Access to Transport as an Equity Issue: Introducing BuuPass
Ms. Leslie Ossete and Ms. Sonia Kabra are two of the four cofounders of BuuPass, the winner of the 2016 Hult Prize Challenge. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, BuuPass is a startup company that provides innovative bus-ticketing services. I had the privilege of interviewing Leslie and Sonia during their visit to Kigali, Rwanda, following their participation in the Transform Africa Summit 2017, to learn more about BuuPass and the connection between transport and equity.
ST: First, please tell me a bit about yourselves and your backgrounds.
LO: My name is Leslie Ossete, and I’m twenty-two years old. I grew up in the Republic of the Congo, and when I was fifteen, I received a scholarship to attend a boarding school in the US, where I also stayed for college. As an undergraduate at Earlham College, I studied economics and business and nonprofit management. Because of my educational background, I became further involved in entrepreneurship and social justice after graduating in 2016.
SK: My name is Sonia Kabra, and I am from a small town called Jalgaon in India. After the tenth grade, I joined a secondary school in Hong Kong called Li Po Chun (LPC) United World College, where the student body collectively represented eighty different countries. During my time at LPC, I was able to visit neighboring countries and was involved in projects that addressed public health, sustainability, and human trafficking.
I then moved to the US to attend Earlham College (EC), where I majored in biochemistry. However, given that EC is a liberal arts college, I was able to take a diverse range of classes, including those on leadership, management, economics, and computer science. With the help of my friends, I founded the Net Impact Club at Earlham. Net Impact is an international, nonprofit organization that focuses on social impact and entrepreneurship, and through our involvement as a chapter at Earlham, we found out about the Hult Prize Challenge, which is affiliated with Net Impact.
ST: How did you decide to start the Net Impact Club?
LO: Back home, my friends and I grew up with an interest in starting businesses, but there wasn’t a platform that facilitated this. When I arrived at Earlham, I met other students who were also interested in entrepreneurship, so we decided to start our own student-run organization.
SK: We asked a staff member on campus for advice, and she told us about Net Impact, which she was involved with during her post-graduate studies. Proposing our plan under Net Impact’s name led to the formation of our entrepreneurship club.
ST: And why did you decide to become involved in the Hult Prize Challenge?
SK: What I liked about the Hult Prize Challenge was that it gave out a structured case to work on. For example, one of the past cases was on thinking about early childhood education from different perspectives, and the Hult Prize Challenge asked for teams to come up with solutions relating to this case.
LO: The way that the case study was phrased was conducive to students, because it pushed you to do research, to go out of your way to do interviews, and to find out about topics that you had never thought about before.
ST: I understand that your team encountered some obstacles during the competitive process of the Hult Prize Challenge.
LO: That’s right. We had designed and proposed a solution to the challenge in 2015, but we didn’t make it far in the competition that year. During the following year, in our senior year of college, we tried again. The case during this attempt was on the challenges that people face in crowded urban spaces.
But again, we didn’t make it through the first round. There were several rounds before the final round, and we didn’t get through the college level — we didn’t win the campus run. If a team wins the campus run, they enter regionals. But if a team doesn’t win the campus run, as was the case for our team, they can still enter an online round.
If a team wins the online round, they also enter regionals. The campus round involves fewer teams compared to the online round, so there’s less competition if you can win the campus round, compared to entering the challenge from the online round.
SK: For the campus run, our team knew that we wanted our solution to focus on transport, but our proposal at the time was about putting more buses on the road, and we realized that this is not a scalable solution. So when we applied for the online round, we changed a part of how we viewed the problem — we focused more on logistics, and on how to make the demand and supply gap smaller in an efficient way. We then made it through the online round and entered regionals.
There were five different regional finals — held in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, and Shanghai — plus a wild card round online, totaling six finalists. We eventually became one of these six finalist teams. These six finalist teams went through an accelerator together, and the winning team was determined.
ST: I see. So your team participated in the accelerator and emerged as the champion.
LO: That’s correct. But there’s still potential merit to participating in the Hult Prize Challenge even if you don’t become the champion team, because you network and gain publicity during the competition process. For example, the runner-up team may end up receiving funding for their project from another interested party.
ST: Please tell me more about the case topic from 2016, and how your team decided to focus on transport as a solution.
