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Rwanda: A safety algorithm for lethal motorcycle taxis

Motorcycles are a convenient and cheap means of transport in both urban and rural areas. However, they are also notorious killing machines claiming millions of lives across Africa.

This is largely because many riders show a complete disregard for traffic rules, drive carelessly without driving licenses, insurance, helmets and jackets and fundamentally violate all road safety regulations. Yet the real issue is that many of these motorcycles are used as taxis, which puts both the lives of passengers and drivers at risk.

So, what can be done about it?

Well, one startup, SafeMotos, based in Kigali, Rwanda thinks it might have hit upon an answer. The big idea is to come up with a team of safe drivers that score high on the “measure” of safety according to a pre-determined guidelines.

“All our riders are equipped with cheap Android smart phones, and from these phones we extract data using gyroscope, accelerometer and GPS chips,” Barrett Nash, the CEO and co-founder explains.

“We then run this data through a risk model, a mathematical algorithm that observes parameters such as speed, acceleration and deceleration behavior. Based on the behavior, we automatically tell if a driver is safe or not and provide a rank for that driver.”

The riders are also vetted ensuring only those with at least three years of driving experience are included in the list. The app features a Google Maps-style interface where you put a few words describing your location. At the end of the trip, the app will provide you with a suggested cost for the journey and a chance to rank the driver or provide feedback.

“What we do for passengers is quite simple; you just open the app, order a driver, he comes right to where you are,” says Nash.

In a country with high rates of motorcycle accidents, the app is a welcome technology that will go a long way in protecting passengers and riders. According to a one-year study done by Academic Research Congress in 2011, there were 1,232 reported cases of traffic injuries in just one Rwandan hospital (University Teaching Hospital of Kigali). The motorcycle related cases accounted for 73% with young people making up the lion share of victims. 94 of these victims succumbed while 104 escaped with permanent disabilities. The economic cost for these injuries was calculated to total $4,141,300.

Nash did an analysis of African cities where motorcycle taxis are used and settled for Kigali because they are used by 22,000 people there.

Making more than 700 trips every month, and boasting more than 200,000 kilometers of data collected, the co-founder is confident that the startup is a success. He adds “a thousand and counting downloads” and 60,000 unique viewers from Facebook every week are also indications that the idea is working.

“Completing Rwanda’s largest ever seed round of $130,000, being the first African investment from SOS ventures and being the first Rwandan company to win East Africa’s Pivot East we are positioning ourselves for success, which together with more than 300 million dollars potential market, we can become Africa’s first unicorn,” Nash says.

Like all other startups, SafeMotos has had some challenges though. “Dealing with riders’ complacency has been the most difficult,” Nash says. “Many passengers and riders hold that death as a result of motor accident is just a misfortune and cannot be avoided. What if people held the same [view] for malaria or cancer in Kigali?” Neither of which kill more than traffic accidents.

“Among our objectives,” Nash concludes, is we want “to show that a ‘Silicon Valley’ style startup is possible in East Africa, starting with Rwanda, then spread across the whole of Africa.”

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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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