Nairobi gets smart mobility, one trust-building app at a time

a version of this interview first appeared on Smart City Africa blog

​Last week we spoke about ways in which city authorities and national governments in Africa solve congestion through mass transit innovation. Now we invite you to look at private initiatives that aim to enhance mobility experience in African cities. Jason Eisen of Kenyan Maramoja app sat down with Smart City Africa’s Andy Kozlov to look at the role of trust as we criss-cross our cities.

Jason Eisen of Kenyan Maramoja app
Jason Eisen of Kenyan Maramoja app

Andy Kozlov: You say that Maramoja is not just a smart mobility app. It’s rather about building trust in a community. How so? What are the applications that you promote apart from connecting citizens with their trusted taxi driver?

MARAMOJA is absolutely about smart mobility. We just happen to believe that facilitating trust is the most important contribution we can make to the mobility (and eventually) larger on-demand economy. Many of the challenges people face when trying to move around Nairobi and other cities are about interactions between people – trust. Do I trust this motorbike taxi to be a safe rider with a well-maintained bike? Do I trust this taxi driver to charge me a fair price and get me there safely? Do I trust this person to carry my son?

As for other applications of our trust engine, you could think of it like this – MARAMOJA the mobility solution is an open product – our trust engine is in limited beta with our mobility clients but we have big eyes to the future and see ourselves playing a key role as the “trust” infrastructure layer for the on-demand economy. 

screencapture-maramoja-co-ke-1460959916123

Andy Kozlov: For many from the international crowd, when you talk about Kenya and mobile tech, it is Ushahidi that springs to mind. Has Ushahidi had any influence whatsoever on Maramoja and the values behind your app?

Ushahidi is definitely one of the great success stories from Kenya but that is 2007 already. There have been so many great technological advances out of Kenya in the 9 years since that there’s really no shortage of places to look to for inspiration. I would say that the values behind Ushahidi very much reflect the general values of the startup culture in Nairobi – which if I had to put into words I would say is about technology for people – technology that builds on our humanity and the bonds between us, rather than replace or diminish them. MARAMOJA is no different. We reconceptualized the taxi app from the ground up to be about relationships and trust. Human concepts. In doing so, we have built something in the trust engine that we believe will also have global application.

Unlike Uber, Maramoja app uses zone-based pricing to eliminate conflict between driver and passenger
Unlike Uber, Maramoja app uses zone-based pricing to eliminate conflict between driver and passenger

Andy Kozlov: How different are you from Uber?

Our basic mobility service offering is similar, transport on-demand through an app, but the similarities end there. I think most of our core differences stem from our values. We are built around people and relationships. As such, we always try to align incentives of ourselves, our drivers, and passengers. Take pricing – Uber uses time & distance which immediately puts the driver and passenger at conflict. We use zone-based pricing because it eliminates this conflict between driver and passenger. We also recognize that not every car on the market here is newer than 6 years old, so rather than excluding many great drivers we find that allowing our users to choose between the various available drivers that have accepted their ride, based on their proximity, their relationship with the driver, their car, credentials or any other factor that the client personally cares about.

Polina Kazak, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Maramoja, comes from Belarus
Polina Kazak, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Maramoja, comes from Belarus

Andy Kozlov: Superficially speaking, any other IT group in some other African city can come up with a solution similar to Maramoja. Still, what makes you stand out? Why are you convinced there is room for expansion for your app into other African countries?

Perhaps some other IT group could devise a similar solution but our UX and technology will set us apart from copycats. Trust is an incredibly emotional concept that relies great design to convey that human quality through an app. Co-Founder and Creative Director Polina Kazak has been with the company since day one. She creates that emotional connection with our users that gives the feeling of comfort, and security that can only come with working with trusted service providers. The company hit a major turning point when we met Bastian Blankenburg, PhD, who serves as MARAMOJA’s CTO. Bastian is a brilliant computer scientist with tremendous expertise artificial intelligence and machine learning as they pertain to trust. In short, I suppose I can say it will be our people that set us apart. I couldn’t imagine a more purpose-built team to build the future of trust and on-demand than the MARAMOJA crew.

Andy Kozlov: In what African cities can we expect to use your app by early 2017? Will the first solution on offer always be trusted taxi service-related?

You’ll have to wait and see…but don’t be surprised when we show up near you.

Andy Kozlov:  How come your team of developers has a German and a Belorussian specialists?

There’s no particular reason our CTO is German or our Creative Director Belorussian any more than there’s a reason that the CEO is American. Our first CTO was Kenyan, it just so happened to not work out with him. Each of our team members have their jobs because they are the absolute perfect people to fill them – nothing to do with origin. But one of the great things about the Nairobi tech scene, is that the talent pool really is global. We can draw the best from around the world and will continue to do so.

Andy Kozlov: Did they get attracted to the project specifically because of the exciting prospect to help urban communities in Kenya?

No doubt, each of is inspired by and believes that our work has a positive impact on Kenyans. I think they got attracted to the project for the enormity of my vision, of where we could go, and the revolution we could bring to the global on-demand economy. And they brought their own visions too – we were lucky enough that our visions really jived with each others and we instantly began making great strides together. There’s no feeling in the world like being part of a great team.

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