Sales and Marketing Software

FlashCast: Ads and public SMS engagement on Kenyan matatus

FlashCast is a Kenyan tech startup providing targeted messages for commuters and passengers as they travel from one point to another. These are half commercial advertisements and half public engagement.

“[Our solution] is primarily installed in matatus (minibuses) or public service vehicles to give passengers something interesting to view as they commute to work, home or vice versa,” Caine Wanjau, the startup co-founder tells IDG Connect.

Founded in 2011, FlashCast officially launched in 2012 and arrived at a time when matatu owners were thinking about adding innovative services for passengers such as free Wifi.

The BBC reported at this time that “Matatus - the ramshackle public minibuses seating between 14 and 24 people that zip along the streets of Kenya's capital Nairobi - carry a third of the city's residents to and from work each day.”

Local data corroborates this as only 5% of commuters drive to work, while the other 60% beat the sidewalks, manholes, dusty or flooded roadsides as poor, cheap labourers and sweaty pedestrians.

“We noticed there was a gap in the market and thought that with FlashCast, we could address and provide a solution to a very unique problem, a market of [bored] passive passengers without anything to do on the bus during the journey time to or from work,” Wanjau explains.

At this time the Kenyan capital was ranked fourth in the world on the IBM commuter pain index. A journey that should take just about 30 minutes can last for one or two hours.  

“There are many other players in the advertisement industry but none has been able to come up with an innovative product like we have developed,” Wanjau says. “We have previously seen TV screens mounted on vehicles with some advertisements but none has been able to offer location-specific and scrolling features.”

In practice, the startup installs 32-inch LED screens in public transport minibuses just behind the driver. Smaller, 14-seater vans are excluded from the venture due to limits of space and the impact that the close-proximity LED has on passengers.

GPS and tracking technology are used to locate the bus in order to provide targeted messages. The startup uses Python and hosts on the Google platform. It also has an app called Flashcast Sonar that is available on its site and on Play Store.

“Messages are location-based and dynamic; we change them every 15 minutes. We are capable of refreshing them every minute but we decided 15 minute intervals is comfortable and good enough for our audience segment,” explains Wanjau.

This means that you can preset a commercial advert for a superstore to broadcast when the “smart bus” is within proximity and tell passengers about special offers, discounts, promotions, or particular goods available in the store. The messages can target a neighbourhood, community or even a street.

“Our efforts have been recognised and we got the runners up prize in 2014 ICT Innovation Awards Sponsored by IBM and UNDP,” Wanjau informs us.

The company has a revenue-share business model. It charges an equivalent of $6 per ad per day which it then shares with the bus owners. These companies make side income from the venture.

“We started with one matatu in 2012 and now we have about 20 matatus, serving four routes in the city,” Wanjau says, “and we have not been in an accelerator program because we were able to generate revenue quite early so no need for incubation services.”

With more than 10 million passengers already reached and between 30 to 40 thousand viewers per day the co-founder believes the startup is heading in the right direction. But it is not all about advertisements:

“No, our aim is not to bombard passengers with fulltime advertisements,” the co-founder says, “we broadcast ads 50% [of the time] while the other half goes to audience engagement and other interesting activities, especially running SMS on the screens.”

One of the most important SMS surveys that the startup has run involved PSI, a family health services NGO. The aim was to get 600 responses in one month about family planning issues. The passengers were asked to participate with an incentive of $0.10 worth of airtime on their phones in return. 1,200 responses were received in two days according to the co-founder.

“Acceptance is the main challenge,” the co-founder says. “[But] we also have to police and block some of the SMSs by passengers on our screens. By sharing revenue with bus owners, we are increasingly getting past these acceptance challenges.”

The startup is also in the process of venturing into multimedia screens. And would like to expand across is Kenya:

“We are concentrating on Nairobi before going to Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru,” Wanjau concludes.


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Daniel Muraga

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

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