Pádraig Belton   04 May 2016

You don’t have to have a bank account or credit card to pay electronically with these taxi apps around the world. Picture: Easy Taxi

Mobile money is changing the way people, not just cash, travel.

It is technology that has encouraged a wave of start-ups, using it for novel solutions to vexed problems.

Like rooting around in your pockets for change at the end of a taxi ride.

Because mobile money lets you send money to other people and pay for goods and services using your mobile phone - even if you don’t have a bank account.

Saving you from the bother is Jason Eisen, now chief executive and founder of Maramoja - the first taxi app in Kenya to accept mobile money.

Not all taxis are cabs - in east Africa the boda boda is a common sight. Picture: Maramoja

He hadn’t really set out to be a mobile money taxi entrepreneur in Nairobi.

Mr Eisen previously worked as a consultant in Washington DC.

“I never thought of doing a startup in Kenya, to be honest, or a taxi app,” he admits.

But his work took him frequently to east Africa.  “I came to be inspired by all the things I was seeing happening in Nairobi,” he says.

Maramoja founder Jason Eisen shows how to use the app. Picture: maramoja

Then returning to Washington in January 2013 after a long trip, he realised in a day he had used seven different online mobility services such as Uber, Bikeshare, and apps for the bus and Metro.  None of them existed two years before.

Two months later, he quit his job.  And moved to Nairobi.  To begin his own.

Never going to let you down, always going to pick you up

On top of starting a company around using mobile money for paying for taxis, he built a trust engine.

In Kenya, “no one takes a random taxi”, says Mr Eiser.

“You have your guy, you call your guy for everything.  If he isn’t available, he sends his guy,” he says.

“Or you call your friend, and your friend sends you her guy.”

And if you want to build a trust engine, says Mr Eiser, it’ll work better if it’s based on your family and friends than eBay ratings.

The Maramoja app relies on a trust engine to rate drivers. Picture: Maramoja

A patent is pending on their trust engine.  

The company thinks its uses will go beyond taxis in Africa.

“So in London,” Mr Eiser says, “perhaps no one is worried about who their taxi driver is, but definitely about who their nanny is.”

Driving customers away, in taxis

Far away in São Paulo, Dennis Wang is joint chief executive of Easy Taxi, a mobile money taxi startup which operates throughout Latin America and a bit of Africa - 420 cities in all.

The idea for the company began in 2011. There was a startup weekend in Rio, and Mr Wang and his team were.

“The team actually had a different idea, but when we were leaving the event we wanted to get a taxi,” Mr Wang says.

“And it was raining, and in Rio it’s a nightmare getting a taxi even when it’s not raining.”

An Easy Taxi driver

So the team decided to change its project, to make a taxi system which wouldn’t rely on call centres, and where you could pay using mobile money.

The first experience you have is ordering your car, says Mr Wang.  The second is how the service is - if the car is clean, and the driver polite.

And the last part of it is getting out - how fast you can leave the taxi, and how quickly you can pay.

“We saw there was some friction here,” he says, “and enabling mobile payment ensured the experience was seamless.”

Their goal was to make the experience of ordering a taxi about as easy as ordering an elevator.

Dennis Wang, founder of Easy Taxi

EasyTaxi pairs with different payment solutions in each country. He says when they began, mobile payment solutions were “basically not in existence.”

The company has introduced a service called Easy Share, to help people carpool in taxi, available in Brazil and Peru so far.

The new feature is a way of reducing road congestion where the infrastructure for transport is inefficient.

“Most of places don’t have a subway system,” he says, “bus lines are limited or quality is low, and of course roads are packed with cars.”

An app for that

In Beijing, Alex Borwick frequently pays for taxis with a mobile money app tied to her WeChat wallet.

WeChat is a quickly growing service of China’s Tencent, which now has 600 million monthly users.

“It is incredibly easy to use, in the end,” she says, “and you can easily settle a taxi without having to do change.”

It is possible to pay a taxi driver with mobile money directly rather than with an app, but it takes longer.

And this has kept Dr Megan Coffee, founder and executive director of a tuberculosis organisation called Ti Kay, from using mobile money to pay for taxis in Port-au-Prince.

“Taxis are shared, and it would delay other passengers - or delays the driver from picking up other passengers,” says Dr Coffee.

But some companies are able to sidestep designing an app by using platforms provided by their mobile phone provider.

Fred Otieno and the team behind Pewin Cabs. Picture: Pewin Cabs

Back in Kenya, one such company, Pewin Cabs, has a fleet of 160 taxis in Nairobi and Mombasa.

The company began six years ago.

“We didn’t actually have to develop any sort of a platform to make use of the technology that goes around mobile money,” says Mr Otieno, its finance director.

He uses one of Safaricom’s packages for businesses which use M-Pesa.  They have done this for three years.

It helps that in Kenya, most of his customers are M-Pesa users already.

“It’s convenient because a majority of users have this already - it’s not like you have to do anything extra to make use of this service,” he says.

“People are already aware of it, they know how to use it - for us, basically, we don’t have to do much, to allow our customers to make payments with mobile money.”

Want to know how mobile money works? Alfonce Pachu explains

In Nairobi, the technology for mobile payment is soaring ahead of the more physical asphalt infrastructure on the roads, says Mr Otieno.

Traffic congestion is a huge problem, he says, and regulatory costs and taxes are high.

Meanwhile the government’s megaprojects - with a projected cost of $50 billion (£34.9 billion) - offer new real stations, an upgraded airport, and ports like that under construction in coastal Lamu, but not much for the two largest city’s crowded roads.

But getting funding for ventures in mobile technology in East Africa’s Silicon Savannah, says Mr Otieno, is easier.

“Companies there are ready to fund ventures that revolve around mobile money technology,” he says.

“It only maybe needs to be given much more publicity,” he adds, “so young people who have ideas about business know how to access it.”

For his part, Mr Otieno looks forward to “getting it right in Kenya, then trying other countries”.

And Mr Eisen’s Maramoja also looks forward to scaling up, once he feels he’s perfected their operations – “otherwise we’re just scaling our problems,” he says.

Meanwhile Easy Taxi has benefited from the attentions of the German incubator Rocket Internet, and four funding rounds which have left it with it over $77 million to scale in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It now has 185,000 drivers around the world.

Mobile money powered taxis, clearly, are going places.

M-PESA is already widely adopted by Mr Otieno's customers. Picture: WorldRemit

Traffic congestion is a huge problem, he says, and regulatory costs and taxes are high.

Meanwhile the government’s megaprojects - with a projected cost of $50 billion (£34.9 billion) - offer new real stations, an upgraded airport, and ports like that under construction in coastal Lamu, but not much for the two largest city’s crowded roads.

But getting funding for ventures in mobile technology in East Africa’s Silicon Savannah, says Mr Otieno, is easier.

“Companies there are ready to fund ventures that revolve around mobile money technology,” he says.

“It only maybe needs to be given much more publicity,” he adds, “so young people who have ideas about business know how to access it.”

For his part, Mr Otieno looks forward to “getting it right in Kenya, then trying other countries”.

And Mr Eisen’s Maramoja also looks forward to scaling up, once he feels he’s perfected their operations – “otherwise we’re just scaling our problems,” he says.

Meanwhile Easy Taxi has benefited from the attentions of the German incubator Rocket Internet, and four funding rounds which have left it with it over $77 million to scale in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It now has 185,000 drivers around the world.

Mobile money powered taxis, clearly, are going places.