AWA Bike: Kickstarting Nigeria’s cycling revolution
In traffic-ridden Nigeria, people are still reluctant to use bicycles, due to the lack of infrastructure and the shame of using a poor man’s mode of transport. AWA Bikes is planning to change these attitudes – and start a cycling revolution. Read More
In cities all around the world, bike-sharing schemes are on a mission to tackle traffic, climate change, health and community issues. But in traffic-ridden Nigeria, people are still reluctant to use bicycles, due to the lack of infrastructure and the shame of using a poor man’s mode of transport. AWA Bikes is planning to change these attitudes – and start a cycling revolution.
Omowunmi Mabadeje loves bicycles. At the age of six, she learned how to ride a bike by pedaling around her family’s compound. “I could only ride my bike when I was at home, outside of home I used buses – just like the others,” Mabadeje recalls with disappointment.
She would have loved to cycle to school, to the local market, to church, and to her friends’ homes, but cycling in Nigeria is considered to be too dangerous. Several months ago, with the arrival of AWA Bike, her dream finally started to come true. At university, she now uses a bike to get around campus to get from one class to another.
A poor man’s mode of transport
In the past decade, bicycle-sharing schemes have rapidly spread across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia, but Nigeria, like much of Africa, has lagged behind. Marrakech, the economic hub of Morocco, was the first city in Africa to get a bike-sharing programme. And that was in November 2016.
In Nigeria, the combination of a lack of infrastructure, fear of accidents, and absence of dedicated bike lanes is discouraging people from cycling and hampering all efforts to incorporate bikes into the mainstream urban mobility options. This situation has been worsened by the common perception that cycling is a poor man’s mode of transport.
Nigerian federal authorities have repeatedly tried to introduce a bike-sharing system over the years, but their promises never came to fruition. There are a handful of cycling clubs, but they are limited to a small group of friends or people who share similar interests. These include the WhatsApp group Bikaholics, where cyclists throughout the city arrange to meet up for tours.
In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub with a population of about 20 million people, private cars and buses are king. Commuters rely mostly on yellow minibuses and state-owned metro buses to move around, causing severe traffic congestion that can last for many hours. The sighs of passengers packed into crowded buses, beads of sweat on weary faces, ceaseless honking, exhaust fumes that billow from old cars and endless hawkers selling bottled water, soda, and snacks all bear testimony to this mess which exposes Lagosians to a high concentration of air pollution.
Entrepreneurs have been on a constant search for solutions: from motorbike-hailing services like Gokada, ORide, MaxOkada and more recently the yacht service Gboats and the UberBoat taxi, startups are creating options to help Lagosians traverse the congested roads and bridges.
Making cycling cool again
The AWA Bike bike-sharing service reckons that starting a “cycling revolution” could help Nigerians find more sustainable ways to move around. “AWA” means “our” in Pidgin English, which is widely spoken in Nigeria and across West Africa. For the bike rental firm, it denotes a sense of collective ownership – a bike for everybody.
AWA Bike was launched in Lagos in April 2019 by entrepreneur Ifeoluwa Ogundipe. Ogundipe had spent one year as a student in the French city of Grenoble, where a bike-sharing system flourished.
A couple of years later, he decided to bring the concept to Nigeria, with the help of co-founders Ibukun Tunde-Oni and Damilola Olugbemi, who handle the legal and business development aspects of the business. Initially financed by family and friends, the startup received funds from Ingressive Capital and Oui Capital, both venture funds supporting early-stage African startups.
“There’s a general perception in Nigeria that cycling isn’t cool,” Ifeoluwa Ogundipe explains. “We intend to change that narrative. It’s something we’ve started doing and intend to see through.” To revive the love for cycling, the mobility firm deployed a fleet of 250 bikes to closed communities such as campuses and housing estates where it is targeting millennials they hope will be easily convinced to try out the bikes. In order to use the AWA bikes, users have to download the firm’s app on a smartphone, register with their credit cards and use the app to find the closest bike. Once they locate a bike, they scan the barcode on the bike – and the bike unlocks. A spring in a solar-powered lock near the seat automatically retracts to allow the user to get the brightly-coloured green bike out of the docking station.
