Reverend Dr Dennis Tongoi photo:courtesy
Reverend Dr Dennis Tongoi says he was angry. He was angry that the taxi-hailing apps in our local market were not only dominating it but were also not considerate to a particular fold of taxi drivers.
The apps were not considerate of the veterans – the ones who had been driving their taxis for over 30 years; the ones who knew no other way to butter their bread than to pick up passengers and drop them to where they asked him to.
Such drivers would soon go out business because their cars were more than eight years old. This meant their taxis did not meet the entry-level criteria to get onto the network of drivers on these apps.
They could upgrade their cars. They could. But their credit history, and probably age, meant they were not eligible for loans from banks and other lending institutions.
What this boiled down to is that any fresh-faced hot-blooded driver with the right car and little to no experience on the road had a higher chance of getting in than these veterans did. Their years of experience and safe driving took a back seat.
These apps also had a limited number of slots to give away to the drivers that applied for them. Dr Tongoi says, “There are about 45,000 taxis in Kenya, these apps said they could only take 1,000, maybe 2,000 cars.”
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Dr Tongoi was also angry that consumers were not exactly spoilt for choice when it came to settling on the app with the most competitive rates. One app had dominated the market.
He directed his anger toward developing his own taxi-hailing app. The app is called Fonetaxi.
Dr Tongoi isn’t a newcomer to the transport industry, though. He and a group of his business partners had been running a car hire business since September 2010. “The company is called Shikabara Limited,” he says.
“I got into the business through passion. I remember when my father was unwell in Maseno, in Western Kenya, and every time I’d go to the airport and try to get a cab or vehicle to hire, there was none. Yet someone had the audacity to give me a dirty, oily car and charge me for it.
” He shakes his head in disgust. “It was some small car and it’s like they had fixed the engine and put those things in the back, and there was grease and other things everywhere. I couldn’t even put my coat there! So I told them, ‘Look, these standards, I cannot accept.’”
Dr Tongoi pulled some friends together to invest in six cars for hire in Kisumu. High risk and millions tied up in unpaid debts had them close shop after only five years, in mid 2014.
“I wrote off two cars. Many people in Kisumu had driving licenses but no experience. We got SUVs and gave them out long term for Sh250,000 a month. But somebody would tell me, ‘I’m waiting to be paid by gava.’ And he’d end up owing me Sh4 million shillings. At this point, I became aware of Uber.”
Dr Tongoi is a frequent traveller and had seen folk in countries in the West conveniently use Uber and other taxi-hailing apps to request for the service. Such apps – Uber, Little Cab, Taxify – weren’t in use in Kenya by then.
Dr Tongoi yet again pulled in investors to create such an app. It would cost him Sh10million to develop a similar app, he says. Sh10million and a couple of months, maybe years. Uber however introduced their service in Nairobi only four months later, in January 2015. Dr Tongoi and his team put their project on ice.
The ducks fell in a row later than year when one of Dr Tongoi’s partners from Kigali – a tech guru – invited Dr Tongoi to partner with him in a transport app he had already developed. “His idea was to have a franchise of the app in every capital city in Africa” says Dr Tongoi.
“He sold it to me at less than what it would cost me develop my own app, and he was also going to maintain it. I bought the franchise for Kenya eight months ago, in October 2016.”
Fonetaxi has been in use in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa since. To date, the app has 340 drivers on its network – 300 in Nairobi, 30 in Mombasa and 20 in Kisumu. Dr Tongoi’s focus is on growing the Kisumu market. “Until last week, there had been no taxi-hailing app in Kisumu.”
Fonetaxi has all the regular features of taxi-hailing apps, including convenience, quality service, peace of mind and security for the rider, and no haggling of fares. “Our value proposition is that the drivers work for themselves and have total control of their business,” says Dr Tongoi.
“We don’t undercut our drivers; we ask them to pay us 15% of what they’ve collected every week and our rates are Sh45 per kilometre.” Industry rates are about 25% of returns and Sh30 per kilometre covered.
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Dr Tongoi continues, “We give the drivers 50MB of data every day. We don’t have a surge price; a customer won’t be surprised by their fare when they reach their destination.”
About the process for vetting drivers before signing them on, Dr Tongoi says, “We have a field team that goes to the ground and interviews the drivers and looks at their cars, but we don’t do any mechanical checks. The government has enabled the environment for business. The law is enforced such that every public service vehicle must be NTSA-certified – our field team only looks for this NTSA sticker. Our safety factor is in the driver, not the car.”