INTERVIEW: Our Transport Services Will Help Workers Make Additional Income– Treepz CEO, Akumah
Onyeka Akuma is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Treepz formerly known as Plentwaka. In this interview with THE WHISTLER, he spoke on how the Company wants to make the daily routine of Nigerian workers who own cars more profitable by connecting them with passengers on their way to work. He also spoke on challenges and prospects of running a mobility company.
Can you briefly introduce the company and what you are into?
Treepz is building the largest shared mobility platform in Africa. We currently have found a way of using a mobile app to connect daily commuters with predictable, reliable and safer travel within cities and from one city to the other. In the last two years and two months, we’ve moved over half a million people across 21 states and Nigeria for city-to-city travel, and then also done the same for daily trips. We’ve also launched in Ghana recently.
What motivated you into starting Treepz?
I was focused on the transportation space and I had a very bad experience getting into a bus in Lagos two years ago when I was just experimenting on what the experience was like getting into a bus. And I called three people that I had known in the past that had walked with me either in technology. Afolabi Oluseyi had worked with me in Travel Better. And then [Enagwolor] Johnny had built his own trans tech platform, where he was focused on tricycles.
The three of us came together and said, maybe we can build something that will provide people with better ways of commuting in Lagos. The target was how do we get people moving better in Lagos? So that happened, and we went, we took about nine months to 10 months of research. And then September 16, 2019, we then launched trips.
We created this mobile app that then allowed people to now see buses that were coming before your bus stop so you can know what time the bus would get to your bus stop, how many seats are available on the bus you can pay online before the bus gets to your bus stop, and you can check in and just make your trip right. That was what we introduced that September.
And then over time, we’ve had to now improve on the product, improve the business, where sometime early this year, we also launched the ability for people to now use our app to travel from Lagos to Abuja, from Abuja to Port Harcourt. You have the different bus operators on the platform and you can do that. Coming back to your question about what got us started, we just felt like technology can provide more convenience, more predictability, more security as people travel, and that’s what we wanted. We set out to do with Treepz from day one, and that’s why we started this.
Before your company rebranded, it raised $1.2m to acquire Stabus Ghana and expanded across West Africa. How have you been able to synergize and how has the fund helped your expansion plan?
First was we got into Techstars accelerator program in Toronto and coming out of Demo Day, we were able to pitch to a couple of investors at that time and we felt like maybe we need to raise some money to that in order to expand our services into other regions in order to fuel our growth and then also in order to expand into another country.
So, the first $1.2m we raised was pretty much focused on expanding into Ghana and then expanding in Nigeria. And because we already had that well planned out, it was easy for us to, if I use your word, have a synergy between raising the money and then getting into Ghana.
How would you explain Nigeria’s startup space with that of Ghana?
Nigeria has a big market. Nigeria has a large teaming bubbly market where a lot of things happen at a very fast pace in Nigeria compared to when you get into Ghana. Things are a lot easier and you wouldn’t blame them. It’s because systems are working better in places like Ghana and other African countries than the way they work here. In Nigeria, there’s almost the need to struggle and fight and push things, so we are very aggressive. But Ghanaians take things a lot easier because systems work.
The support we got from government in Ghana has been so strong. For instance, the Ministry of Transportation has been phenomenal. I mean, I was shocked when I got into Ghana, I came with all the energy and I want to knock this out and get this done really fast. And then everybody’s like, take it easy. If you want to meet this person, you meet the person. I walked into the ministry, I’m talking with the Minister of Transportation, it’s not something you can easily do in Nigeria, you know. It’s a lot easier doing business in Ghana and to get the business going.
But just looking at the start-up space as a whole, I think startups thrive where you have challenges and consistently look for new ways to get people’s lives better. So, you have a lot more opportunities to do stuff in Nigeria than you will in Ghana, there’s a lot more bigger markets in Nigeria than you have in Ghana.
But it doesn’t take away the fact that the Ghanaian market also is an exciting one.
How do you hope to keep Treepz competitive in the Nigerian market and have you enjoyed any support from the Nigerian government so far?
Keeping Treepz exciting in the Nigerian market is just a conduit to get more customers to use ships to move, to take their trips. We are partnering with more bus operators; we are trying to get them to use our technology to continue to move their customers. You have major bus operators that do city to city service for what you call travel trips. So, when I want to go from Lagos to Abuja, you cannot come to this platform. You see GUO or you see Libra, you see ABC.