SK: The challenge presented by the Hult Prize during our senior year was so close to home. It didn’t focus on a particular sector, like education, but instead asked a broader question — what challenges do people face in crowded urban spaces? All of my teammates and I come from different countries where we became familiar with the challenges of crowded urban life, so we found this case topic to be relatable.
LO: This prompt allowed more room for creativity in thinking about a solution. It made us consider how to better connect people to goods and services in crowded urban spaces, and gave us examples of connections — connection to energy, connection to food, to information and communication technology, to education, to health care — the basic public goods that urban citizens should be able to access.
When my teammates and I heard the word “connect,” we thought of transport. We thought that transport was the bridge that allowed access to all of the other essential goods and services that were mentioned in the prompt as examples. In addition, transport is a social good that’s often overlooked and neglected.
SK: Right. You don’t seem to see many NGOs on transport, and I’ve never heard of a “Global Transport Scholars” program (laughs).
ST: So this decision to focus on transport led to the creation of BuuPass. Please tell me more about what BuuPass is.
LO: BuuPass was started to revolutionize the way that we access public transport. We plan to do this by completely digitizing the ticketing systems at the bus operators’ end, and then using digital means to improve consumers’ access to different means of travel.
SK: Our aim is to democratize transport in order to make social goods and services, including transport itself, more accessible. As Leslie mentioned, we’re all passionate about transport because it has so many spillover effects to other aspects of life.
LO: The digitization of bus ticketing platforms can provide data that can be used by other sectors beyond transport — urban planners can use the data collected to build better, smarter cities in general. Data surrounding where bus travelers walk from, when they travel, how far they must go, who is traveling in terms of demographics, traffic volume, routes, pick up and drop off stops — all of this informs whether or not fare amounts and ticketing methods are fair, and if they enable or limit people with lower incomes in traveling as far as they need to go. Hence, we view access to efficient transport as an equity issue.
SK: And we have to have data-driven ways to make such decisions about how to design and deliver transport services. There are many possibilities once we have access to data.
LO: So to get the data, we must first digitize everything to create a platform that allows the collection and analysis of data.
ST: How did you decide on digitization and data collection as the initial steps?
SK: Well, after we had won the Hult Prize and had the means to implement our solution, we challenged all of our previous assumptions about the market.
LO: I agree that we challenged our assumptions. We said, “We have our proposed solution — now let’s first prove that this is actually the right way.” So at the start, we did a lot of prototype testing and talking to people in Nairobi — the initial phase was one of discussion and field research, which led us to think that we weren’t on the right path. And that didn’t mean that what we were trying to solve couldn’t be solved — we just needed the right way to do it. We needed a new market, as was validated by our research — and this market is that of the long distance, inter-city bus lines, as opposed to the short distance, intra-city buses.
SK: We realized that there’s no efficient platform to buy long distance bus tickets. The existing platform is not digitized, and made it difficult to purchase tickets. So there’s a gap, which is also low hanging fruit, because in some ways, the long distance bus lines are less complicated to deal with compared to the short distance bus lines. The market for the long distance bus lines already has set fares and departure schedules, so it’s easier to digitize that platform first, before working with the less-organized market for the short distance bus lines. Once we’re successful in enhancing the long distance bus services, we can tackle the short distance matatu lines within the city.
LO: We eventually want to provide more technology that’s used by the traveler, but to do that, we must first have the technology on the bus companies’ side. If we invest in making the bus companies more efficient, digitized providers, this technology will eventually benefit the user.
ST: On top of conducting research to better inform transport services, I understand that BuuPass offers a mobile phone bus ticketing service. How does this mobile phone service work?
LO: Right now, we offer a USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) service that involves a short code that you dial to receive an SMS on your phone, which helps you to purchase bus tickets by paying with mobile money. We chose to use USSD at this initial stage to better serve individuals with limited access to the Internet or to smartphones.
SK: Even though smartphone penetration is increasing, there are still potential users in Kenya who don’t have access to smartphones.
LO: The cost of mobile data is also still an issue. But we plan to soon launch a mobile app.
ST: How will the mobile app work?
LO: It will work in a similar way as the USSD service. Everything that you’d do at the ticket booking office in town, you would instead do on the app. This would save you time and money, since you could book tickets from home, work, or school.
SK: Compared to the USSD service, the app will offer a more tailored user experience, including the ability for users to gain loyalty points.
