Riding public transportation in Africa has long meant digging into pockets for coins and notes and figuring out the proper fare, or fidgeting while the person ahead of you does the same. Delays, frustration and pickpocketing were the norm — until a 24-year-old Rwandan set out to revamp the system.
In 2015, Patrick Nsenga Buchana started AC Group, a software development company, to introduce a cashless payment solution for public transport in Kigali, Rwanda’s megacity of 1.2 million people. In collaboration with the government and local bus operators, the Tap&Go solution was put in place as part of the Smart Kigali initiative to modernize the capital.
“We saw the challenges in public transport. … There were too many delays, and income suffered because there was no sure way to monitor how many people used the bus,” Buchana says. “And as public transport users, we were affected.”
In its first month of operation, Tap&Go signed up 500 cardholders — a number that swelled to 1.4 million.
Swapping out cash for an automated payment system — users buy and replenish cards at bus stations and pay their fare by swiping the card as they board — isn’t a new solution for overburdened mass transit systems, but AC Group was the first to adapt it for the Kigali market. And implementing the system, concedes Buchana, was harder than expected. Beyond the logistics of distributing cards and installing card readers, it required a change in mindset. “There are a lot of lessons that we’ve learned along the way,” says Buchana, now 27. “I’d call it ‘steep learning.’”
As a child growing up in Uganda, Buchana didn’t dream of launching a company. Instead, soccer was his obsession and every spare moment was spent on the playing pitch. “I was not one to sit in one place,” he recalls.
He moved to Rwanda to study at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, now the University of Rwanda, College of Science and Technology, with a focus on electronics and engineering. During his first year, 2013, Microsoft put out a call for applications for a student ambassador in Rwanda. Buchana wanted to apply but only third-year tech students were eligible. At kLab, Kigali’s tech hub and incubator where Buchana spent most of his time, he met a member of Microsoft’s team. The deadline had just passed; still, he was encouraged to apply and was named Rwanda’s Microsoft ambassador for two years.
Using what he learned from the software giant and at kLab (where he would eventually serve as board chair), Buchana started AC Group, dropping out of school once the company was underway. “I didn’t want to just go to school, graduate and then hit the streets for a job. I wanted to put my skills to practice,” he told The New Times Publication. Later, he enrolled in the executive program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business while running his startup.
Philip Ngarambe, a co-founder of AC Group, met Buchana through a mutual friend. “From the very first meeting, we knew that we were on the same page,” says Ngarambe. “We noticed the need to digitalize fares for public transport as we were aware of bus operators suffering loss of income. We were inspired by our country’s initiative to champion the cashless economy initiative and we saw this as our contribution to the cause,” he adds.
The first order of business was winning over the various stakeholders: commuters, bus owners, the Rwandan government. Commuters, long accustomed to carrying cash, were reluctant to purchase cards but eventually saw the time-savings and safety benefits of going cashless. The government supported the idea from the start because it aligned with its goal of moving toward a cashless economy, and Buchana acknowledges that having the local authorities on board was a major boost and helped them navigate the regulatory requirements. The bus companies, tired of losing revenue, were cautiously receptive, but once the city’s largest operator, Kigali Bus Services, signed on, others followed suit.
In December 2015, its first month of operation, Tap&Go signed up 500 cardholders — a number that swelled to 1.4 million by the start of 2018. Bus operators, who’d reported losing up to 40 percent of their revenue due to payment fraud, have since recouped 25 to 30 percent on the new system — while also cutting down on service delays.
Tap&Go has been credited with shorter lines of commuters at bus stations, a more reliable transport system and contributing to a general sense of order. The digital payments have also enabled city planners to collect data on passenger traffic and movement, which will help guide future planning and projects.
Martin Karemera, a Kigali-based logistics consultant, says the Tap&Go system is bringing logic to a previously chaotic sector, and increased adoption will further relieve congestion on Kigali’s overwhelmed roads. “Now that bus companies have quality inventories,” he says, “they can track their cash flow [more accurately than relying on] the word of drivers and conductors. Most have realized that they were being conned.”
The ambitious entrepreneur, currently a member of the Harvard Forum for Growth and Innovation, is already looking beyond Rwanda, envisioning a day when 100 million Africans use digital payments on a secure transportation system. Tap&Go signed a 10-year contract to operate in Cameroon, and the company is zeroing in on Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire next. At the same time, AC Group has extended its reach by offering intelligent transportation applications for events and conferences, such as the World Economic Forum and the African Union Summit, both held in Kigali in 2016.
“Yesterday was Rwanda, today is the rest of Africa,” says Ngarambe.
But Buchana recognizes that some cities on the continent may not be ready to adopt a solution like Tap&Go. Still, he’s near evangelical in his belief that innovation can transform the developing world. For his next innovation, Buchana wants to make public transport even smarter by putting Wi-Fi on every bus. “We want the system to be so efficient that you would consider taking the bus rather than your car.”
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.