Customer service remains a gnawing gap in the public transport sector


Flights to Mombasa, Malindi, and Diani were and still are comparatively too expensive owing to limited competition.

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For a long time, I was regular traveller to the coastal city of Mombasa by road both by bus and by self-drive. When the buses became too dangerous to drivers of small cars like mine, I opted out and chose to either board buses or fly depending on the language my pocket was more familiar with at that moment.

Flights to Mombasa, Malindi, and Diani were and still are comparatively too expensive owing to limited competition, which I dare say is made possible by restrictions to licensing more than unavailability of investors. Those prices are fake and cannot stand superior quality competition.

About five years ago, Standard Gauge Railway popularly known as SGR introduced a more seductive option for those choosing between slow pace of buses and unreliable Kenya Airways flights and a host of other poor services “low-cost flights.” You would take some five hours to Mombasa station as opposed to seven hours but the lack of a connecting railway option from the SGR station would still make your journey take longer and costlier, through overpriced taxis. The SGR train indeed has been a good addition in terms of the pocket and comfort. It is not the solution yet until they are able to provide more trains during high demand periods when schools are either closing or opening to level the price hikes in response to the seasonal over supply.

There have been attempts to improve the quality of road transport by the major players, but it does not seem to work. Improvements in buses interiors have not captured adequate loyal users to keep their businesses afloat and healthy. These companies have withdrawn buses from the roads especially in the upcountry routes due to prohibitive costs of doing business. Even though the general improvements in the roads quality should be good to the fleet owners, unofficial taxes including bribes, prohibitive costs of borrowing from financial institutions and unstable prices of spares courtesy of unstable exchange rates, all keep the business costs high. Then there is the monkey we do not seem to want to get rid of in Kenya called dishonest employees. This shall be a topic in future.

I recently called all the companies providing bus transport solution to travellers to Mombasa and I can confirm that they are lacking the two most important ingredient in business – people and processes. The people may be humble as they all sounded but humility without soundness of services does not solve the client’s problem and is a business lost now or next time.

The road transport business physical infrastructure capacity establishment and subsequent capacity expansions has room for disruptions through carefully design of the business model. Kenyans are looking for airplanes on the road; comfort and good average speed, careful drivers, and helpful hosts. Just think about the real problems an ordinary Kenyan goes through and you will understand why they prefer to use the train to Kisumu and spend 10 hours travelling to enduring uncomfortable buses, rude drivers, unruly touts, and host of other difficulties you go through on the average long distance bus ride.

Like I said last week in lessons from KUNE food start up collapse, when you develop a business plan for such an experiment, you will be equivalent to a researcher working on a hypothesis. You will not have become businessperson who already understands the demand patterns for their product (read as market segments and their needs) and how things will pan out when market forces change. The critical cog in a business is how efficiently the business model is designed to serve the target market segments with quality service and sustainable affordable prices for market segments. This takes time, in the real ground, through a series of iterations. Go in to learn, just learn quick.

Venture capital funding is available for people making innovations which are ICT enabled, to improve services that target large markets like transport.