Features
3 nov 20

How Covid can help digitise Africa’s public transport

Public transport is not Africa’s strong point – and that’s putting it mildly. And the pandemic is, in many ways, making things worse. Nevertheless, Covid-19 could be the catalyst for a better public transport network across Africa, some argue. 

Across much of the continent, public transport is an entirely informal, essentially urban and largely cash-based industry, based mainly on the entrepreneurial spirit of private bus owners and operators rather than any grand schemes developed by governmental planners. 

One billion people
But the fact that it’s informal doesn’t make it any less important. Public transport in Africa is massive, and essential. About 40% of the continent’s one billion people live in urban areas. And about 90% of urban Africans in work need motorised transport to commute. 

Africa – and this is noted too rarely in the West – has generally done a really good job in combating the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the measures taken to ensure this have also taken a toll on its economies. Social distancing has had a particularly devastating effect on public transport usage, throwing many players into financial crisis. 

But crises are also opportunities to accelerate innovation, and many African governments are using it to push for cashless payments to become standard on public transport – this will reduce contact points and help combat the pandemic, but also, longer-term, provide a boost to the transport industry itself. 

Titanic moment
In an analysis for the Africa-based tech magazine Techweez, David Waithaka calls the pandemic the “Titanic moment” for the continent’s public transport industry – the moment it needs to rein in its endemic informality and embrace digitisation… or crash into the iceberg. He cites government initiatives across Africa aiming to do just that. 

  • In May, Uganda and Rwanda proposed regulations requiring the commercial motorcycles (boda-bodas) and taxis in their capitals to go cashless. 
  • In June, Kenya announced a cashless payment system and invited bids for smartphone-based digital fare collection and contact tracing.
  • In August, Tanzania said it would license eight service providers for e-ticketing the country’s buses. 

However, as Mr Waithaka points out, technology isn’t everything; the transport operators need to have a compelling reason to roll out the innovative systems. And the political environment needs to create a regulatory environment that is fit for purpose. All too often, innovation is hobbled by a regulatory vacuum – he cites the case of Kenya. 

Transparency and taxability
Governments for one have a major incentive to push for digitisation of the public transport sector – it will increase transparency, which means taxability; due to the sector’s informality, a lot of taxable turnover currently remains undetected. But the players themselves will also, ultimately, benefit from a well-regulated, better-digitised playing field. By producing more data on passenger movements, it will help operators optimise routes and prices. 

Also, Mr Waikatha points out, banks will be more likely to extend credit to transport businesses able to produce data on future revenue flows. With the advantages piling up and the pandemic catalysing change, it seems likely that public transport across Africa is on the cusp of a paradigm shift – one that will not only benefit the operators themselves, but also, ultimately, the masses of commuters thronging into Africa’s booming cities.

Image (Shutterstock): Central Bus Station in Kampala, the capital of Uganda

Authored by: Frank Jacobs