Why Egypt is leading the Middle East and North Africa's ridesharing recovery

Careem, Uber and Swvl are all on track to reach or surpass pre-Covid business levels this year in the Arab world’s most populous country

This picture taken on February 22, 2021 shows a view of vehicles stuck in a traffic jam amidst street vendors and pedlars in the central Attaba district of Egypt's capital Cairo. In gridlocked and heavily polluted Cairo, startups are searching for technological solutions to solve the transport headaches for an expanding megacity already struggling with over 20 million people. Cairo, the most populous Arab city where a fifth of all Egyptians live, is ranked 30th worst in the world for congestion, according TomTom, the Dutch vehicle navigations systems maker. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the business of moving people hard over the past year, but Egypt is a bright spot as ridesharing companies see a recovery on the horizon in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Careem Egypt has reached 67 per cent of pre-Covid operation rates, after seeing its activity plunge to 20 per cent a year ago. Uber Egypt has recovered to 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels. Both expect to recover fully this year.

Bus transport app Swvl, which paused operations from mid-March to July, has since seen demand grow in its home market as people opt for the service over public buses.

“It’s been to a large extent a swift recovery,” said Mostafa Kandil, Swvl’s founder and chief executive. “Because what’s the alternative? The alternative is taking a public bus crammed with 200 other people.”

Several factors have made Egypt, the Arab world's third-largest economy, resilient and stand out in the Mena region. Unlike other countries that went into a full lockdown during the first wave, Egypt imposed a night-time curfew. The government avoided shutting down most businesses and services to protect people’s livelihoods and the economy.

“Restrictions were more relaxed and more people started to go to work and back to their previous life, especially in the second half of 2020,” said Haitham Essam, general manager of Careem Egypt.

“This is one of the reasons why recovery has been faster in Egypt than in other Middle Eastern countries.”

Egypt is the only country in Mena whose economy grew last year, rather than contract, according to the World Bank. Egypt’s gross domestic product expanded 3.6 per cent in its July 1, 2019 - June 30, 2020 fiscal year. The economy is forecast to grow 2.7 per cent in the 2021 financial year and 5.8 per cent in 2022.

This picture taken on February 22, 2021 shows a view of vehicles stuck in a traffic jam in the central Attaba district of Egypt's capital Cairo. In gridlocked and heavily polluted Cairo, startups are searching for technological solutions to solve the transport headaches for an expanding megacity already struggling with over 20 million people. Cairo, the most populous Arab city where a fifth of all Egyptians live, is ranked 30th worst in the world for congestion, according TomTom, the Dutch vehicle navigations systems maker. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI

With few companies in Egypt technologically and logistically prepared for remote working, many employees had to continue to commute to offices.

Therefore, ridesharing providers focused on increasing health and safety precautions, such as requiring masks and installing plastic separators between captains and passengers. They also retained customers by slashing prices and introducing new services.

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“In Egypt, we managed to adjust our lifestyles to adapt to the new normal,” said Ahmed Khalil, general manager of Uber Egypt.

Egypt has recorded more than 188,000 coronavirus cases, of which 145,418 people have recovered, according to Worldometer, which tracks the pandemic. The country has 31,815 active cases and registered over 11,120 deaths. Egyptian health officials estimate the number could be ten-fold due to limited testing and the exclusion of private lab results.

Daily Covid-19 cases in Egypt peaked at 1,774 in June and spiked again to 1,418 on December 31. However, the daily count has stayed relatively stable since early February when it dropped to 509 cases.

Careem

Careem, which was bought by Uber in 2019 for $3.1 billion, tentatively forecasts business might return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.

It operates in 13 countries in Mena, including Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Out of 70 cities, 17 are in Egypt.

“All countries are contributing, but definitely Egypt has been our positive spot for Careem over the last year,” Mr Essam said.

Careem Egypt introduced Go Aman in June, installing plastic shields between drivers and passengers. It also cut prices of its standard Go services by 10 per cent and expanded coverage of its cheaper Go Awfar product to 10 more governorates in Egypt.

New verticals in Egypt focusing on “the mobility of things” include Wasally (a pick-up and delivery service) and Eshtrily (a mobile-based shopping application).

“Customers have the capability to use our Careem captains to either buy them stuff from shops or to deliver things from one point to another,” Mr Essam said.

Its last-mile B-to-B delivery service Careem Express nearly doubled last year, he added.

Uber

Uber, which had the world's largest number of active users among ridesharing companies before the pandemic, posted a full-year net loss of $6.76bn for 2020, 20 per cent lower than in 2019.

In the Mena region, the company operates in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

During the pandemic, “Egypt has been one of the better performers across Europe and the Middle East”, Mr Khalil said.

Like Careem, Uber introduced health and safety precautions, such as installing separators in its cars and sanitiser dispensers in Uber Bus.

Its new products include Uber Connect for the transportation of goods and Uber Black for rides from Cairo International Airport.

Swvl

Swvl, which allows commuters to reserve seats on private buses operating on fixed routes and pay fares through its mobile app, operates in Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan and Jordan.

“While in developed markets, people have the luxury to stop using mass transit”, that is not the case in emerging markets, Mr Kandil said. “We've actually seen an increase in our demand post-Covid.”

Swvl stopped its services in Egypt for three months “more from a safety standpoint” rather than a business standpoint.

The company also used the opportunity to scale its engineering, product and data science teams from 40 to 130 people.

“When everyone was firing people, we were actually hiring more people,” Mr Kandil said.

Meanwhile, it plans to expand to Saudi Arabia and the UAE this year. “So 2021 for us is going to be an extremely exciting year,” he said.

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