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SafeBoda bets on super app to boost recovery from pandemic slump



Powered by 25,000 motorcycle taxis at the start of 2020, Safeboda was at its peak, ferrying thousands of pillion passengers in cities across Uganda and Nigeria. And then the covid pandemic hit, throwing everything into a spin. Containment measures like work from home directives meant a slump in business, which was worsened by the lockdowns, curfews and bans on public transport, bringing the motorcycle taxi business to an unprecedented lull.

While this pause badly affected SafeBoda, it fueled the startup’s change of strategy from a single service provider to an integrated multi-service and digital payment technology platform.

The startup, which was co-founded in 2017 by Ricky Rapa Thompson, Alastair Sussock and Maxime Dieudonne, recently obtained a payments license from the Central Bank of Uganda, officially marking its debut in the fintech space, and adding to a list of the new services it has introduced over the last two years.

“When we entered the space, we realized that people needed more than rides. People who interacted with the app kept telling us that it could do more. By listening to them, and taking their feedback seriously, and by doing research, we have been able to provide a number of other services besides rides… and that’s going to help the business be more sustainable going forward,” SafeBoda co-founder Thompson told TechCrunch.


SafeBoda co-founders (L-R) Ricky Rapa Thomson, Alastair Sussock, and Maxime Dieudonne. Image Credits: SafeBoda

Using its new SafeBoda wallet, users can send money to each other at no cost (other providers in the market, like telcos, charge transfer fees) – a service that makes it possible for the taxi operators to receive cashless payment too – as card payments remain very low across the continent. Users can also pay partner vendors using the wallet as well as withdraw cash at a fee from the over 200 agents across Kampala. Savings in the SafeBoda wallet also fetch a 10% annual interest.

In a way, the wallet has contributed to the financial inclusion growth within the country as the riders, most of whom are unbanked, can now generate a history of earnings that can be used to assess their creditworthiness for loans. This is also paving the way for the introduction of new services.

“These drivers were actually earning money, but they cannot even have access to loans and other financial services. And we actually know that to drive inclusion, we need to get the right partners to work with, but we also need to have our users’ history. With the help of our platform, we are now able to generate a history of income for the riders and that is a game changer right now.”

Thompson said that the company is lining up new products in the near future – keeping up with its strategy of continuously reevaluating and improving its offering, while extending to customers the much-needed convenience. He said the new products have been built for a global audience as SafeBoda is keen to launch them in new markets.

“We are building a global product that is going to be available in cities across Africa…and SafeBoda will continue to build better services that will allow us to serve the population better and grow beyond Uganda so that anyone in Africa will have access to services just by clicking a button. We will also make sure that the lives of our drivers are improved,” he said.

SafeBoda, which recently became the first to benefit from Google’s $50 million Africa Investment Fund, is looking to tap its user base (over 1 million downloads) to grow its new businesses and keep competitors at bay. It’s other investors include Allianz X, Unbound, Go-Ventures and Gojek, the Indonesian multi-service super app.
In the line-up of businesses SafeBoda has recently is an e-commerce platform, which was launched in April of 2020, with the riders on its log being used to fulfill last-mile delivery. The e-commerce business, which was an addition to the startup’s parcel and food delivery services, ensured that as the need for on-demand ride-hailing service dropped under lockdowns, the riders were kept occupied, effectively ensuring business continuity. It also marked the beginning of the startup’s journey as a super-app.


A curfew on Motorcycle taxi (bodaboda) operators, which has been in effect since 2020, was lifted two weeks ago in Uganda. Image Credits: SafeBoda

By adding more value options for its users, Safeboda is set to remain competitive in an environment that has the presence of well-funded ride hailing operators like Uber and Bolt, as well as e-commerce platforms like Jumia.

Two weeks ago, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni lifted the curfew for motorcycle taxi (bodaboda) operators, which has been in effect since 2020, paving the way for the resumption of hailing services by SafeBoda and Uber and Bolt.

“We are the number one ride hailing company in Africa for motorcycle taxis. We have gone through waves of different competition; big guys have entered our market and we still remain the market leader in this space.We will continue to grow and stay very competitive,” said Thompson.

The effects of the Covid pandemic on the mobility industry were not unique to Uganda ‘s transport industry. The world over, transportation services were badly affected by travel restrictions and lockdowns, leading to the collapse of some businesses in the transport industry, among them airlines and taxi companies. But slowly the industry is coming back to life and, overall, the global ride-hailing service industry is expected to more than double over the next seven years to hit $98 billion, with an expected 10% CAGR year-on-year according to this report.


Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022



Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.

The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.

The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.

Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.

Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.

The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.

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Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development



Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.

It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.

In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.

Image credit: Stoke Space

“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”

While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.

Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.

Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.

“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”

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Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors



Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.

Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.

Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.

We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.

For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”

There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.

As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.

There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.

Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.

At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.

Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.

Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.

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