How Bolt is adapting after COVID-19 hit its ride-hailing business

Ola Akinnusi, Country Manager at Bolt

COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching consequences and devastating effects to the global economy and social lives of individuals. The outbreak has caused an unprecedented disruption to life and livelihoods leaving individuals now drastically adjusting to the new normal, as governments relax restrictions.

Ride-hailing sector was one of the most affected business by Covid -19 pandemic. Curfew state implementation, work from home policy and social distancing, drastically reduced movements of individuals thus affecting normal operations of businesses – Ride hailing included.

Fast forward, as cities begin to reopen and the public transport sector begins to move again, albeit in restricted manner, the industry is gradually picking up and coming to birth with new lessons, new strategies and plans to heal from the effects of Covid-19.

We recently had a sit down with Ola Akinnusi, Country Manager at Bolt to explore how ride hailing operations have been influenced by COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons learnt from the current health crisis that will re-shape the industry going forward;

  1. With the Covid-19 pandemic, taxi-hailing services such as you (Bolt) have had a fair share of the brunt. What has been your experience so far? 

The impact of COVID-19 in several cases has been fatal. Businesses have shut down and individuals’ livelihoods have been upended. 

Curfews resulted in sharp reductions in transport demand levels. It is highly likely that the corona virus outbreak will have longer-term impacts to our individual behavior and lifestyle, the way we work, consume and travel. 

Digital Taxi services were severely impacted by travel bans and individual concerns in order to avoid public gatherings leading to plummeting ridership and reduced travel and transport demand.

The industry experienced low ridership going into April when movement restrictions were implemented to mitigate the spread of the virus. It plunged to lows of 25% of usual journeys (COVID-19 Community Mobility Report). This prevailed as the public observed the guidelines communicated by the Ministry of Health. 

  •  In countries that imposed a near to a Total Lockdown, the sector was greatly affected as users became apprehensive of using the service out of fear of contracting the Virus while on transit. Drawing a parallel, how was it locally?

Ride-hailing sector was one of the most affected businesses by COVID-19 pandemic. The implementation of the dusk to dawn State curfew, introduction of wide-scale remote working policies and limitations on social gatherings drastically reduced urban mobility globally.

Since Kenya discovered its first coronavirus case in March 2020, offices, shops, restaurants, clubs and other social venues started to close and the public became increasingly wary of venturing out, bringing down the demand for transportation. The COVID-19 Community Mobility Report by Google indicates that movements to places of work, retail and recreation centres dropped by over 75%.

With a further easing of containment measures by President Uhuru, what should we expect from Bolt?

As cities begin to reopen, recovery in the industry is gradually accelerating. In the week beginning 31st August, the movement of people and goods experienced recovery by to about 80% of pre-Covid levels, in line with the Community Mobility Reports.  

It is very important for us to proceed with caution and safety top of mind as the measures were put in order to flatten the curve. We’ve up-scaled our safety features and policies guidelines on our platform that are easily accessible from the app’s home screen such as the driver and rider SOS button, giving drivers and riders a quick way to contact first responders in the event that something goes wrong during a Bolt trip.

We are also investing quite significantly in customer acquisition and retention. To this effect, we’ve expanded our ride options – to cushion passengers and increase driver earnings. We are expanding our more affordable ride category dubbed Bolt Lite targeting passengers seeking low budget travel into a number of cities where we currently operate in. Bolt Lite is currently available in Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru and Mombasa. 

We appreciate the huge financial burden on our customers with respect to transportation especially in these difficult times.  

This category aims to make rides more affordable to customers, which in turn translates to increased trips, hence stronger earnings for drivers.     Bolt Lite is optional for Bolt drivers and allows drivers to take full control of their earnings whilst offering financial relief for customers from the effects of a prolonged COVID-19 crisis. 

  • What are your priorities now as Bolt. Survival or bouncing back? And how will it be like?

There are some early signs of a recovery as the public adapts to the new world norms. Nonetheless, it is impossible to accurately predict the duration and depth of the economic downturn going into the last quarter of the year. However, growth is assured and the pace is gradual.

