Gamal Sadek, a computer science graduate, had a good bit of free time on his hands after finishing his military service in 2010. He had a business idea that he had developed with his friend and cousin, Ali Rafei, also a computer science graduate. They reached out to a big businessman in the hope of partnering up with him, but little did they know that he had launched a similar project and failed. Confronted by him, Sadek and Rafei realized that they hadn’t quite done their homework; subjected to an onslaught of criticism, they were kicked out of the businessman’s office. After they overcame their shock, the computer science duo came up with a bigger and better idea that would redefine their careers forever; thus was born Cairo’s first native-born mobility app Bey2ollak.
“The [traffic] information is there,” Sadek tells progrss. “But it often doesn’t reach the people who need it the most.” He explains that even in 2010, there was always someone stuck in traffic communicating about the bottlenecks that Cairo’s streets are notorious for on Twitter or through other social media channels. All Bey2ollak did was organize the data and create a single platform to communicate it.
According to a report published by the World Bank in 2010, adding on the time wasted due to traffic, congestion results in unnecessary fuel consumption, causes additional wear and tear on vehicles, increases harmful emissions and lowers air quality, increases the costs of transport for business, and makes Greater Cairo Metropolitan Area an unattractive location for businesses and industry. The World Bank’s 2014 Traffic Congestion Study estimated the economic costs of congestion in Greater Cairo to be EGP 47 billion (USD $8 billion), which amounts to 3.6% of Egypt’s total GDP. That is a per capita cost of about EGP 2,400 annually for the city’s 19.6 million people.
Motivated to find a way to deal with Cairo’s mobility challenges, Sadek and Rafei launched a crowdsourced traffic monitoring platform, and data began pouring in from commuters across the capital. “Our business model was the definition of insanity in the eyes of Egyptian society when we first launched,” says Sadek. “Even now, close friends of mine still think I am employed elsewhere and running Bey2ollak as a hobby!”
On the day it launched, Bey2ollak attracted around 6,000 registered users – just one indicator of how badly commuters needed a traffic tracking platform. Today, Bey2ollak has 1.2 million users, a little over 500,000 followers on Facebook and over 2.6 million on Twitter.
Less than 24 hours following the launch, the team at Bey2ollak received an e-mail from Vodafone Egypt asking for an appointment to discuss a potential partnership. Even though the team at Vodafone was very eager, because the business model was so green, they were in talks for two and a half years before they signed an agreement. In contrast, Bey2ollak’s short-lived competitor “Wasalny” signed a contract with mobile provider Etisalat in just three months – partially because the road had already been paved through Bey2ollak’s experience with Vodafone.
Sadek explains that signing with Vodafone was a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it cultivated a misperception among users that Bey2ollak was just another Vodafone service – something that did not resonate well with advertisers, sponsors and investors. On the other hand, the partnership bolstered the app’s credibility.
Sadek adds: “We experienced everything firsthand; in fact, we were looking for anyone in the field with a similar business model so we could learn from their experiences and mistakes” – but ultimately found no one, which forced them to do their own learning – often the hard way.
When Google Maps launched in Egypt and enabled its traffic tracking feature in 2015, just after Bey2ollak’s fifth anniversary, the coders behind Bey2ollak panicked that they may become redundant before realizing that it may actually play out in their favor. “We embedded the Google [Maps] feature as a tool in our mobile application to compliment our other [offerings],” Sadek says, adding that Bey2ollak targets local commuters rather than tourists, meaning that it does not perceive Google Maps as a threat or competition.
One of Bey2ollak’s advantages is its understanding of local vernacular, using the common names of streets rather than official ones (a phenomenon that often makes it confusing in a city like Cairo, where streets continue to be referred to by official names in spite of being renamed). And beyond just communicating average commute times and congestion zones, because Bey2ollak is crowdsourced, users contribute information like why certain routes may be blocked and which routes to avoid, offering reasoning in times of congestion.
Embracing A Larger Audience
There are 23.6 million smartphone users across Egypt, representing almost a quarter of mobile users in the country. In an effort to be more inclusive, Bey2ollak launched a smart solution for non-smartphone users called “2olly” (literally: tell me) – a service that provides users with traffic reports about certain areas in Cairo, Alexandria and the North Coast. They also recently launched features like “stories” and “voice notes” to make it easier for people to share traffic data.
Using the same platform and with the same audience, Bey2ollak began to leverage the data it collects for different purposes beyond traffic. One year after its launch, Egyptian cities erupted in protests against the regime on January 25, 2011. Due to the political unrest and absence of security, Bey2ollak enabled a new “safety” feature where commuters posted about how safe or dangerous a road was. Later, Bey2ollak proved especially versatile when it became a key platform for users to report on queues and traffic around polling stations and during crises like fuel shortages.
However, not all of the company’s projects have been fruitful. “We launched a campaign with an advertising agency to encourage commuters to contribute information about problems on the roads, be it an open pothole or broken asphalt,” Sadek says. Although they received an overwhelming amount of data, they slowly came to realize that they couldn’t actually use it to solve any real problems because it was beyond their scope, and Sadek knew that reaching out to the municipality wouldn’t get them anywhere. So they paused the campaign since they saw it as passive and paved way for critics to question the company’s strategy. “We have a strong social media presence, but we’re not in control of the outside world.”
As it prepares to move its team of 18 to urbantech hub KMT [say: kemet] House in Maadi, Sadek expresses his keenness to work together with like-minded urban players to fine tune their business model and fill gaps in their campaign strategies. KMT House, which is slated to officially open its doors in January 2018, is a coworking space for urban technology that will invite entrepreneurs from across Egypt to share a single space with the aim of creating more efficient, creative and liveable cities. Sadek believes that the move will not only help Bey2ollak grow, but that it will also add value to others working at KMT based on its history as one of the first startups to pioneer the urbantech space in Cairo.