Smart mobility is the coming together of various key elements, technology, infrastructure and people, that offers flexible first-to-last mile mobility that is integrated, safe, on-demand, and cost-effective. In twenty years, it is anticipated that 300 million residents will be added to urban areas in Africa, and by 2050, 60 percent of all Africans will live in an urban area. With rapid population growth and urbanisation expected to massively shape the face of Africa over the next few decades, policy makers will be challenged to organise these cities smartly, and in a way that enables the efficient movement of the anticipated urban demographic to support the development of strong, inclusive economies in these spaces. Policy makers will also need to do so in the face of persistent structural challenges. Achieving a smarter mobility ecosystem can provide economic and social opportunities and benefits for individuals that result in positive multiplier effects such as better accessibility to markets, employment and additional investments.

Network effects are a key factor underpinning smarter and more economically inclusive mobility. The physical and digital networks that support transportation and mobility are some of the most important assets a country can have – this is even more so in a global economy where economic opportunities have been increasingly related to the mobility of people and freight. African cities however still face a number of challenges that hamper mobility, including heavy congestion that hinders the movement of people and goods in many cities and causes environmental and health concerns. Furthermore, a lack of coordinated planning of land-use and fit-for-purpose public transport networks mean that, while urban mobility policies tend to strongly promote public transport, the reality is that most cities have developed around fragmented individual transport. Realising this, the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa committed $81.6 billion to infrastructure development projects in Africa in 2017, 42% of which have been ring-fenced for the transportation sector.

The role of digital platforms

Digital platforms have a role to play in shaping smart networks in mobility. While modern urban mobility infrastructure is still limited in Africa, part of the answer to the smarter mobility question may lie in the region’s growing platform economy. At the end of 2018, our research identified 277 digital platforms, 20% of which are connecting networks of riders and drivers across southern, east and west Africa. To date, the impact of the platform economy on mobility has largely been centred around the ridesharing economy, e-hailing being one of the most prevalent platform types in the region with around 53 currently in operation. Since 2010, global investment in this industry amounting to $56.2 billion, higher than any other mobility cluster. These digital platforms are reorganising markets, restructuring the labour force, and redefining the scope of competition in Africa. By utilising advanced digital algorithms, these platforms have been able to seamlessly connect individuals and systems to both create and deliver new economic value; they are also able to efficiently harness a wide range of transactional data to develop the most efficient solutions for users. Digital platforms clearly have a role to play in unlocking economic inclusion on the continent as we move toward an era of smart mobility. We consider some of the key considerations with respect to their potential in this role.

Mobility as a service

As urban density increases, mobility is expected to transition increasingly from being product-centred to being service-centred, with alternatives emerging as the cost of ownership continues to rise. Vehicle subscription is one option that is gaining prominence. Vehicle subscription is a model of matching that gives individuals possession of a vehicle (similar to leasing) and also offers the ability to swap vehicles for something different on a weekly or monthly basis. Users would connect with manufacturers or fleet owners via a digital platform such as Blinker or Carly and pay a one-time membership fee and a subscription payment for vehicle access services such as carsharing, rental, leasing and outright purchase. While this model is still nascent in Africa, globally there are already around 50 vehicle subscription programmes, the majority of which originally piloted with both new and old vehicle fleets. The potential benefits of this concept for African markets is that, in addition to being highly flexible, vehicle subscription programs are perceived as being more cost-effective than traditional car leases, rentals, or outright purchases. They seem tailor-made for a diverse range of groups who want simple, economical, hassle-free temporary mobility solutions with easy cancellation and return policies.

Harnessing platform data for mobility

A cornerstone of the platform economy in Africa, and indeed of smarter mobility, is data. The amount of personal data is rising as smartphone penetration has increased to 33% while ITC systems are being integrated across industries such as transport; this data an increasingly valuable asset. For smarter mobility, the significance of data has only grown as it enables decision-makers to plan, build and maintain cities in a more sustainable way. Going forward, urban planners may draw on data generated by e-hailing platforms in combination with other informal transport solutions, such as commuter taxis and auto-rickshaws, to enable users to plan their entire journey effectively and help optimise and automate the flow of transport in urban areas on the continent.

Platform regulation could guide smarter mobility

Developing effective regulatory frameworks can be key to optimizing the relationship between the platform economy and smarter mobility. Our research identified several types of digital platforms that create employment opportunities based on use of smarter mobility. These include e-hailing and logistics/courier platforms, which together accounted for around 242,000 microwork jobs across seven countries in SSA (Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa) in 2017, according to surveys conducted by Research ICT Africa. These smarter mobility solutions represent key avenues for economic inclusion as they provide individuals with access to income earning opportunities while around 90% of workers, on average, report that the income generated on these platforms is essential for meeting their basic needs. Policymakers and regulators, however, have been slow to develop regulatory frameworks that support the sustainable growth of this sector which could create uncertainty for investors and individuals around the future of mobility.

The need for smarter solutions to mobility challenges in Africa is clear, as is the vast potential of these to leverage the growing digital platform economy. How decision-makers choose to approach this next phase of movement of people and goods will be crucial in shaping not only the direction of digital Africa, but also the role of technology in unlocking economic inclusion in an era of smart mobility.