Available in six communities and universities around Nigeria
Omowunmi Mabadeje was there when AWA Bike staff visited Lagos State University on the outskirts of the city to promote the idea. A second-year student of religion and peace studies, she was elated to cycle on campus and, for the first time, away from her home. “I rode for more than one hour until my legs started to ache,” Mabadeje, now 18, remembers, chuckling at her exhilaration. “I hadn’t seen anything like this before and it is very affordable.”
The bike-sharing system now runs at Lagos State University, Richmond Gate Estate and Pan-Atlantic University all in Lagos but also in Redeemer's University in the small town of Ede in southwestern Nigeria, and Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, a town in northwest Nigeria’s Kaduna State. According to the firm, over 100,000 bikes are in circulation. The startup offers a 24-hour service and charges users 20 naira (around $0.05) every 10 minutes, a cheaper option for students who can spend three times that amount to move around the campus by bus.
AWA Bike is not just helping students, who currently make up the majority of its users, to beat the long queues at bus parks on campus, but also addressing a very specific problem on campus: missing classes because of bus drivers that only drive away once their busses are full. “Sometimes you will have to wait for a long time before you can find an empty bus,” Mabadeje remarks. “But with the bikes on campus, all you have to do is unlock a bike and you’re already moving.”
More than just a bike-sharing company
Realising that Nigeria is in need of a “cycling revolution”, AWA Bike has thought of different ways to boost the trend. Their app also includes sections on lifestyle, shopping and community. With the lifestyle section, the goal is to promote healthy living and help cyclists track how much distance they have covered, calories burnt and to provide additional details for people aiming to lose weight. Users can also click on the shop tab to purchase cycling kits such as helmets, elbow and knee pads, glasses, gloves, jackets, and shoes.
But AWA Bike also realized that the task of pushing people to start riding bicycles is too big for them to address single-handedly. Ogundipe said the startup is trying to combine forces with the “Rethinking Lagos” group, a network of organizations aiming to create solutions that would help modernise Lagos and build a sustainable economy for the city. Discussions with the group focus on creating “proposals to make a better and multi-modal transportation network in Lagos,” Ogundipe says. The startup is also working with the government to figure out how to best implement a statewide programme that focuses on cycling infrastructure, improving the conditions of the roads, enacting legislation and accelerating awareness programmes to promote cycling as a sustainable approach to reducing pollution, traffic congestion and noise levels.
The new trend at Lagos State University
At the Lagos State University campus, tree-lined streets bustle with students ambling back and forth across campus. Minibuses and cars whir past often, drowning out the chatter from sidewalks, shade underneath the trees, and the tall buildings that tower above the campus. Some passers-by gaze at the neatly arranged bikes in awe, and a few stroll over to ask questions or to get the app on their phones.
“Business is booming and sometimes we run out of bikes,” 26-year-old Innocent Onoja, AWA Bike’s operation manager at the Lagos State University campus, says. He coordinates activities here and uses a van with a big AWA Bike logo to recover and replace improperly parked bikes every two hours. “The bike has made me popular on campus, and everywhere I go people stop me to ask me questions on how to download the app or to help them resolve a problem.”
Usage has spread beyond students and estate residents to visitors who come to these areas just to enjoy an AWA bike ride. Emeka Ajiboro stays near the university. Together with his four children, he visits the campus on weekends for a ride on the green bikes. “I usually park my car and pedal around the campus,” says Ajiboro who is a realtor by profession. “My six-year-old son loves coming here, and he is usually happy to ride the bikes. He now does his chores and finishes his homework quickly so that he can come along.”
According to Onoja issues such as theft and vandalism are being addressed by requiring credit card payment to unlock bikes, limiting usage to campus alone, using a GPS tracker to monitor the bikes and working with campus security officials to stop anybody who attempts to take the bikes off campus.
AWA Bike currently has a team of 15 staff and is aiming to double that number as it expands into new markets. Mabadeje’s predilection for bikes, meanwhile, has inspired her to take great pains to teach two of her friends how to ride bikes. Today, they occasionally take bike tours around campus. “My love for bikes is unending,” she says, adding: “I am only worried that I sometimes ride and ride and it might consume all the money in my account.”