Can an ex-Careem employee fix Cairo's traffic where the government could not?

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Cairo traffic

Cairo traffic. Image provided by SWVL

If you haven’t heard of Cairo’s infamous traffic jams, well, you probably haven’t been in the region. It’s all too often a test of survival and a battle of wits for tourists and residents alike. But a 24-year-old ex-Careem employee may have the answer.

The city’s notorious traffic costs Egypt $6.5 billion annually, and that figure is expected to reach $14.6 billion by 2030, according to the World Bank. The average commute for people travelling to and from Cairo, home to around 23 million, is at least three hours a day.

In April, Mostafa Kandil and two of his school friends, Ahmed Sabbah and Mahmoud Nouh, quit their jobs and gathered at public parks, where they spent their time developing a service that they named SWVL. This transportation app can book bus trips at rates that are close to 80 per cent cheaper than other ride-hailing services like Careem and Uber. Passengers can make reservations and pay their fare through SWVL, which uses the passengers’ location and destination to find the shortest possible journey based on the nearest bus station.

SWVL founders

SWVL founders. (L-R): Ahmed Sabbah, Mostafa Kandil and Mahmoud Nouh.

But Mostafa is also confident SWVL will certainly play a crucial role in alleviating Cairo’s traffic problems. After all, buses and mini vans can transport ten passengers a trip and make six trips a day. “We are trying to resolve a problem [that] even the government could not. We are helping the country in building a public transportation network,” Mostafa told My Salaam.

The response has been heartening. The app has more than 50,000 registered users and an equal number of Facebook followers. It secured a heavy dose of $500,000 seed funding from Careem in July, which has given Mostafa the confidence to expand the business. SWVL is now targeting 300,000 monthly trips by December.

The early days were quite different, however. “Potential investors, banks and experts laughed at our plans to raise a $400,000 seed round. After all, who would be ready to bet on three youngsters with little work experience and no success stories, just an idea to better manage and significantly reduce traffic in a city of 23 million people using technology and buses?" Mostafa said.   

With an initial investment of $30,000 that the three managed to pool in, Mostafa recruited young techies, rented an office and started to lease buses. Thanks to a slowdown in the tourism industry, lots of buses were out of business, so leasing them was a fairly easy process.

“Currently, our registered users are growing at least 30 per cent week-on-week. There are 100 SWVL buses plying the streets of Cairo with daily commuters. We have a team of 20 techies; the youngest is 18 years old and the oldest is 24,” Mostafa said. 

SWVL Team members

SWVL Team members. Image provided by SWVL

The app’s success is already drawing attention from outside the country. Overseas companies have started enquiring about operations, and SWVL will soon be reaching across the borders.

“We are launching in Alexandria by end of the year. Next year, we are planning to expand in Saudi, Pakistan and Jordan. A Turkish company is in touch with us to start similar operations in Istanbul,” Mostafa said.

Careem’s investment is being channeled into expanding the team and business as well as improving features of the app, but Mostafa said that new products are likely to roll out from the stable. “We are discussing a lot of ideas with Careem that would definitely help commuters. I cannot disclose more, but there is a lot that we can do together.”

SWVL marketing campaign

SWVL marketing campaign. Image provided by SWVL

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