Africa to reap benefit of AFC groundwork

There are large parts of Africa where automatic fare collection systems and cash alternatives are not deployed and the continent has traditionally been viewed as a market for old technology – the technology that is no longer wanted or required in other parts of the world.

“For too long, transporters have been happy to buy this old technology – but now they’re beginning to understand that they don’t need to adopt old technology as a first step along the road to getting to where they want to be,” says Michael Hart, Vix Technology business development director. “They can leapfrog, learn from the mistakes others have made, learn from the investments others have made and deliver something that’s innovative, cost effective, appropriate and that works.”

Vix Technology is the architect of sweeping transit projects – from Beijing’s smart card-based Automated Clearing Centre which processes more than seven million transactions daily, to Seattle’s contactless ORCA card used by more than 70% of passengers in a system which processes more than 210 million rides a year.

Locally the company’s projects include Tshwane’s A Re Yeng BRT system (low-value payment debit cards for convenience for passengers and lower costs for the operator), Cape Town’s MyCiTi operation (contactless debits cards to replace paper-based ticketing), eThekwini’s Go!Durban (automated fare collection), Interstate Bus Lines (ticketing and fare collection) as well as a subsidy monitoring system in Limpopo encompassing 18 regional operators.

Although there are some twists in terms of distance, terrain and environment, Hart notes that South Africa’s transit requirements are very much in line with those of other countries. “The challenges of population growth and density, congestion, trying to support GDP growth and improving access to education, employment and health care are so similar to those challenges in other parts of the world. They’re common everywhere. The issues facing transit in Africa and South Africa are very common at the core.”

Despite the fact that a combination of factors continues to stunt growth in the public transport arena in South Africa, public transport is a vital cog in driving economic growth.

Vix Technology SA CEO Tjaart Kruger says that although the bus industry is under stress – given the economic environment and uncertainty on allocation of subsidies – transport is moving and changing quite rapidly.

“With innovation, there’s still business to be done,” says Kruger. “It’s no longer a case of simply supplying ticketing machines or fare collection systems. We’re finding different ways to achieve what clients need and are offering holistic solutions to clients’ requirements. During this impasse, it’s vital to drive profitability. In addition to access to Vix’s international expertise, we also have a local development centre.”

Vix’s fare evasion and monitoring solutions will play a role in ensuring that subsidies flowing down through regional transport authorities go towards providing the transport services for which they are intended, avoiding payouts for journeys not provided or undertaken.

South Africa, in fact, is leading the world in some aspects of technology uptake, says Hart, citing the example of being able to open a bank account with your face. “That’s world leading technology. This is a great place to do business,” says Hart.

The pace at which technology is evolving is astounding. “It’s about productisation, a service expected as standard, cloud data security – those factors and industries are changing at a phenomenal rate. Five years ago, you would never have envisaged using your phone to pay for your groceries or your bus ticket. What’s going to happen in the next five years? The pace of change is awesome. We’re on the precipice of the 4th Industrial Revolution – and it’s exciting.

“What South Africa needs to do is avoid buying a Betamax when we’re on that precipice. You need to buy platforms that are open, that are device, token and payment source agnostic, that are easy to integrate with multiple partners and parties – because the days of one company being the right answer for all of your requirements are gone.

“No one company has a monopoly on good ideas, so why should we have a monopoly on a client’s transit solution? That’s how we’re going to cope with the challenges of the future: by working collaboratively and openly to achieve the true requirements of the travelling public, operators and agencies.”

Kruger concurs: “Adopting a single-minded approach to this, not enabling anyone to plug into your IP, is a death knell,” he says. “If you can’t make that shift, then you’re not going to be around to tell the story – technology is going to overtake you.”

While operators are well aware of the potential of technology solutions that seamlessly blend fare collection and monitoring (of fare collection and safety event) functionality, there is also a need to explore avenues to deal with the financial constraints that hamper uptake, continues Kruger. Leasing is one option under consideration, while Hart favours a shared risk and shared reward approach.

The bottom line, though, is that innovation is on the cards – from funding to fare collection solutions. “The days of simply trying to sell some hardware to a bus operator are long gone,” says Kruger.

Although Vix technology touches the lives of millions of commuters daily, Hart says that it’s not a brand that the majority of people will have heard of – nor should it be. “If our systems don’t work, people don’t get to work – or they have challenges and we ruin their day. We want to be part of that pleasurable customer journey, but an invisible enabler to make it happen.”