  • How have you maneuvered through the pandemic looking at measures you adopted, and what lessons have you learnt from this crisis that will re-shape industry operations in the long run. 

What we did to get this far:

  1. Adaptability to COVID-19 crisis

Many of our efforts were focused on ensuring driver and passenger health and safety are observed. We also reviewed many processes and refined them to achieve more with conservative resources; It was important to proceed with caution and safety top of mind.

For instance, we introduced Bolt Protect ride category where vehicles were fitted with surface disinfectants and with a protective plastic film of nylon installed between the front and back cabins therefore acting as a precautionary barrier that limited the airflow between the driver and passengers. This was done as a way of reducing the possibility of spread of the virus through droplets expelled by sneezes or coughs from an infected person. We financed the cost of installation of the Bolt Protect plastic film for hundreds of drivers on the Bolt platform.

This tactic was a measure to proactively manage the risk of exposure and minimize the transmission of the COVID-19 while at the same time broadening the available commute options. It was indeed an immense contribution to boosting the confidence of passengers to run essential errands in a safe environment.

  1.  Being nimble, efficient and smart 

The global nature of our business demands that we be flexible and efficient in every situation. We constantly innovate to meet the ever changing needs and demands forces in the market.  We reacted swiftly and nimbly using conservative resources to achieve more. We encouraged and facilitated our teams to work remotely resulting in prudent use of resources while still providing convenient and efficient services to the drivers and passengers. 

We increased communication and awareness to the communities we operate in as one of the ways we contribute to flattening the community transmissions curve.

Drivers operating on our platform received direct communication reminding them of hygiene protocols as recommended by the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health, sending them tips to follow to help keep themselves and the Bolt community safe. 

We added new features and policies to help ensure the health and well-being of drivers while operating across the platform, taking extensive measures to compliment the Local Authorities and Public Health institutions to proactively manage risks of exposure, an initiative that we keep doing.

  1.  Diversification of operations

We diversified our operations greatly, tapping into parcels delivery services thus allowing businesses to access a large network of couriers in under 5 minutes. 

We relied on our experiences in operations and logistics, and a large network of drivers on the platform to seamlessly move goods, parcels, groceries among other commodities to different locations.

This also created alternative livelihood opportunities for drivers on the platform thereby contributing to the wellbeing of thousands of beneficiaries.

  1.  Leveraging on the power of Tech

We leveraged on technology and the strong internet infrastructure in Kenya and adapted entirely to contactless customer support via in-app chats, emails and VoIP calls and thus eliminated the public health risks that would have been occasioned by in-person support at our driver and passenger walk-in support centers. This also significantly improved our cost structure by eliminating fixed rental agreements.

  • How can the sector ensure that it comes out of this pandemic stronger than before? 

Leveraging the power of technology will see digital platforms introduce a great number of innovations and initiatives that build up the confidence of both driver and passenger. Technological advances open up a range of economic development opportunities, encouraging the use of conservative resources to achieve more while still providing convenient and efficient services.

Leveraging data analytics and artificial intelligence, ride-hailing platforms can constantly improve their understanding of customer needs and expectations, and then use this knowledge to upgrade the customer experience. This is done via innovations such as having a user-friendly interface, shortened waiting times, pick-up and drop-off visualization, a refined on-board experience, ease of payment and faster issue resolution. 

  •  What are you doing as Bolt to ensure that you are ahead when it comes to innovation?

We continue to scale up our operations for the benefit of our customers.  Our core business is to provide reliable, safe and affordable transportation services to everyone and we are excited to always make travel easier and quicker across the country.

One of the key priorities for us this quarter is on sustainable security and safety of drivers and passengers using our platform.

We have strengthened our driver screening processes and introduced emergency assistance features like the SOS button (for both the drivers and the riders on the platform) reserved for medical and security emergencies. 

Additional safety features such as Share your ETA, where a passenger can share his/her live trip details with emergency contact numbers also ensure safety throughout the lifecycle of the passenger’s journey. To further strengthen ride safety of our customers, we are closely monitoring

We continue to be innovative while relying on our experiences in operations and logistics, and a large network of drivers on our platform to diversify operations and come up with services that meet the changing demands of customers.