The brightly colored matatu (commuter mini-bus) stops at the side of Ngong Road in Nairobi, Kenya, and disgorges its passengers. It absorbs another gaggle of travelers, and then is on its way, merging with the heavy traffic that’s a mainstay in the capital city of this East African country.
Thanks to a technology called FlashCast, many commuters facing a long matatu ride home or to work now have a new way to pass the time, and news outlets and advertisers have a new way to engage them. Riders can get the news, play video games, chat and receive neighborhood-specific vouchers, specials and community notices on even the most basic mobile handsets.
FlashCast delivers real-time, hyperlocal information to commuters using GPS-enabled, LED [light-emitting diode] displays. The system is powered by mobile software that sends location-specific information to the vehicle.
FlashCast was a winner of the 2012 African News Innovation Challenge (ANIC), which seeds innovation to improve the quality of news on the continent. Media strategist Justin Arenstein launched the contest for the African Media Initiative as part of his ICFJ Knight Fellowship. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is a founding partner of the contest, which was modeled on the foundation’s Knight News Challenge.
A new way to engage readers
Using FlashCast, commuters can comment on the news via SMS messages, which are fed back onto the mobile display in almost real time. This enables a Twitter-like conversation to flow on vehicles. The system also feeds the comments back to the media outlets, giving them a new medium for connecting with readers.
FlashCast is currently in trials with Radio Africa Group and The Star in Kenya to stream news via the system. “We’re working with local media houses in Kenya and plugging directly into their real-time news feeds," says Jeremy Gordon, co-founder of Flashcast.
“Passengers like it because we’re providing information that’s relevant to them,” Gordon says. “We know this because commuters tell the transit operators that they like it, and there’s been this trickle up request over the past couple of months, and we’re selling more units to operators.” Flashcast, which launched last year, has already reached nearly 7.5 million commuters.
From idea to prototype
Gordon conceived the idea for FlashCast while “thinking about the communications and technology business in general and how expensive it is for businesses to communicate with the market in Kenya,” he told IJNet in an interview.
Massive competition, high vehicle maintenance costs and the increasing cost of petrol means that the matatu business has a low profit margin and depends on attracting a large number of customers. FlashCast's disruptive content business gives bus owners a new revenue stream while keeping commuters in the know, entertained and engaged.
“I felt there was an opportunity to use technology in combination with the transportation industry here, which is also very interesting and uniquely Kenyan,” Gordon says. Before FlashCast, “it was obvious that only the top brands and international companies could do any kind of marketing or communication or advertising to a mass market. The reason for this is that it is so incredibly expensive to use traditional media channels like billboard, radio and newspapers in Nairobi.”
He began by hacking together bits of technology to see if he could create a prototype for a display product that might disrupt the mass advertising market. “I put together a couple of very early prototypes. In the early days we weren’t even thinking of vehicles. We were thinking about outdoor displays that we could deploy in open markets,” he says.
Then, in 2010, he met Caine Kamau, who would become his co-founder. Kamau "was really interested in the technology and got the potential of the idea,” says Gordon, who believes having a local as a business partner has been critically important. “Caine has more local market knowledge as a native Nairobian. You can’t serve any market that you don’t understand.”
The pair founded FlashCast and continued to develop the product together. “After sourcing LED display hardware from Shenzhen in China, we spent a full year reverse-engineering this hardware so it would talk to our software,” Gordon says. “We also had to create and integrate the location-aware component of the hardware.” In 2012, Flashcast deployed its first prototype on a Nairobi bus.
The pair then took the prototype around to transit operators in Nairobi. “We needed a large bus company in Nairobi to deploy it to see what commuters would think of it,” Gordon says. A company called MOA Compliant, run by Simon Kimutai, a visionary in the Kenyan transit industry, came on board.
Kimutai was one of the first transit operators to introduce WiFi and cashless payments to his operation. “Simon can see the potential for very new and emerging technologies before they hit the market,” Gordon says. “He saw the potential and enabled us to get started. Because MOA Compliant has hundreds of buses, they have more reach today than we could fill in terms of capacity.”
New revenue streams for advertisers and transit firms in a growing market
A PwC forecast of advertising and consumer spending across Kenya shows total entertainment and media expenditure in Kenya will exceed US$3 billion in 2017. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 16.3 percent between 2013 and 2017, a rate PwC states is “one of the fastest growth rates in the world.”
This growth means more businesses need to reach more customers. That's where FlashCast comes in. “While bigger brands can afford the prices, smaller and medium-sized businesses typically can’t use traditional advertising to communicate to the market about what they’re doing that’s new, different or innovative. These businesses have to rely on other ways to grow,” he explains.
What's more, the value proposition for taxi owners is extremely attractive and affords FlashCast reach, sustainability and longevity. “Because our displays are location-aware, we have a website dashboard where the operators can log in and see the location of their vehicles, and that is useful for all kinds of fleet management,” Gordon says.
“But what’s probably most compelling and relevant is the revenue share. A very significant portion of the revenue that we get from advertising is shared with the transit operators because it is on their vehicles and with the help of their passengers," that FlashCast can make money. "All the transit operators are looking for new revenue streams to get their businesses to grow because it is a difficult business to be in."
The technology modernizing Kenya's matatus on BBC.
Of Nairobi’s unique matatu culture and graffiti at Standard Media.
Mandy de Waal is a journalist based in South Africa.
Photo credit: Nairobi bus by Xiaojun Deng with a Creative Commons license.