Those who visit Cairo have always fallen for its undeniable natural beauty, history of innovation, and unique civilization spanning thousands of years. As of the past couple of decades, they will also have experienced firsthand the mind-numbing traffic and intense pollution that citizens combat on a daily basis.
Far from being a mere annoyance, Cairo’s traffic has a crippling effect on the country’s economic output. By the World Bank’s estimate, the cost of wasted time and negative health consequences is upwards of EGP 50bn. So what change will put an end to this tremendous waste of human resources?
The project, named SWVL (pronounced swivel), has attracted regional and international attention and is looking to address the gap in Cairo’s transportation options that are cheaper than cabs or ride sharing options, but much higher in quality than existing public transportation.
“We are using buses that are owned by tourism companies. Many of these buses were out of use and left in garages or only used on occasions due to the decrease in touristic activities,” says CEO and co-founder Mostafa Kandil, who used to serve as Careem’s market launcher. “We run fixed routes in Cairo to link together the most in-demand destinations. Users access all of their trip information, including departure and arrival time, using an application on their phone. Everyone is a winner in this system. The drivers and bus owners’ incomes increase, and the passengers receive a convenient, reliable, and affordable service.”
The project has harnessed a staggering 1,500 organic signups just after the announcement without even launching the product. Kandil believes that, especially after the currency flotation and subsidies on fuel expected to be gradually removed, the project will meet the needs of a large segment in the society that is torn apart between the expensive on-demand transportation and the inconvenient public transportation.
“We all agree that something needs to be done about transportation; that goes without saying,” says Ramy Khorshed, an investor in a number of high-growth enterprises and adviser to the team. “While most people look to the government to solve major issues and provide critical services unilaterally, this team has the creativity, capacity, and resources necessary to bring a smart and tech-enabled system to a hugely underserved sector.”
A widely cited report conducted by the World Bank in 2014 highlights the dire state of Egyptian public transportation, with Cairo’s traffic costing the country 4% of total GDP. For comparison, New York City—another global metropolis—only costs the US 0.07% of annual GDP annually—a number that is more than seventy times smaller. The report concludes that this is largely due to the reliance of the public on private vehicle transportation and the inadequacy of existing transportation options. Cairo—a city of more than 20 million people—has 231 buses per million inhabitants, whereas London has 753 and Mexico City has 362. This forces other less efficient means of transportation to fill the remaining demand through taxis, microbuses, and other modes of transport.
“Egypt’s public transportation network is loss-making, and many global cities are the same,” continues Ahmed Sabbah, SWCL’s CTO and a founder of two previous startups. “If we can grow to offer reliable transportation to millions of Egyptians and help alleviate the problems in one of the toughest cities in the world, why shouldn’t we go on to do so around the world?”