South Africa’s MellowCabs: when urban transportation meets advertising

16th Oct 2014
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Building a software startup in Africa is quite hard, but building hardware is even tougher. So far, only few entrepreneurs were able to pull that feat. The Kenyan BRCK is one of those hardware African startups that is trying to bring Internet connection in remote areas.

YourStory spoke to Neil du Preez , CEO of MellowCabs. He is a hardware entrepreneur who dreams of setting up a real-world hardware accelerator in South Africa someday. He says, “There are so many challenges facing hardware startups in Africa, and even more so with a large scale project like ours. No support from government, so funding available, technical difficulties aplenty, setbacks, incompetent people, and frustrations…the usual story. We overcame them one by one, and by being determined, and joining forces with the right people…which is critical.”

Mobility is a precondition for economic growth: mobility for access to jobs, education, health, and other services. Mobility of goods is also critical to supply world markets in our globalized economy.

 

MellowCabs CEO Neil du Preez
MellowCabs CEO Neil du Preez | Image courtesy: http://1776dc.com/

What is MellowCabs?

MellowCabs is a startup that is trying to build electric mini-cabs for efficient urban transportation. The company’s main premise is that of all urban trips made, 80 percent are shorter than four miles. So, they set out to design low-cost, energy-efficient electric vehicles to disrupt the current combustion engines that were made for long distance trips.

MellowCab aims to provide first and last mile micro-transport services within three km radius(eg. covering the route to and fro, home-to-train station or bus stop). It is designed to be light, very safe, extremely visible vehicle that fights heavy carbon emission and traffic congestion.

As the case maybe MellowCabs can be converted into delivery vehicles. (Would be interesting to see the effect of this on e-commerce industry, once it rolls out.)

Neil tells YourStory, “We’ve been working on it for two years now. We had basic prototypes after about eight months which were intended as test models. We are now in the final pre-production stages of a new generation of MellowCabs, featuring a brand new shell design, drive train and a host of other technological features, which will be revolutionary and a world first for micro cabs.”

Business model

The way Google subsidizes the services it provide via ad income,the main source of revenue for MellowCabs is not going to be charging commuters a fee, but by selling advertising real-estate inside and outside the vehicles. MellowCabs believes their ad inventory on their cabs gives brands very powerful exposure and creates zero ad avoidance as the experience is uniquely crafted for the users.

Neil says, “The transport sector is arguably one of the biggest in the world, people from first-world high-income zones to run-down, dirt poor cities need efficient transport. We have a clear vision, which is to bring MellowCabs to every major city in the world.”

MellowCab aspires to kill two birds (corporate advertisers and city commuters) with one stone (electric cab) by serving passengers with much lower fares—less than half of what normal cabs charge. It will also give brands unique outdoor advertising platform, which is on high demand in metropolitan cities.

Drivers can lease the vehicle and pay fixed amount while keeping everything for themselves, or they can opt-in to be hired for a fixed salary.

MellowCabs sample ads
MellowCabs sample ads

Technology stack

MellowCabs are designed to be fully roadworthy vehicles, and they have implement technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, regenerative braking, illuminated body panels and on-board tablet computers. Their shells are also made from recycled plastic.

According to the founder’s interview with 1776 here are a few unique technologies that make MellowCabs efficient and attractive to customers.

“There are a few examples. The first is regenerative braking: the kinetic energy that is usually lost in the braking process is recovered and converted into electricity, and then stored. Then, mobile phone charging stations: We intend to install charging facilities for mobile phones in the vehicles as a bonus to passengers. Then, illuminated body panels: Our shells have been designed with an LED light system, making it possible to illuminate the body panels, thereby enhancing the vehicle’s and the advertising’s visibility and aesthetics. Next is hydrogen fuel cells: We are working with a big university in South Africa in the development of a hydrogen-fueled MellowCabs. Finally, there is the adaptable body shell: The MellowCab shells have been designed to be adaptable to other application, for example, as delivery vehicles or police cruisers.

“The vehicles are equipped with on-board tablet computers, which offer an interactive experience to the passenger. The tablets feature our own propriety software, which includes an augmented reality facility, geo-activation advertising and full social media integration.”

This is a major challenge that countries face, but the good news is that the transition toward low-carbon transportation is affordable if innovative ideas like MellowCabs step to the foreground
MellowCabs Specs
MellowCabs Specs

Where did the inspiration come from?

Founder & CEO Neil comments,“I've always been really interested in public transport systems, and what it can mean for an individuals and the economy. Growing up in South Africa we didn't have access to public transport. Then, after living abroad for a few years I started seeing transit systems in a new light. Mobility is a precondition for economic growth: mobility for access to jobs, education, health, and other services. Mobility of goods is also critical to supply world markets in our globalized economy.”

He adds, “We could say that transport drives development. But transport also contributes about 20 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. The more the world urbanizes – and we’re forecast to be 70 percent urban-dwellers by 2050 – the more critical clean, efficient, and safe transportation becomes.This is a major challenge that countries face, but the good news is that the transition toward low-carbon transportation is affordable if innovative ideas like MellowCabs step to the foreground (i.e. less congestion, less local pollution, and better road safety, etc.)”

The founder & team

MellowCabs has won the Challenge Cup Smart Cities semifinals. The startup was named on the Forbes' list of 7 most innovating ideas from Africa.

The founder has been working in the corporate environment for about 10 years. Then he started Riksha, a bicycle trailer, which led him to be interested in urban transportation and which led to the current startup. MelloCabwas initially bootstrapped by Neil.He later raised an undisclosed funding.

Talking about his team Neil says, “We have a main design team led by a senior industrial designer and mechanical engineer with loads of designers, a fabrication team, a management team, and various people in advisory roles.”

 

Finally,CEO Neil du Preez has an advice for entrepreneurs who are aspiring to be in hardware the space:“Focus on your strengths; get someone to assist with your weaknesses. You will achieve so much more.”

 

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