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The Techpreneur Driving Change One Bus At A Time

Published 6 months ago
By Chanel Retief

The transportation industry is not without its challenges. However, 28-year-old tech and transit guru Shahzeb Memon believes that it’s these challenges that will be the driving force shaping better economies. It’s in solving them in the emerging markets that along the way, SWVL is even achieving unicorn status.

It’s mid-day when the splendorous Spanish afternoon sun fills the bustling Barcelona office of SWVL, and pours into the Zoom call we are having with Shahzeb Memon, the Global Head of its Transportation As A Service (TaaS) business.

Though based in Barcelona, Memon begins by harking back to his sunny days in Kenya where he has spent enough time to call it his most favourite country in the world.

“Why? Well, that is simple. I feel like of all the countries I have worked in, Kenya is the one place I feel de-stressed,” Memon recalls fondly.

Through SWVL, headquartered in Dubai, Memon finds himself trying to solve the transportation challenges in Kenya and beyond thanks to his proclivity for technology and his philanthropic nature.

The company specializes in an application for hailing buses. The whole idea is built on giving people a mode of transport that is “safe, reliable and accessible”. The key driver for anyone who works at SWVL is to be passionate about this ideology.

Memon’s passion has its roots in Karachi, Pakistan, where he grew up. He says his inclination for the transit-tech space began when he saw how inaccessible basic transportation was to people in his home city, specifically for women and children.

“In a city like Karachi, there are a lot of people. There are millions with not enough transport opportunities available, and the transport options available for people are limited,” Memon says to FORBES AFRICA.

“Especially women who need to go from A to B. So the mothers or sisters; a big reason why they are not able to be part of the workforce is when you look at a country like Pakistan, if there are four men in the workforce, there’s only one woman. And the biggest reason why a woman is not there is because the transportation options don’t really exist.”

And now, Memon is proud to be part of a company that prioritizes accessibility, the empowerment of women and looks to the future to see what the digital world of transportation should look like.

It’s this future thinking that has landed SWVL in the unicorn club.

At the end of July 2021, Nasdaq – the American multinational financial services corporation that owns and operates three stock exchanges in the United States – announced that SWVL is expected by the end of the year to be the first $1.5 billion tech unicorn startup from the Middle East.

According to Nasdaq, it is also the only tech-enabled mass transit solutions company to list on any stock exchange.

“For us, it is just a number,” Memon says, “It is also probably just the validation, but this is just the start. We don’t see that as the end, or where we’re going to get complacent. The problem statement is $8-trillion globally, we are at $1.5 billion, which is nowhere near to solving the problem at all.”

Unicorns in Africa and the Middle East are only now slowly becoming more prevalent. Unicorns are privately held, fast-growing startups with a valuation equal to or above $1 billion. Unicorns are “rare creatures”, which, according to Ian Lessem, Managing Director of HAVAÍC, is expected to rise in Africa in the coming years.

In a recent press release, Lessem says the number of billion-dollar companies is growing faster than ever before.

“It is thanks to a combination of factors, not least of which has been the interest in these growing sectors from venture capital investors,” explains Lessem. “Across the globe, the number of billion-dollar companies is doubling in half the time, all while delivering leading returns.”

“We celebrated on the day we found out but then the next day we continued with our work,” Memon says.

In a perfect digital world, Memon believes that SWVL’s proprietary mobility solutions, “powered by cutting-edge technology”, are going to help solve mass transit supply and demand challenges in complex, emerging markets.

Having been in this space for some time, he jokes that even at 28 years old, he is a dinosaur in the young business but in being in the transit-tech space he realized how many problems you could solve by just empowering that space.

“There’s such a big massive gap…” Memon says. “Markets in which we operate, there is a massive opportunity to solve a problem like sexual harassment. And if you look at some stats in Cairo or in Karachi, 95% of the women who have traveled on a mass transit system, claim to have been sexually harassed.”

This has become a personal mission for Memon who wants to create a small dent in solving these social issues that come with transportation.

“It’s not a mission that I think I’ll be able to see in my lifetime, but the mission and the eventual goal is to be able to live in a society where safety is at the core. Reliability and convenience are at the core. And solving for transportation essentially becomes the backbone of solving for so many other problem statements, and is the biggest reason why economies also flourish.”

In just four years, SWVL has been able to open mass transit systems across 10 cities in Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Further, the company empowers drivers in emerging markets – who frequently experience income uncertainty from existing mass transit operations – to earn approximately double that of other ride-sharing platforms. Although there are plans to expand into different parts of Africa still, Memon explains that the reason SWVL decided to set up another shop in Nairobi is because the country “checked all the boxes”. These boxes being affordability, an already existent bus culture and the third being…

“Actually the most important was Kenya is the only market where mobile penetration [is massive] and because of the revolution of M-PESA. The digital economy and the addressable population was massive,” he explains.

“We’re actually in final conversations to lock a few B2B accounts within Uganda, within Rwanda, and so on and so forth, some big ones as well. So that will kind of penetrate our strategy into eastern Africa. South Africa is also on the radar. It’s just because of Covid-19 that we haven’t been able to go much deeper.”

SWVL places a lot of emphasis on employing female drivers which coincides a lot with the vision that Memon has to see a future where women are more included in driving, literally, the economy forward.

“I’ll be very honest, in Pakistan, I have been very privileged,” Memonsays. “I got a chance to go to a great school and then to a great university, to travel to great places which would essentially require me to start asking questions, and then do some critical reasoning and thinking. You start realizing is this the society in which we live, and why are they’re not built on the right premise of equality.”

Bringing digital into the transport space has not always been easy but Memon’s inspiration has always been to place opportunities for women, young entrepreneurs and those who have previously been disadvantaged at the forefront of his mission.

“Our society is not built on the premise of providing the same sort of options and opportunities to everybody. There’s a lot of injustice that exists. So by me getting and acquiring more and questioning my personal beliefs, I would say; that really got me to this realization that this is not something that should be happening.

“If I was born in a society like this, I should not be dying out of a society like this,” he strongly adds in conclusion.

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