These bus operators are coming on our platform and it’s exciting to get them more customers. I think it’s exciting for our customers to see that beyond just moving from one post to the other, you can now move from one city to the other. I think that’s something that we find exciting also.
We are coming to a place where more and more people are signing up their vehicles, and this can be set on cars that will allow them. Instead of going to the office in the morning and you have three seats at the back of your car empty, Treepz can connect you with customers that are going your way so that you can make that trip and make some money while going to your office.
I think that is exciting right now and then looking into next year, it just about how we continue to grow and get into more cities.
Now, speaking about the support from the government, I think the government should pay attention to the businesses that are coming out of the country and partner with them and get them to be those that they will use to build the technology that it needs to make things better in the ministries, to make things better in states.
We’ve not had so much government support in Nigeria, we are just going about doing our own business and getting people better aware of commuting.
What are your next plans for Treepz? And are you considering raising more funds?
Yes, I think every business is always raising funds in order to grow and sustain themselves. So, we are always in the market to raise funds, to continue to grow our business, we will continue to raise funds. Our next plans for Treepz will be where we continue to grow across the continent. We have three business models in Treepz that we want to scale. Daily Treepz are what we are popular for in Lagos. Travel Treepz are more popular beyond Lagos and 21 cities. Across Ghana Daily Treepz are popular and corporate trips are popular where people move their staff bus solutions to us corporates hire services to move the individuals that they want to move from point A to point B.
Looking into the future is where I want to see more people using the shared side of our model. Instead of driving empty, they are now taking passengers with Treepz. I want to see a situation where if you are thinking of traveling and you want to travel by bus just the same way you think of some online travel agency, when you want to travel with airlines, you think of Treepz where you are going by buses so that you can make that trip and then compare prices.
Some are of the opinion that the Nigerian environment is hostile for business. What are some of the challenges that you had to contend with and how did you go about the challenges?
I think if you’re able to survive in Nigeria, you will survive anywhere in Africa. And that’s why I was as bullish as I was when I went to Ghana and just came to me like, Oga, calm down, calm down. But it’s because one had already built up that kind of energy.
So, the challenges we faced helped in building us to be better business people, but we can’t shy away from the fact that it’s a very tough environment and tough in the sense that you have so many things we have to deal with here. The first is that we are dealing with providing power or dealing with providing office space, we’re dealing with recruiting the right kind of people on the team.
But you are in the midst of so many other people that may have similar ideas or are in the same space and want to get the same money you are going after. Regulation, you have to deal with policies you have to deal with. How do you grow? How do you partner? Who do you partner with? So those things come as they are on, but I think it’s what builds us as resilient business people in Nigeria.
But let me say this, we’ve read in books we’ve seen across the world that nine out of every 10 startups die. So, I don’t think it’s Nigeria alone, that it’s difficult for businesses to thrive. I think it’s all over the world because ideas always come and people who try their hands on those ideas. What is important is what you learn from it and how do you take from there to build and do better with the next one? So, it’s not just unique to our environment, but I know some of the peculiarities here, but it’s not just unique to our environment.
Do you have any regrets as a businessman and what is the most controversial moment you’ve faced with Treepz?
I think no, anytime I’m asked this question, I tell people, I say all the experiences I’ve had in life have made me. If I take any of those experiences out, I wouldn’t be me. You know, so I take all my challenges and all the experiences I learned from them. The good ones, the bad ones. The ugly ones. I learned from them. I want to do better tomorrow, so I’m grateful for all the things I’ve had to face in life. I’m grateful for all the challenges I’ve had to encounter. I do not regret any one of them. As a businessman, I only look forward to how I can do better as an individual.
But coming to the second question about controversial moments in Treepz, I’ve not had any. I think it’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve not had any controversial moments in Treepz, I think I’m one that I try to avoid controversy, especially with the word controversy, the way you put it. I’m not one for controversy, so I try to manage relationships with people, try to manage relationships with stakeholders. I tell everyone that I’m not perfect, and so I never positioned myself from that place where it looks like I’m perfect. I am work in progress, I may have made mistakes in the past. I deal with them, but controversy in Treepz I’ve not had any yet.