24 November 2017

Dakar: Building a bus business

Starting any kind of public transport startup inevitably means a clash with local authorities. Niokolo Transports has encountered its fair share in Senegal.

Niokolo Transports provides much needed bus services linking Dakar to the remote regions of Tambacounda and Kédougou. Set up in 2008, Niokolo broke into a sector that had until then been dominated by informal networks controlled by trade unions.

Niokolo was created in France by a group of Senegalese migrants called the Association pour le Développement de Kédougou (APDK) to tackle the problem of territorial isolation in their home region of Kédougou in the southeast of Senegal near the Guinean border.

A Senegalese doctor visiting the APDK told the migrants that this was the main obstacle to delivering healthcare in the region, sparking the idea for a transport company linking Kédougou to the rest of the country.

However, the doctor said there was no point in donating an ambulance, as the roads are too damaged for it to drive anywhere. ‘We realised we needed to do things di erently,’ says Niokolo’s director general, Sidi Sy (pictured above).

First steps

The initial aim of the APDK was not to tackle territorial isolation but to help with the region’s development. At first the association did this by financing the construction of schools and hospitals, and donating supplies.

With investment gathered from members of the association, Niokolo was up and running by March 2009, offering inter-city coach travel at a standard previously unheard of in Senegal. Qualified drivers follow a set schedule, there is one seat per passenger, luggage is stored in the hold rather than piled on the roof, and terminals are equipped with a ticket booth and waiting area.

It was challenging. ‘Coaches would leave with only ve or six passengers,’ he says. ‘The word spread and things picked up. [But] this is when trouble started with the unions.’

Before Niokolo was fully functional, the typical way of travelling around Senegal would be through an informal network of privately-owned vehicles, which is loosely managed by trade unions. These depart from the Gare Routière des Pompiers in Dakar. There are no timetables or signs. Drivers shout out their destination and leave when all seats are filled.

Territorial disputes

Minibuses are the cheapest mode of transport, and most are in poor condition and often breakdown on the road. Drivers pay trade unionists a commission for every trip.

Niokolo was the first to offer a legitimate, organised transport system. It was filling a gap, creating competition and most radically, refused to pay trade unions.

However, this approach irked the trade unionists thriving off irregular transport systems, and Niokolo had invaded their space. ‘We wanted to provide transport but in legal conditions’, says Sy. ‘We cannot be a formal business, pay taxes to the state but then also pay fees to these other organisations.

‘Taxes to the state are one thing, but there is no reason we should give money to these people as well.’

A bitter spat ensued. Unionists accused Niokolo of putting people out of work and raised the issue with the country’s Ministry of Transport. But the company held its ground. And as its customer base grew, so did the backing of local people. The government however, was reluctant to get involved and unionists were eventually forced to relinquish their claims.

Bumps in the road

Today, nine Niokolo coaches and four minibuses run regularly between Dakar and the Kédougou and Tambacounda regions. The company also runs an intra-region network of minibuses linking villages to the main towns. Sy employs over 50 people and is planning to set up a new route into the southern region of Kolda.

Yet progress is hampered by Senegal’s lack of infrastructure. Buses are damaged by poor road conditions and travel times are lengthened. Operations are limited during the rainy season from July to September. Lack of manufacturing means both coaches and spare parts need to be imported from China, adding customs duties to the high costs of maintenance.

The imported buses cost €5,000 (£4,450) each and are heavily taxed at the Senegalese border, which makes it difficult for Niokolo to charge competitive prices.

The government is also holding back authorisation for the company to set up an official bus terminal in Dakar, as it would prefer coaches to depart from the newly developed Baux Maraîchers station, on the outskirts of Dakar.

Niokolo has tried to set up its services there for two months, but it was too far from the city and did not have the right infrastructure for the company to function, with no place for a ticket booth, timetable or waiting room.

But Sy remains set on his plan. ‘Transport is a sector that needs to be developed,’ he says. ‘We want to set a precedent and strengthen infrastructure so that similar projects can be created.’

And this seems to be working. Over the past two years, both a former driver and a Niokolo shareholder have set up formal transport companies in Kédougou.

Competition perhaps, but for Sy, anything that helps tackle territorial isolation comes as good news.

First appeared in issue 20 Dec/Jan

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