Bolt at 10: Small beginnings, big wins and global problems

Ejike Kanife
Bolt’s 10-year journey from small beginnings to big wins and global problems
Bolt at 10: Small beginnings, big wins and global problems

Bolt, one of the world’s leading ride-hailing and general gig work platforms is celebrating its 10th year in business. While it hasn’t been an entirely rosy affair by any stretch, the company has witnessed outstanding growth in its first decade, all of which it could be proud of.

But the company has also encountered numerous challenges in its markets spread across 45 countries and more than 500 cities in the world. Interestingly, these different regions have presented different and unique challenges.

While the company has managed to make some of them go away, others, especially in our continent of Africa, aren’t that easy to get rid of. This is because those challenges stem from endemic problems that have bedevilled the socio-economic existence of the region such that curbing them might require a seismic shift in the very system itself.

Fighting these battles and trying to solve these unique problems across its major markets have invariably made the company adaptable to the exigencies of these markets and inadvertently turned them into a truly global brand. So from its founding to incursions into Europe and Africa, here is a brief journey of Bolt.

Humble beginnings

Like most tech companies, Bolt could trace its origins to truly humble beginnings. The company was founded in 2013 by 19-year-old Markus Villig. The then-teenager simply wanted a convenient way to get around the city of Tallinn in Estonia, long before Estonia became the tech capital of Europe.

So, armed with a €5,000 family loan, Markus set out to build the prototype of his app. Then he went about aggregating taxi drivers, and more importantly, car owners who wanted to make a few extra euros from their assets. Before long, he launched a service called Taxify which soon became a favourite taxi hailer for people in need of such services.

Bolt at 10: Small beginnings, big wins and global problems
Markus Villig

It soon became apparent to the young founder that Estonia was too small a market for his fast-growing business. He needed to go international. But he wasn’t the only taxi app looking to invade Europe, Uber, an American taxi app company founded in 2009 and launched in 2010 had already beaten him to it with its 2011 expansion into Paris, France.

Sadly for Uber, Europe wasn’t ready for its invasion and made it very clear to the American taxi hailer. The problems were largely regulatory and largely self-inflicted. For instance, it is unfathomable that Uber would provide a service for unlicensed drivers. But that was exactly what it did.

By June 2015, Uber drivers in Paris were out on the streets building bonfires in protest of what they called unfair competition. The protests would happen again in January 2016 and by July 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries could ban the problematic Uberpop service at will.

As Uber dealt with regulatory problems across Europe, including total bans in countries like Hungary and Bulgaria and partial bans in countries like Germany, Italy, France, Finland and the Netherlands, Bolt burst out of its small base in Estonia and took to the European markets with a deeper understanding of it.

Its fares were cheaper, by as much as 35% in London, and this delighted passengers. Its commission was between 10% to 15% as against the 30% which Uber charged at the time and this delighted drivers. And it ensured every driver on its platform was licensed which removed the possibility of a repetition of the Uber scenario.

The result was instantaneous. As Forbes put it:

Drivers seem to love it. Villig’s app edges out Uber in vast swathes of Europe to the extent that it’s the go-to taxi app in a number of cities including the Latvian capital of Riga.

Its biggest challenge in Europe remains the matter of the employment status of its drivers. As ride-hailing continued to grow into a full-fledged industry of its own, it was a matter of time before labour unions started demanding that the drivers be given employee status.

Basically, what they wanted was employee benefits like sick pay, pension and other benefits to workers. While this is clearly an industry-wide challenge, Uber, having had its fair share of regulatory troubles in Europe, was always quick to give in. Bolt on the other hand, not so much. 

Bolt’s Africa Incursion

After conquering Europe, Bolt set its sights firmly on the emerging market of Africa in 2016. Once again, Uber, with its 2013 Africa launch, had already beaten it to it but it was very confident this time that it had the playbook to reverse a three-year head start. It went to work.

Just like Uber, Bolt first launched in South Africa. But unlike Uber, it didn’t take Bolt a year to realize that while South Africa might have seemed the more mature market, Africa’s bread and butter was indeed Nigeria. So a few short months later in 2016, it found its way into Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.

For large parts, Bolt enjoyed free rein on the continent where it had quickly expanded to other countries like Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, etc. It was practically operating as it wanted, devoid of regulations and other forms of oversight.

Indeed so free were its reins that it controlled its African empire all the way from Tallinn in Estonia. Not until July of 2022 did it finally establish an African headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya But even with this, Tallinn still exerts a great deal of control on its African operations. Indeed several of its Nigerian drivers have told me how they had been contacted by agents in Estonia. A non-managerial staff also told me that they are still obliged to be in meetings with the headquarters in Estonia as well as country managers and other staff from across the world.

Now Africa is a continent struggling and failing on virtually every economic index. With the jobs created by ride-hailing coupled with the novelty of the industry and the fact that the app companies aren’t African, governments choose to let the sector be, rather than hurriedly bring it under regulation. It simply made more sense to take credit for the jobs ride-hailing brought than killing the sector with regulations.

But it wasn’t long before the endemic continental problems started catching up with the sector. One such problem is insecurity which has forced both drivers and passengers alike to think about their safety while taking rides.

In Ghana for instance, drivers told me about how they now have to go about their jobs armed to the teeth because there are marauders out to kill and rob them, and the companies aren’t doing anything about it. Many of the drivers pointed at Bolt as the app offering the least security.

