How do ordinary Pakistanis get to work, school and the shops each day? Karachi-based start-up BusCaro, which is today announcing it has raised pre-seed finance of $1.5 million, believes it has the answer in a country where transport options are often unsafe, unreliable or simply unaffordable.
BusCaro – one Urdu meaning of which is “take the bus” – bridges the gap between Pakistan’s sketchy public transport and options such as taxis, rideshares and rickshaws, which are too expensive for most people. The business, now operating in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, aims to team up with Pakistan’s 40,000 minivan and minibus drivers. It finds them passengers by doing deals with partners such as employers and schools, effectively guaranteeing them significant numbers of passengers on key routes.
“When we fill the bus, the driver earns more than from driving the odd passenger, and the passenger gets a lower fare,” explains BusCaro CEO Maha Shahzad, who founded the business in October 2022. “Most importantly of all, the customer gets to their destination safely.”
That final point is a key driver for Shahzad, who says Pakistani women in particular do not feel safe when travelling in public; as many as 85% of them report having been sexually harassed in such settings, she explains. Men also need safer transport options, she adds.
“We can’t even begin to enable and empower women if they can’t travel to school or work safely,” Shahzad argues. “A safe and affordable commute should be a basic human right.”
For Shahzad, the challenge has been identifying a model that enables her to deliver on that promise while building a commercially sustainable business. With stints under her belt at ride-hailing app Careem and the global mobility start-up Swvl, she was painfully aware that traditional models in this market have either been too expensive for most Pakistanis or proved unviable. Swvl, for example, decided to close its business in Pakistan last year.
Using minibus and minivan drivers, Shahzad believes, can deliver both affordability and profitability. She says a typical trip using BusCaro will cost the passenger – or the partner paying the fare – around 150 rupees. The same journey might cost 800 rupees in a rideshare vehicle or 1,400 rupees in a taxi, she says.
To make good on its promise of safety, BusCaro vets all its drivers with background checks before they are allowed to operate services, as well as checking the roadworthiness of their vehicles. Additional protections include a panic button built into BusCaro’s app, which passengers can use to call for help, as well as technology that enables the company to track its vehicles when they’re on a route.
There are also other benefits of operating this way. BusCaro estimates its alternative mode of transport is already reducing Pakistan’s carbon emissions by more than 3 million kiliograms each year. Shahzad expects that figure to increase over time – as passenger numbers grow, but also as Pakistan begins to invest in more electric vehicles for transportation.
With 20,000 bookings a day, BusCaro is now on target to break into profitability during the first quarter of 2024, Shahzad adds. And there is huge potential to expand: across the three cities in which the company operates, the target market totals 7 to 8 million passengers.
With capital markets drying up last year, Shahzad got the business off the ground using her own savings, before a number of angels provided some additional backing. They have subsequently been joined by Orbit Startups, which has a track record of investing in breakthrough businesses in emerging and frontier markets in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.
William Bao Bean, managing general partner at Orbit Startups, says he was attracted to the business by its sense of purpose as well as its growth potential. “Diversity and inclusion are tough to achieve when women have to spend north of 30% of their salary on getting to work in a safe and predictable way,” he says. “We backed BusCaro because it enables women and men to book safe, inexpensive and efficient shared transport to and from work, driving opportunities and opening up the overall economy.”
Orbit’s finance will help BusCaro to invest in further improvements to its technology stack, with Shahzad keen to build new functionality for passengers and partners as the business expands. The company has also begun to eye international expansion.
To view the full article, click here.