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Taxis redefine last-mile deliveries in impoverished areas

Taxis redefine last-mile deliveries in impoverished areas
Taxis redefine last-mile deliveries in impoverished areas

Sending a parcel in Africa is a “cumbersome process”. As a result, communities in South Africa’s largest and most impoverished zones started sending packages via public transport. 

Zamokuhle Thwala had to urgently send a parcel from Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to where he was studying agricultural engineering in Pietermaritzburg. It’s about a two-hour drive between these two cities, without any stops in between. Using private courier companies to send parcels is the best but most expensive option. The government-owned postal service, SAPO is notoriously unreliable.

“The traditional courier companies do not work on weekends. The available solution alternatives were too pricey. One of my friends suggested using a taxi. You tell your sister to take the charger to a nearby taxi rank,” says Thwala, explaining that a taxi rank is like a pickup point, where commuters queue to get on a minibus to go into town. Within two hours, he had his charger and could concentrate on his studies again.

How Thumela was born

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a considerable uptake in e-commerce and online shopping. “So then I thought maybe it would be great if I could use taxis to solve the problem of parcel deliveries in Africa, in South Africa, specifically,” says Thwala.

Thumela was born out of a need for more accessible delivery options for citizens in rural and impoverished areas. “Before COVID, e-commerce or deliveries were seen as a luxury. Now, it has become a necessity. One of the issues with medication in Africa is the distribution. The government has medication, but how do you get it to people?”

For a grandmother in her seventies, traveling 10 kilometers to get her medication is far from ideal. But with Thumela, it’s now possible to bring online purchases closer to the villages via taxi deliveries. 

There are specifically allocated Thumela pick-up points in townships where customers can drop off a parcel. A taxi driver then picks up these consolidated parcels and delivers them to a destination point, with travel costs assessed accordingly. A security pin ensures its safety when dropping off the box. The recipient receives a notification when the parcel is ready for collection at the point. This system streamlines the process, reducing the need for direct communication between the recipient and the taxi driver.

Africa’s taxi history

The South African taxi industry operates with minibuses that typically carry a maximum of 15 passengers, making it an affordable and widely used mode of transportation. 

Taxis redefine last-mile deliveries in impoverished areas

These minibuses pick up passengers, especially in townships and rural areas with limited infrastructure. This system offers accessibility to millions of South Africans daily, with over 15 million relying on it for daily commutes. More than 250,000 minibus taxis are operating on the country’s roads daily, significantly contributing to the country’s GDP.

“So it just shows the network and the reach of this industry and these taxis,” says Thwala. Every hour, a taxi moves from one city to another, going back and forth. So what we’re doing at Thumela is leveraging the minibus taxi industry.”

Two models for Thumela

There are two sets of needs Thumela aims to serve. One model is the pick-up points at taxi ranks, and the other is home deliveries. You can choose an e-commerce business to deliver a parcel directly to the customer’s doorstep.

Parcel out for delivery

The taxi industry works with a hierarchy, and it’s already formally structured in a specific way. Thumela uses what they call “marshals,” like leaders in the taxi business. They determine which drivers are reliable to use in which areas. Although their primary purpose is transporting commuters to and from work, these taxis stand idle at the ranks while waiting for the afternoon rush. 

“So that’s when they do these home deliveries in townships. So that’s a second model of Thumela. We believe during that downtime, instead of the taxi industry idling at a rank waiting for the other peak hour after 2 p.m., they can do these deliveries to homes in townships,” says Thwala. 

Why aren’t these packages going missing

There is a unique relationship between taxi drivers and passengers in South Africa. Many communities trust taxi drivers, and their employment is collateral, making them less likely to steal a parcel. If word spreads that drivers are unreliable, it would cause irreparable damage to the industry. Therefore, taxi drivers will do anything to safeguard the trust their clients or communities place in them. 

About the author

Mia is a multi-award-winning journalist. She has more than 14 years of experience in mainstream media. She's covered many historic moments that happened in Africa and internationally. She has a strong focus on human interest stories, to bring her readers and viewers closer to the topics at hand.

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