“If they take your money, Uber will refund your money. If they take your phone, Uber will refund your phone. Then Uber will help you track the criminals. This is why criminals don’t use Uber for that thing. It is only Bolt that they use,” Desmond a Ghanaian driver told Technext.

Read More: Drivers at arms: Cab-hailing drivers in Ghana talk about taxes, robberies and bearing weapons to survive

During the EndSARS protests in Nigeria, the company came under fire when it was accused of using its 50% “SOROSOKE” discount as a means to lure #EndSARS protesters and hand them over to the Police. This was after a video clip showing how a Bolt rider was bundled out of the vehicle and harassed by SARS operatives while its driver looked on unbothered. Due to the Bolt driver’s suspected involvement, people claimed Bolt was enabling SARS violence and called for a boycott of its app.

More recently in Kenya, two young women were kidnapped in a Bolt ride on their way from a party. According to a statement by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), the victims hailed a taxi on the Bolt App to take them home from the party. When they entered the cab, the driver reportedly abducted them, threatening them with a weapon before speeding off to his hideout in Nairobi.

In Soweto, South Africa, Uber and Bolt drivers have been banned from operating around the Soweto Mall following a clash with regular taxi drivers. At least 3 e-hailing drivers were injured and 4 cars were destroyed in the clash. 

Issues with welfare

In 2019, Taxify rebranded to Bolt, the same name it has been using for its scooter business. According to Markus Villig, this became necessary as the former name was too restrictive and didn’t encompass the company’s overall sphere of coverage. With its new name came other verticals like food delivery, ride-sharing etc.

Celebrating its 10th year, Bolt announced that it now services more than 1 million drivers and couriers across verticals. While this is great, there have also been issues surrounding welfare and these issues stem from the same fight it is embroiled in in London where it refused to grant employee benefits to these drivers and couriers.

Bolt Food bows to pressure, increases pay for Ghanaian delivery riders by 10% 

In late 2022, Bolt Foods delivery riders in Ghana took to the streets in protest after the company reduced their pay from 10 cedis to 9 cedis. This was in the face of skyrocketing fuel prices and the attendant hardship that followed. Following a series of other protests and an eventual boycott, the company would eventually yield and revert back to 10 cedis.

In 2021, drivers in Kenya threatened to boycott the app if it didn’t increase its fares or slash its commission following a hike in fuel prices. But perhaps nowhere else has Bolt encountered its most pressing challenges than its Nigerian market, its biggest in Africa.

This hasn’t been helped by the establishment and investiture of a drivers union, the Amalgamated Union of App-based Transport Workers of Nigeria (AUATWON) which is the first e-hailing drivers union in Africa.The union has since stood at the forefront of championing the welfare of drivers in Bolt’s largest market in Africa, embarking on several strikes and generally resisting the seeming highhandedness of app companies in the country.

And Bolt resisted the union too. According to the AUATWON, the company launched a campaign to have its trade union registration revoked, going as far as planting its loyalists within the union while trying to impose its influence on it, something union leaders have described as a yellow union. But a recent meeting between Bolt, the union and Nigeria’s Ministry of Labour suggests that Bolt has finally recognised the union.

But the journey into Africa hasn’t been wrought with only challenges as the company has shown a real commitment to helping women earn on its platform. Being a heavily male-dominated platform, one could see how women could be very disadvantaged, especially with the many cultural stereotypes against women in Africa. You could read up more on these stereotypes below:

“Women cannot ‘drive fast’, fight agbero, and avoid police drama;” Only 12.5% of Nigerians prefer female drivers when using ride-hailing services

To bridge this gender gap, Bolt launched its ‘Women at the Wheels’ campaign. This is a 2.5 million euros investment into bridging the gender gap in the ride-hailing sector at large by offering a flexible and accessible way for women to earn extra income in the industry. 

The company has also been running a paid internship programme for young African women in the tech space. Called the #WomeninTech Internship Programme, the three-month-long programme targets women in 4 African countries of Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. 

Bolt invests €2.5 million to bridge the gender gap in the ride-hailing industry

Currently in its third year, The program is designed to provide training, mentorship, and empowerment to selected participants and offers internship placements across various departments, such as Operations, Engineering, Public Policy, PR, and Marketing. Throughout the three-month program, participants will also be paired with women in leadership roles at Bolt who will act as mentors and guides.

In Sum

Bolt’s first ten years in existence prove that as a business, its future, and indeed that of its industry is bright. Going from an initial family investment of €5,000 to more than $2 billion in investor funding and a total valuation of about $10 billion, the company’s 10-year ride hasn’t been an entirely bumpy affair.

While it is yet to hit profitability despite these major milestones and investments, the company recently told Technext that it looks to become the first ride-hailing company to do just that and it is projecting it would happen later this year (2023). And with that begins its journey to its Initial Public Offering (IPO) where, as has been the case in its 10-year journey, Uber has already beaten it there.

But just like the previous times, Uber’s IPO has been a huge disappointment. Initially valued at as much as $120 billion before its IPO, Uber went public on May 9, 2019, only to make history with the biggest first-day dollar loss in U.S. history according to Investopedia. Uber’s current market cap is $86.84 billion.

Bolt also recently announced that it has crossed 150 million active users worldwide with 3.5 million drivers and courier riders. Looking forward to the next 10 years, perhaps its future successes would be determined by how well it takes care of its drivers. This is especially so in an economically disadvantaged region like Africa where the difference between Bolt driver and kidnapper could be a matter of needs.

Despite its numerous challenges, many of them still staring it in the face, the company doesn’t look like what it has been through as it has continued to be the most preferred platform for drivers and riders alike. 


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