ST: That sounds convenient. What else are you two working on currently?
SK: We’re also working on hiring personnel to build a good team. So, if you’re passionate about transport or technology, then hit us up!
ST: It seems like you two have been involved in a variety of tasks. So far, what have been your favorite parts about working with BuuPass?
SK: For me, my favorite part so far has been doing user research in the Kenyan market’s context. As a foreigner, conducting the research has helped me to understand what the Kenyan market involves — What are the needs of the community? What are the needs of the bus conductors, or the drivers?
We then try to use the findings to come up with a product. So there’s all this high tech innovation happening, but at the same time, we have to go into the community to create something that’s so useful that the users don’t even have to think about using it — at least, that’s what we’re aiming for with BuuPass’s ticketing service.
LO: I like strategy building. When you want to do business with certain groups, and when you’re creating strategic plans to do so — that work excites me. Creating a vision, and coming up with the strategies that we need to use to achieve that vision — I enjoy thinking about that.
ST: What have been the most challenging parts about working on BuuPass?
LO: BuuPass has been such a challenging and interesting project. When you come up with an idea, oftentimes someone has already done something similar. Or a new innovation that you didn’t think of may pop up in the market. So as an entrepreneur and a startup operator, you’re pushed to keep trying, and to continue adapting to a changing market. You can’t just sit down and think that everything will come to you. Also, working with the stakeholders in the transport industry is pretty challenging…
SK: Especially for the short distance, intra-city market involving matatus, there are so many stakeholders, such as the tap card company, the bus cooperative members, and the bus owners. Each stakeholder has different needs, and is driven by individual interests, just like anyone else.
It’s difficult to find a solution that satisfies all of the stakeholders. For example, the bus conductors and drivers thought that they would earn less money with the transition from cash transactions to cashless transactions that involve top-up, tap cards that you use to pay the bus fares. So when introducing new ideas, we need to come up with something that takes into consideration potentially opposing opinions from stakeholders.
LO: We have to think about and provide an incentive for each stakeholder in order to get each to buy in. And you can’t do this alone — we must use our network to get this done.
SK: I also think that there have been so many challenges… I’m going to write an article about the five mistakes that I’ve made so far, including advice on what not to do (laughs). I feel like you need to hire people who are smarter than you, especially at this stage. We are a passionate but young team, so finding the right people is important. We have to hire well, but we also can’t be slow about it, because other companies take good people if you’re not quick. And decision-making…
LO: Yes, decision-making is a process.
SK: In terms of making decisions, a company is not exactly a democracy. Employees and investors need to be satisfied with what’s happening when it’s for the overall good of the company, but the decision-maker can’t be a dictator either. So it’s a balance.
ST: You two sound busy. When you get a break, what do you like to do in your free time?
SK: Sometimes I like to stay in, unwind, and watch films on my laptop. I also like to try new restaurants in Nairobi, or at least order from them on Jumia. And we go out, too — Nairobi has a good party scene. We’re being more intentional about exploring Nairobi — and not just visiting the malls. Also, I’d like to add that, in my free time, I help my younger brother a lot — that’s my second job, because he’s applying to colleges right now.
LO: For me, one thing that I’ve been postponing is giving back to the community. We haven’t done much of that as a team. I’d like to become more involved in local efforts to empower women. Even if you’re working, you don’t think that it’s selfish, but it can be. Since we’ve started BuuPass, we haven’t taken time for others. Eventually we might feel that BuuPass is benefiting disadvantaged groups, but at this smaller stage of the company’s progress, it’s hard to feel that impact. But I like the work that we’re doing.
I’m actually a workaholic — I can work for many hours at a time, because I get so excited about what we do. It’s hard for me to differentiate between work and my free time because I’m so passionate about BuuPass. I can be daydreaming, and it’ll be about work. I also recently realized that most of the social media pages that I follow are work-related. So I often don’t differentiate between work and personal life, which can be a struggle in a way.
ST: You seem to embody the saying, “Do what you love, and never work a day in your life.”
LO: I do feel like that sometimes. How about you, Sonia?
SK: I feel like that, too — I walk around Nairobi and see certain companies and think, “Ooh, we can partner with them!” BuuPass is always in the back of my mind. Maybe it’s annoying for others — when someone says, “I’m going to Mombasa,” I’ll ask, “Oh, are you taking a bus?” As an entrepreneur, I’m always looking for market opportunities. And it’s good to see the bigger picture of the possibilities.
