Ma3route is a Nairobi-based startup offering a traffic and transport information service via a smartphone app, social media, website and SMS.

The information can be displayed on a Google map but is also available as location-specific feeds, within the app itself, the web and via Twitter.

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The principle source for the data is crowdsourced information from users, who post information about accidents, traffic jams, and other sources of trouble. There is a tie-in with some of the city’s taxi companies, and information is also contributed by public transport users – including the Matatu minivan bus services from which the company derives its name (Tatu means ‘Three’ in the Sheng Swahili-derived creole spoken by Nairobi’s masses, and the matatu fare was once three cents).

© Ma3route

The platform uses data from the not-for-profit partner Digital Matatu Project, which used students to collect and curate data about Matatu routes. The app’s original purpose was as a route-planning tool for Matatu users, a task that is intrinsically difficult due to the chaotic nature of Matatu operations.

Traffic data is also derived from algorithm-based analysis of traffic webcams put in place by local ISP Access Kenya. This last component is probably the most interesting and innovative aspect of the Ma3route offering, which the company launched very recently. It tends to emphasise the value of its community and the level of engagement that it has with its users.

To date, it boasts 40,000 downloads of the app and a total of 400,000 active users on all channels, which represents 10% of Nairobi’s total population (and a rather higher proportion of the active travelling population) and some 2,000 posts a day. It is able to derive temporal and spatial patterns from its traffic data, and to correlate between volumes of posts and volumes of traffic.

Users can report bad driving as well as other incidents; during the visit to Kenya of US President Barack Obama in July 2015, it became something of a vehicle for local citizens’ complaints about under-investment in the roads system.

The business model is based on online contextualised advertising within the app, on the website as well as on social media. The former is location-aware and context-sensitive, so that there is the possibility to provide travellers with directed advertisements about nearby businesses; the growth of the Kenyan online advertising market (a stunning 30% CGAR) is key to this.

There is also an option to subscribe to SMS notifications, which are charged on a per-message basis; thus far there are 20,000 subscribers to this service in Nairobi alone.

In the future the company plans to derive more revenue from the sale of data feeds to city and transit authorities, and perhaps to others including emergency services, traffic police and automotive OEMs. A potential application could be providing crowd-sourced data from its platform to in-car services.

Members of the tech community in Silicon Valley or Shoreditch, London, may not be aware the extent to which Nairobi is itself a hotbed of startup innovation.

Several of the new ventures are transport or logistics-oriented, such as Cladlight, and Sendy; perhaps unsurprising, given that Nairobi is the only African city in the top 20 on the JLL City Momentum Index, or that Kenya is a rare case of an increasing rate of economic growth in a stagnating global context. Nairobi is the third city in Africa, after Cape Town and Johannesburg, where Uber has launched service. A Reuters story provides the unsourced estimate that traffic jams ‘cost’ the city a billion dollars a year.

The company was founded in July 2012 by local software engineer Laban Okune. It is still very small, with a core team of six people. Nevertheless with a growing number of paying customers, Ma3Route has established strong relationships with MNOs (Safaricom), data companies (Digital Divide Data)  and research institutions including MIT, Columbia, Georgetown University, and the University of Nairobi.

Ma3Route was ranked the third most useful social media initiative in Kenya by the Daily Nation ZuQka magazine and won the best startup in the Mobile Utility Category at Pivot East 2013, the Kenyan ICT Innovation Award (2014), the SOMA SME of the Year Award (2014), and best local app in Kenya in 2015. Also, Ma3Route is among the startups in Kenya selected to work with IBM in its Global Entrepreneur program.

Stephane Eboko, the company’s CEO believes the model is replicable elsewhere, and aspires to provide the default traffic information application for African cities and other urban areas in emerging markets.