Maverick Citizen

From Uber to courier to put food on the table

By Biénne Huisman 4 June 2020

Clients with grocery parcels delivered by Cape Town startup Yebo Fresh. Founded in Hout Bay the business today operate from a 2400 m2 warehouse in the Airport Industria area delivering around the city, particularly in township areas. (Photo: Supplied by Yebo Fresh)

Covid-19 is making the future happen faster. In South Africa, coronavirus lockdown has killed the economy across sectors with millions of jobs and livelihoods lost. But for some, within this travesty lies opportunity.

Around South Africa, bands of quick thinkers are harnessing the shift to digital platforms and e-commerce to pioneer new businesses and jobs. 

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“Everyone knew the world was going online,” entrepreneur Rudi Ackerman from Cape Town tells Maverick Citizen. “Now, with lockdown, the shift has been accelerated. A few years have been squeezed into weeks.” 

Ackerman is the founder of Own My Ride, a platform connecting Uber drivers to vehicles. 

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In March, the business had 35 drivers, who lost all income when Uber passenger rides ground to a halt. However, in the past weeks, Ackerman has partnered with e-commerce and courier companies including Uber Eats, Picup and UCOOK, to find his drivers work delivering food and courier parcels instead of passengers. In some of the cars, seats have been removed to make room for packages. 

“We’ve been watching the market, and more goods are being transported than people,” says Ackerman. “So, we had to see how we can deliver more goods. My drivers know Cape Town by heart, there’s that intellectual capital, they know the routes.”

At present, 22 of Own My Ride’s drivers have resumed working in parcel and food delivery, with passenger rides slowly picking up again as lockdown levels ease.

“I’ve come with these drivers for three years,” says Ackerman. “Mostly they’re from Zimbabwe, some of them are qualified engineers, others schoolteachers, and so on. I’ve had that added pressure to provide for them. This business is a baby I have created. It got sick, and I needed to think fast how to get it healthy again.” 

Uber driver Spencer Zvama can now put food on the table again, as he turns to delivering food and parcels instead of people. Around the country, businesses are pivoting to innovate in a time of Covid-19. (Photo: Supplied)

One of the first pilot parcel drivers, Spencer Zvama, spoke to Maverick Citizen. Zvama lives in Delft with his wife, a domestic worker in Bishops Court, and their boys aged 13 and 5. His wife was paid only half her salary, in the first month of lockdown. 

“Our house has two bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen, and a bathroom,” says Zvama. “It is enough for us to stay. But there is no garden. It’s been difficult with the kids and homeschooling; I mean, they want to run around and play. When I park my car in front of the house there is no space. Also, we don’t want them to get exposed.” 

Zvama originally hails from Gweru in Zimbabwe, where he studied motor mechanics, and arrived in Cape Town in 2007. 

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“Uber, it was profitable, initially,” he says. “Then lockdown started. This thing just happened. It just came. We didn’t have time to plan. So we ran out of savings. This is affecting me big time, driving passengers was my source of income. It was a blow to me, and the people I look after. I couldn’t support my family here in Cape Town, and couldn’t send money back home to my eldest son and my little sister in Gweru. Then the kids, when they’re home they eat more.”

This is Zvama’s sixth week back on the road, delivering mostly parcels. This amended work strategy has enabled him to put food on the table again: rice, mielie meal, potatoes, and breakfast of cornflakes and milk. In the second month of lockdown he was unable to pay rent, but this has been rectified.

“Look, we’re testing the waters, we’re getting into the new system,” says Zvama. “At least I was able to buy the basics again. It’s not much. But as they say in my language: ‘It’s better to hang than to fall.’ So we’re still hanging in there. We have to stay strong. For me, if I don’t motivate my family, who will?” 

Health precautions for drivers doing parcel deliveries include facemasks, gloves, sanitiser, and regular temperature checks at warehouses.

“I mean, a lot of these drivers. I feel for them,” says Zvama. “ Everybody I know on our team are fathers, responsible men, family men, who need to put food on the table. Rudi is an amazing guy, he is trying his level best. There’s no time you call him that he does not pick up his phone. I am grateful.”

Meanwhile, the founder of courier company Picup Technologies, Antonio Bruni, concedes that business is booming. “The Covid time has been crazy for us,” he says. “I mean, back to back 20-hour working days. While obviously it’s not been a great time for our country, it’s been very positive for our business. We also believe we’re helping a lot of other businesses to adopt a more tech-focused delivery strategy.”

Founded five years ago, Picup does parcel delivery around South Africa, using a simple technology interface. “We saw a massive gap for disruption and went for it head first,” says Bruni. “So our model in a nutshell is, you licence our software and through our software you access our driver network. All our drivers are crowdsourced like Uber. They either have a car, a motorbike or a van. They sign up, and we vet them.”

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The platform has up to 2,500 drivers between Cape Town, Joburg and Durban, with Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein recently added. At its core the company employs 20 staff, with five more staff members recently recruited. 

How did business change during lockdown? “Lockdown has been very interesting,” says Bruni, “with new technology completely taking over conventional systems. It was always coming, but lockdown brought this shift on faster. Conventional logistics companies just shut down overnight. Our process is quick; we’ve had an influx of clients register who then have immediate access to our driver network. We’ve doubled our deliveries over the past few weeks and it’s set to spike triple, quadruple over the coming months.”

Startup Yebo Fresh is another inspired lockdown success story. Launched two years ago to bring online shopping to people in the Hout Bay township of Imizamo Yethu, the company’s reach has expanded to Hangberg, Langa, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and Delft, with trips as far afield as Hermanus.

Founder Jessica Boonstra says: “We had only been operating for about 18 months on a very small marketing budget when Covid-19 hit, but were growing nicely at up to 50% monthly. When the pandemic started, our numbers went absolutely through the roof! We soon had to open a warehouse next door. Then burst out of those spaces and opened a new one, and then doubled in location size again. All within two months.”

Presently Yebo Fresh employs 50 office and warehouse staff, excluding drivers. They deliver grocery hampers, selected online, to customers who want to avoid overcrowded waiting queues at township malls. The business also collaborates with several charities.

“We’ve been able to create many new jobs lately, several of which for people who were unemployed before,” says Boonstra. “The main position we are still looking to fill is that of a marketing director, who ideally has a deep understanding of the township market and a passion for making a positive impact.”

She adds: “Covid-19 created a devastating situation for the world economy and for our country, and it hit the townships particularly hard. However, I am encouraged and humbled by the sense of ubuntu, and the creativity in terms of ‘let’s just make this work’, and entrepreneurship I see around me. In particular in the township environment, we have met some of the most incredible people in the past few weeks.” DM/MC

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