Dumb Phones and Boda Bodas: Proving the World Wrong One Call At a Time

Pictured is Joseph Onguti, the Officer in Command of Nabusanke and the Official Trainer for Wakabi

Pictured is Joseph Onguti, the Officer in Command of Nabusanke and the Official Trainer for Wakabi

By: Ty Van Herweg, Fulbright Student Researcher 2015-2016

It all started when I was sitting with my mentor, Dr. Thane Kreiner, at Santa Clara University. I was deconstructing my Global Social Benefit Fellowship experience and explaining all of these epiphanies I had about the challenges of last mile distribution in Uganda. I was remarking on the intense inefficiencies that limit the incomes of those who live in rural areas, and the opportunity to improve these distribution channels using frugal technology. Suddenly he remarked, “You are trying to start an Uber for rural Africa.” That’s when everything changed. That’s when my purpose was carved into stone.

When I initially discovered the idea, I had no idea where to begin. I knew there was an opportunity to build a frugal app that could operate on feature phones, and also that the aforementioned app should connect rural villagers with motorcycle riders. I had a hunch that the app was needed, but no proof or justification. The entrepreneurial spirit drove me off the deep end like so many before me.  I began discussing the idea with various people, and across the board everyone was in agreement that the idea was special. I couldn’t turn back; the prospect of pursuing this idea had consumed me. 

I immediately scrounged for all the various opportunities like a mad man. Fulbright became the best option. Sure, it was prestigious and extremely competitive, but it was my only reasonable option to test the business model I had dreamed up. I submitted my application after much rigor and editing, and prayed for the best. I started collaborating with two engineers at Santa Clara University as the waiting game commenced. I was the igniter of a crazy idea, and the energy that came with it was beyond anything I had ever felt before.

In April I received good news; Fulbright gave me a shot, and I was ready to do just about anything and everything to make Wakabi a reality. I was given the gift of a low-risk, 9-month pilot. There is no better opportunity for a young and broke social entrepreneur. It was time to see if rural Uganda could benefit from on-demand transportation, and make whatever changes were necessary to improve the business model.

In September 2015, I set off on my journey. With the help of my friends at Bana (U) Limited, ThinVoid Limited, and the Bukibira Village community, we emerged successful in creating an automated toll-free number that connects rural villagers with registered motorcycle riders, otherwise known as “boda bodas.” We are now in the process of securing long-term funding to keep the dream alive.

We were able to successfully launch Wakabi thanks to effective research, intuitive strategic moves, and an unwavering commitment to creating the most impactful customer experience. We refused to settle for an inferior prototype; we continued to collaborate and develop Wakabi’s technology until we were certain it would fit our end-users’ needs and properly support our motorcycle riders. We also listened carefully to the experiences of our interviewees. Our research exposed an intense void between motorcycle riders and those who need transportation. The hunch I had felt for so long finally evolved into concrete knowledge and a justification to pursue Wakabi further.

Wakabi now benefits end-users who need transportation, and motorcycle riders who seek to improve their income and job security. End-users access our service for free, and our riders will eventually pay a low weekly fee to gain access to our clientele and numerous other benefits. We are ready to accelerate our impact and continue learning with every challenge we face. We plan to train and empower 15,000 motorcycle riders, reach 3 million end-users, and operate in over 60 districts throughout Uganda by 2020. By 2025 we plan to operate in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria in addition to Uganda. The sky is just the beginning, and we are poised to continue making the right strategic moves to bring on-demand transportation to those who need it most.  

This unique experience taught me some incredible truths. I was raised to keep an open heart to the world, and to keep an open eye for the talent in others. Although my research unveiled some negative bias towards boda boda riders, the young men that invested their trust in the Wakabi mission were some of the most impressive guys I have ever met. Our special covenant helped keep the Wakabi dream afloat during the development phase. It goes to show that keeping an open heart is just as important as keeping an open mind. 

Pictured is the inaugural graduating class of Wakabi’s safety training program

Pictured is the inaugural graduating class of Wakabi’s safety training program

The research also proved to me that anything, and I mean anything, is possible if enough sweat equity is invested. We attempted to bring a service to rural Uganda that had only been previously curated for smart phone users in Kampala. We needed a platform that was low-cost, functional on “dumb” phones, and accessible to end-users that are illiterate. Our collaboration with ThinVoid, a Kampala-based software consultancy, proved that dumb phones aren’t so dumb after all. We now have a free, easy to use number that is automated and incredibly robust.

Thank you, Santa Clara University, for inspiring me to pursue my dreams. Without your persistent teachings of the three C’s and the importance of social justice, I would have never felt empowered to apply for the Fulbright or to pursue Wakabi. I am proud to be a Bronco, and to represent everything SCU stands for. Here’s to the persistence of the entrepreneurial spirit, the drive to create a more just world, and to the Jesuit mission to educate the entire individual.     

Photo by: Ty Van Herweg

Photo by: Ty Van Herweg