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Ousta is driving ride-hailing expansion in Egypt

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Radwa Rashad

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Radwa Rashad is an Egyptian writer and entrepreneur.

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With its major cities congested with traffic — taxi cabs, public transports and, lately, ride-hailing and ride-sharing apps — Egypt apparently still needs more when it comes to transportation.

Catering to a population exceeding 90 million, international market players Uber and Careem launched in Egypt in 2014; a third player soon followed — a local ride-hailing app called Ousta. Launched in March 2016, the locally developed app promised no surge rates, lower fares, more safety features for riders and a seemingly patriotic approach to ride hailing. With one download a minute, and a ride request a minute as well, it might look like the locals are carving their market edge faster than the competition.

Starting with Greater Cairo (with a population well over 25 million) and surrounded by ongoing controversy with cab drivers protesting and demanding complete halt of ride-hailing apps, Ousta now has around 2,000 cars on the roads of five major cities all over Egypt, with plans to expand to cover the entire country by the end of 2016.

Ousta is the brainchild of Nader El-Batrawi, already an entrepreneur and founder of another successful startup named Jobzella (hailed as the Middle East’s First Professional Network). El-Batrawi partnered with longtime friend and former Zone Manager of Nestlé North America, Omar Salah, to release the application on both Android and iOS platforms.

While one would argue this is no great feat, technology-wise, as it pretty much reinvents the same technology of Uber, Lyft and other competitors, both co-founders argue differently.

“We are not really reinventing the wheel, we have taken a successful business model and made it more relevant to our unique culture. Egyptians are a tough crowd to please and we know how to get the job done,” says El-Batrawi.

Standing apart

The duo speak at length about the various additional features Ousta offers, such as the SOS button which, when pressed by a rider mid trip, summons the urgent attention and intervention of an emergency team to increase riders’ safety on the road.

“We have heard and read numerous stories about harassment, possible kidnapping and other issues happening with other competitors and we essentially wanted to give the rider the upper hand, if you are in distress mid trip, Ousta is here to step in,” says El-Batrawi.

Another feature seemingly alluring to the crowds is the “Live Fare” option, which allows the rider to see the fare calculated in real time as the trip progresses. This, according to the founders, includes riders in the process instead of relying on fare estimates and roughly calculated total fares.

Ousta also took a completely different approach to customer service. Instead of automated email replies and surveys, Ousta uses the power of social media to deal with all sorts of issues with complete live transparency. “No Egyptian wants to wait for an automated reply via email, they are hot blooded and when they want answers or solutions, they want them now,” says Salah.

El-Batrawi adds, “Social media is a powerful tool that is left untapped by many in the Middle East, if used properly, Middle Eastern people seem to develop product loyalty faster and deeper if engaged the right way.”

As for surge pricing and “peak hours,” practices adopted by apps and hated by riders, Ousta has made a painstakingly hard decision, promising no surge in prices regardless of traffic, supply, demand or even force majeure.

“We cater to Egyptians from all walks of life and they all use ride-hailing apps while on a tight budget. In Egypt’s pressing times economically and politically, we are resolved to be on the rider’s side even if it means less money for us and our partners,” Salah explains.

He adds, “Our partners are on board with the no surge policy, which is a big relief.”

To bootstrap or wait for VCs

But such a large-scale app operating in five large cities must need a lot of funding and an army of operations staff. Not in Ousta’s case.

Located in The Greek Campus, Cairo’s Silicon Valley equivalent, Ousta operates with 30 employees, with more than half in tech roles. So when does the funding fit in?

Salah explains. “Yes, we bootstrapped using our life savings and we did for a reason. We wanted to launch on our own so that we can test and modify the app and all its related loose ends to gain traction, which is exactly the result we have come to.”

While some might argue that Ousta will have to fish for investment soon, the company seems to be stabilizing itself on its rapid success and growing database while preparing for investment talks and rounds.

“Getting investment is in the works but we wanted to prove it was doable against all the odds before stepping into board meetings. We have built it and now they will come,” says El-Batrawi.

Odds

Ousta does seem to be taking the fierce competition in stride despite the limited resources. On the other hand, regional competitor Careem (with $72 million in investments) and international ride-hailing empire Uber are both already invested and operating successfully in the market.

“We have unique edges, i.e no price surges ever, regardless of the circumstance, complete dependence on ethical business practices and a faith in the power of our name,” explains El-Batrawi.

What’s in a name?

The word Ousta is originally Turkish for “Master Craftsman,” the one who knows his/her craft to perfection and has the ability and determination to build on it and teach it to others. It has been amended over generations to denote masterful drivers.

In Egypt, you can’t be a real Ousta just because you can handle a steering wheel; an Ousta is courteous, polite and respectful of riders’ privacy and completely manages a safe trip. This is exactly what the startup is built on.

Salah says, “We employ the best in the profession, train them to be even better and manage the entire process with focus on ethics, respect, transparency and availability. The name being nostalgic to our audience doesn’t hurt either.”

In the works

Amidst the hustle of a small yet vibrant workspace, the question had to be asked: What is next for Ousta?

El-Batrawi is very elusive about it. What can be revealed are plans to cover the entire Egyptian map by the end of the current year and add to the app more tech and operation features to make it smoother and more in tune with what riders really want.

Salah adds, “We have reached 30-40% weekly growth rate in under three months, why not go for more?”

Both smile sheepishly and shrug, saying, “Expanding all over the MENA region sounds cool too.”

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