, rude operators and much more. But perhaps SWVL can change that. Perhaps an organised, digitised, clean and orderly bus service is what will finally change how we commute.


Suggestions to SWVL:

  • Notify people when a bus will be late! It’s easy. It’s annoying to just stand waiting for a bus. The 100 bob refund when a bus is late is good, but an early notification 🔔 saying bus will be let by 5 mins or something is way better.
  • Include option for notification 10-20mins before arrival of bus: The usual 1 minute notification before bus arrives is good, but the option to have more notifications would be better, so that one doesn’t have to always keep staring at the time.
  • Fix bugs
  • Make the maps more interactive, and easier to see where bus is when waiting for it.
  • Allow flexibility with routes at certain times. A driver shouldn’t stay on a certain route when there’s a traffic jam if there’s an alternative and no passengers to be picked or dropped.
  • Find a way to ‘combine’ routes: where I can alight from this bus and head over to another bus automatically so that people can commute from different areas easily.



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