Kenya’s Maramoja disrupts Uber model using social connections

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Kenyan taxi app Maramoja may have lost its first mover advantage, with Uber and Easy Taxi launching in the country while it was undergoing a series of reiterations and technical issues, but it still believes by leveraging on social connections it offers a more trustworthy alternative that will allow it to carve out a share of the market.

Founder Jason Eisen began working on Maramoja in October 2013, with the startup making the finals of last year’s PIVOT East competition and gaining angel investment at the end of last year.

But it was not until March that the app finally launched in Nairobi, with the 18 months between the beginning of the project and the launch of the app seeing the arrival of big spending pair Uber and Easy Taxi in the Kenyan market.

Bizarrely, however, it may well have been the months of iteration that allowed Maramoja to come up with the concept that could allow it to survive amongst its cash-rich competitors, disrupting the Uber model by leveraging on social networks.

“I had been coming to Nairobi from the United States (US) back and forth for three years, several trips a year, for my job in the donor world. We constantly had problems with transport. We had a driver who turned out to be an arms smuggler, we had a driver who tried to pick us up while drunk, all manner of things. It was such a common thread among everyone we spoke to,” Eisen said.

Back in Washington DC, he said he realised that in one day he had taken nine different types of transport, all of which were tech-enabled and none of which were available two years ago. He said he realised Nairobi had the same kind of challenges and the same environment where this kind of tech-savvy solution could prosper.

“I was so inspired by the technology being used to solve real problems in Kenya,” Eisen said, adding that it was not long before he had left his job, moved to Nairobi and began building Maramoja.

At the beginning, the aim was to launch “Uber for Nairobi”.

“The solution evolved over time. It started as Uber for Nairobi, but as I became more familiar with the market here we iterated and iterated,” he said.

Eisen admits Maramoja lost its first mover advantage due to the months of technical difficulties and iterations, but said competition with the likes of Uber and Easy Taxi was inevitable anyway.

“It was our goal to be first in the market, but things take longer than you want them to. But it was never a question of if Uber and Easy Taxi would come, it was when. We just needed to decide if our value proposition was strong enough to withstand their piles of cash, and it is. And the market is big enough that we can share it,” he said.

Eisen has certainly come up with a value proposition different from that of its two better known competitors. Maramoja is a socially-powered taxi app, connecting people to their favoured drivers and the favoured drivers of their friends by using Facebook connections.

“We realised Nairobi doesn’t have a taxi market, it has a taxi culture. People use taxis based on trust and based on relationships,” he said, adding that if a person’s regular taxi driver is unavailable, that driver will send a trusted colleague or the person will ask a friend for a recommendation.

“We are a network based solution. More than we value an individual node, we value the lines between nodes,” Eisen said, adding it was this that differentiated it from Uber.

“Really Uber has no network, it just has a big pool of drivers and a big pool of clients. This is a fundamental difference from Uber’s view that says a driver is a function not a person.”

Eisen said Maramoja’s ability to carve out a market share for itself was proven by tests and the uptake it has seen since launch. Tests undertaken by the startup found that with all other factors being equal – such as distance away and driver rating – 100 per cent of people would choose a driver socially recommended by someone they know.

“This was a screaming endorsement of what we are trying to do. This doesn’t just apply to taxis, it applies to almost everything. It’s all relationship based, it’s all trust based,” he said.

Uptake, too, has been pleasing for Maramoja. Eisen doesn’t give exact figures, but says the startup has seen “pretty high double-digit growth” week-on-week in users since its launch.

“Traction has been enough to validate our assumptions,” he said.

“We are challengers in a crowded market where Uber and Easy Taxi are pretty well established. From our perspective, the traction we have been able to carve out if very reassuring and validating.”

Eisen is currently seeking further funding for continued software development and client acquisition, while he has expansion plans in mind, both to other countries and different verticals.

“We have to have one vertical that we are delivering all the way to the consumer, because that’s what builds our network, and allows us to bring value to another service,” he said, adding that Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lagos and a number of smaller markets that Uber and Easy Taxi had not yet launched in were on his future hitlist.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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