We talked to Michael Okaredje of Pickmeup about building digital services for Sub Saharan Africa and this is what he had to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Michael Okaredje: These are interesting times. The pandemic is crippling for lots of people and businesses, but thankfully, we’re all very good and doing our best to keep safe amid the unprecedented health crisis. There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel with news of effective vaccines being reported recently. Hopefully, the drugs will be made available across the world as soon as possible.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Pickmeup.
Michael Okaredje: I have my computer science background and built a successful career in the oil & gas sector. Today, I sit on the board of one of the most successful constructions and energy companies in Nigeria’s south-south region.
My decision to venture into the startup scene was born out of a desire to address the lack of ride-hailing services in my city and the sizeable un-serviced market in Nigeria and Africa at large. So, I decided to develop a product based on my extensive knowledge of the terrain and the consumers. That was what prompted me to found Pickmeup.
How does Pickmeup innovate?
Michael Okaredje: Ride-hailing services have disrupted traditional transportation. But Pickmeup isn’t just making movement easier and cheaper for commuters, and we’re doing so in a way that sets us apart.
As part of our goal of ensuring a smooth relationship with driver-partners, we came up with a digital wallet system. Drivers can top up their wallets at will and effectively pay us our commission on each ride. They can also request a pay-out of their accumulated funds, which can be processed within 48 hours.
Our customers also get a live chat support system to resolve their queries in real-time instead of the ticketing system. They can also favorite their drivers, who are then prioritized for future ride requests. This enables them to have a level of control over their experience and incentivizes drivers to offer a competitive service.
We also have a central dispatcher hotline to harness customers that prefer phone calls over mobile apps, after which we easily integrate them into our system. So these are some of the additional innovations we have come up with to improve the ride-hailing experience.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Michael Okaredje: Many industries were directly affected by the pandemic. Notably, ride-hailing apps witnessed a decline in use, so our rides cratered naturally as cities went into lockdown and Nigerians began to self-isolate.
But there has been an uptick in demand with the gradual easing of movement restrictions, and we have continued to gain momentum post-COVID lockdowns. This is especially because car ownership is low in this part of the world, so people are more willing to travel with Pickmeup, as we assure them of safety and hygiene.
There is still a pandemic out there, so we really prioritize safety, and we have tried to find solutions to keep our users safe. Presently, we require that our users wear masks and ask that our drivers carry hand sanitizers in their vehicles. That’s really helped the business.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Michael Okaredje: We took a number of cost-cutting initiatives even though they weren’t enough to fully offset the economic fallout from the pandemic. In our operations, we had to introduce a comprehensive set of safety policies to ensure drivers’ and riders’ safety.
With every crisis, there are sure to be lessons. While the lockdown measures reduced ride bookings, the isolation period simultaneously fuelled expansion in food and package deliveries as more people turned to online shopping. That underlines the importance of building a diversified business, so, from transport mobility, we are moving into food delivery, payments, and social e-commerce from next year.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Pickmeup in the future?
Michael Okaredje: I step back from whatever is making me anxious and take out time to relax. And of course, I try to eat well-balanced meals, get enough sleep, and exercise daily. That helps greatly in dealing with stress.
Now, the ride-hailing industry in Nigeria and Africa is rapidly growing due to greater adoption and increased roll-out of smartphones and high-speed internet. I think we are on a very clear journey, and we have not missed a step since we started that journey to shape the future of transportation & logistics in Africa.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Michael Okaredje: Of course, we have foreign players like Uber and Bolt as well as few other local Startups. But I think competition is a double-edged sword and, counterintuitively, often brings more benefits than drawbacks. The competition has made us stronger, and we’ve experienced incredible growth.
Currently, over 50,000+ people rely on our app to move around their cities. The reason for this is our ability to offer lower costs for the same quality of service and have a better understanding of the market terrain.
We’re significantly different from the rest, with a number of unique offerings. Pickmeup has the lowest service fee of 15% for drivers than Bolt’s 20% and Uber’s 25% and offers drivers the flexibility to pay themselves plus free training and vehicle inspections.
Riders also get to enjoy some unique features while using the service, as explained earlier. We are known for doing the small things that the bigger competitors are missing and are able to tailor the experience to Nigerians a lot more than they can. This sets us apart and positions Pickmeup well in the game.
Your final thoughts?
Michael Okaredje: The pandemic has changed life as we knew it. The world doesn’t look anything like it did a year ago. But I think it has also brought an opportunity for us as humans to show more empathy and for companies to innovate more in tune with the changing times.
Startups and businesses have a huge role to play. We have to keep innovating to advance society. It’s a fact that new and innovative products have helped to increase the standard of living and provided people with opportunities to improve their lives. We have to keep up with this culture and not let the pandemic discourage that.
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