ST: Where do you see BuuPass going in the future?
LO: We aspire to become a go-to market for bus tickets. We also want to scale the program to other countries, as appropriate and as soon as we think that we’re ready for it.
SK: In doing so, we’d like to remain a startup at heart, and continue to look for social enterprises — even if we implement a similar idea in different countries, we would like to consider what’s most beneficial for specific communities in specific countries.
We don’t just want to copy and paste the same program from one country to another, or from one community to another, and assume that it’ll work. No, we’d like to be global and local at the same time — we want to be “glocal.”
ST: Where do you see yourselves going in the future?
LO: What I enjoy with BuuPass is the idea creation and the launching of the company. That’s what I’m doing now — making sure that BuuPass becomes an established entity. Even though we want to remain a startup at heart, BuuPass may eventually become a larger corporation. At that stage, I’d like to follow other dreams, because right now, I’m not as interested in working within a large corporate setting.
So to nurture my own startup spirit, once BuuPass becomes more established, maybe I can transition to working with other startups. I would like to get more into consultancy for startups. I want to get more experience so that I can eventually teach other entrepreneurs — especially in francophone Africa.
If you compare francophone Africa to anglophone Africa, you might see that anglophone Africa has more entrepreneurship opportunities. So I want to get more experience in entrepreneurship, to go back to francophone Africa to teach and to give back.
SK: This might sound cliché — I want to work towards creating a better tomorrow (laughs). To do that, I would like to get more training, maybe by going to business school. What I like about entrepreneurship is that it solves problems — and there are so many problems to be solved.
I want to create solutions that are scalable and that touch many lives. I’d like to be involved in an industry that has a holistic effect on peoples’ health — whether it is in health care, transport, education, or a different sector.
ST: What important lessons have you learnt so far from working on BuuPass?
SK: One thing I’ve learnt is — you shouldn’t be too attached to any idea that you have. You should be able to play the devil’s advocate to see if your idea is actually good. Sometimes you think that an idea is so good, that it’s a game changer, but with further consideration, you might find out that it’s not. It’s good to see your own ideas from different angles.
LO: For me, I’d say that it’s important to seek advice and expertise from other people. You can’t do everything by yourself.
SK: Yeah — when in doubt, call a mentor. I think that helps a lot.
ST: Do you have any other insights to share with other young entrepreneurs, or any messages for the readers of this article?
LO: For me, and for many other young people — we want to have an impact. But before you get so invested in a project, first test the impact of that project. Like Sonia said — you think that you have this idea that will benefit so many people, but then you get into it and might find out that it actually doesn’t help that many people. Take time to do the research, and do what impacts peoples’ lives — because if it’s not impactful, you shouldn’t be spending so much of your time on it.
SK: Yes, on a related note, I’d like to highlight the importance of user research again. Try to get to know your user completely, especially when you do something in a place that you have not lived in before. I also recommend surrounding yourself with people who have the same energy, and I would like to emphasize the importance of building a great team. You can then feel each other’s ideas, creativity, and ways of thinking. If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, having a great team is important. Your ideas may change and pivot, and you might get into a different industry — you have to have strong teammates who are not only qualified, but also passionate enough to persist.
LO: Yes, the team needs creativity, or else the work becomes rigid and you don’t move forward.
SK: One of our mentors said, “Finding a co-founder is like finding your life partner.”
LO: Right, take time and don’t rush into it. Choose someone you really know, someone you’ve spent time with. If you can’t spend an eight-hour flight next to your co-founder, you’re not right for each other. Also, don’t be afraid to work with smarter people — the business is not about you, it’s about the company’s goals.
SK: Yeah, put the business first. My dad said, “A good leader is someone who manages the egos of everyone in the organization.” As an entrepreneur, you should be someone who can lead the team, who tries to make sure that the business is placed before individual egos, including your own ego.
ST: Those are some great insights! Any closing words or remarks to add?
SK: So those working in public health will read this article, right? We’d like to find synergies with public health. They’re definitely there, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much being studied on public health and transport. It would be interesting to investigate further on the health consequences of pollution from transport, or on the health of people working in the transport industry. So if there’s someone who wants to do that kind of research with us, we’re interested and available!
ST: Thank you both for your time!
Seiji Takahashi was a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow.