In 2001, Ojo Maduekwe, then Nigerian Minister of Transport, strongly advocated the adoption of the bicycle as an alternative means of transport in Nigeria. He has often been seen cycling through the streets of the federal capital to his office with members of his staff. On one occasion, Maduekwe was soaked by a heavy downpour. On another occasion it was hit in a ditch by a bus as he cycled to the office, but these accidents did not deter his advocacy for cycling.
Maduekwe believed that cycling would be a solution to problems such as fuel shortages and traffic jams in major Nigerian cities. But his plea has been widely criticized. Critics viewed his idea as obsolete and unrealistic. They argued that Nigerian roads are not safe for cycling. A valid point, but cycle lanes could have been added to road networks across the country.
In Nigeria and most of Africa, cycling is often considered a recreational activity. But a startup is working to change that. AWA bike, West Africa’s first smart bike-sharing company redefines the narrative that bicycles are more than just recreational vehicles; they promote good health, facilitate mobility and ensure environmental sustainability.
Users rent bikes that are strategically placed where people have to travel long distances for a fee. To do this, users unlock the bikes using a QR code provided on the AWA app. After use, bicycles are parked at the docking station closest to their destination.
In this interview with Ventures Africa, Ifeoluwa Ogundipe, CEO of AWA Bike, discusses the company’s four-year journey, challenges and environmental sustainability.
What influenced your decision to start a bike sharing business?
This is a major idea that came to me while I was studying in France where I mainly used the bicycle as a means of transport. It occurred to me that in some areas of our daily life here in Nigeria, bicycles could also be a very useful form of transportation.
People often see cycling as a recreational activity, how do you convince them that it is more than that? What has been the acceptance of the brand?
It’s not really about convincing them. I think it’s something that people are starting to realize. You are right that people often see cycling as a recreational activity or perhaps for sport. But now, especially with the increase in the price of fuel and the ban on okadas, bicycles have become a more necessary tool for people and more and more people are realizing it, especially in the metropolis.
For example, if you go to Lekki or VI, you will see that a lot more people use bicycles. It is something that is starting to make itself felt in people. But in the areas where we are particularly active, which are university campuses, from the moment we step in, it is obvious that bicycles are the products they need. We don’t have to do much to convince. We don’t even spend any money on marketing, the product sells itself.
For some reason I think the problem is people don’t know how to find easy access to bikes because as soon as the bikes are provided they are used. For our own company, the product has sold widely. We didn’t have to do much to convince.
In how many communities is AWA Bike currently operational?
As we speak, I would say that we are currently active in eight communities. That number will be 11 or 12 in about four weeks, hopefully. And by the end of the year, we hope the number reaches at least 15.
In terms of the number of bicycles, we currently operate with a fleet of over a thousand bicycles. We are aiming for at least two thousand in the next few months.
As the leading self-service bicycle company in West Africa, what challenges do you face in the business?
Initially, the main challenge was financing, as the business is capital intensive. Bikes were part of our culture, but not anymore for some reason. It is much more difficult to convince Nigerian investors that there is a bicycle idea that makes sense and that they should invest their money in it. It is not very easy to access funding and it is always something that we are working on.
There are also infrastructure and security challenges. While some infrastructure does exist, we are currently partnering with some governments like Lagos and the Ibadan Secretariat to do more. These conversations are ongoing and we are supposed to achieve a more lasting relationship where there is a significant investment by the state in infrastructure.
In general, we are concerned about building a city where the transportation system can accommodate various means of travel, of which cycling would be a large part.
I would like you to comment on the ecological nature of this means of transport.
We often like to say that for every car we can get off the road in exchange for a bicycle, we are doing our part to reduce carbon emissions to create a more sustainable environment in Nigeria and on land. Every business should start paying more attention to environmental sustainability, and businesses should try to be environmentally friendly.
Our business is currently environmentally friendly and we hope more people will pay attention to trying to reduce carbon emissions and save the earth. It’s not just about bikes, it could also be electric bikes, just trying to switch from the normal conventional combustion engine of cars to maybe electric cars. We hope to find more startups like ours that, in their own way, are trying to reduce carbon emissions.
How to enter the communities?
Initially, the onus was on us to go to the communities to talk, educate them and ask them if they were ready to partner with us to make this mode of transport a reality. Now the company is growing, so it has moved to a model where institutions are now reaching out to us for partnerships and asking us to help them roll out their own bike share programs.
Typically, people can contact us by phone or email to indicate that they want to work with us. We then deliberate internally and decide if this is an opportunity we would like to explore. If the request is accepted, we get in touch with the contact persons and probably set up a series of meetings to deliberate on the structure, how it would work, the capacity of the infrastructure, areas of concern and the way we might approach it. Once that is all settled, we have an operating contract and we get started.
As a tech-driven lifestyle brand, are you planning to introduce e-bikes? What are the plans for the future?
Yes, expanding our product offering is definitely something we are currently considering. We are considering other modes of transport such as micro-mobility which are also environmentally friendly. Hopefully in a short time we will have more products deployed.
Interview by Adekunle Agbetiloye