It was a rare appointment arising from a discussion in a WhatsApp forum, but it turned out an opportunity to find out from the Chief Executive and CEO of Nigeria’s only Bus Rapid Transportation (BRT) operator to bare his mind in a face to face chat with Pegasus Reporters on the threats, thrills and frills of providing a unique service in one of the world most populated city-state, Lagos.
Transformed from being a businessman to a transporter, by his own admission during this chat, Fola Tinubu is not your everyday encountered officialdom seeking chief executive. We arrived at his Lekki office a clear one hour before the scheduled interview time and were immediately ushered in when the “city transporter” was told we were waiting. “Okay Mallam Abu’Bakar, you’re welcome for making it easier for me as I have a lot of issues to attend to from commuters and personnel waiting at the Majidun Office.
So in this 30 minutes interview, Editor-in-Chief, Mallam Oyakhamoh Y. Carl-Abu’Bakar, the Primero arrowhead bares his mind on how it all began, how far and the future of BRT in Lagos.
In 2006, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu adopted the Strategic Transport Master Plan, an integrated public transit system, your company; Primero took the lead in BRT bussing transportation. How has the journey been?
Thank you very much for this question. The journey, so far in the past two years has been so challenging but also very exciting. You must understand that our task has never been tried in this part of the world. This has made the challenges more compelling, though exciting and the ideas more recurrent. As I often tell people, we started out as business people with a profit motive but we have jettisoned that idea now to become transporters adding value to governance, even though we are still a private company. We are where we are now because of our consistency, determination, focus and hard work. You may have noticed that we provide a twenty-four-hour service that runs for seven days without break. So the challenge really is that you don’t know what awaits you in the office every day. You are constantly on your toes and this applies to every worker in Primero.
What is the difference between you being businessmen and now that you’re a transporter?
When we started, we were more concern about the figures such as the number of passengers we carry daily, cash-flow analyses and so on. But now as a transporter, there are a lot of unique things that crop up on you that you least envisaged when we started. Just imagine a commuter calling you at 2:00 am to complain that he or she is had a problem getting your bus or you are short of fuel and you’re told that the gridlock on Apapa Road has made the place impassable while the passenger is looking up to you to move him to his destination. I’m telling you now of a situation where you have paid for your fuel then your delivering tankers are stocked in traffic jams that you have no control over! Typically, a businessman like most transporters will reschedule, but as a transporter with corporate social responsibility, you have to go all out there, anywhere, to ensure that you get the fuel for your buses to be on the road, shuttling.
You’re providing not only a world-class service but one that is totally new to this part of the world. BRT is unique to Africa and one is tempted to ask; “How have you been able to surmount the challenges, in these areas; financing, maintenance, public perception and acceptability and managing your personnel?”
The financing has been a challenge, really and one of the biggest headaches. The cost of borrowing in Nigeria is astronomically high. Bank charges are tearing through the rooftop. Imagine having to pay as much as 27% on loans! There is no way a company can survive paying such a rate on loans. So I’ll suggest to the regulators that if we are really serious about building this economy, the interest rate of loans must be reduced to a single digit level. But we are not waiting for that as a transporter which is why we are actually floating a bond right now and we are hopeful that before a month or two, we would have closed that giving us a longer tenure of repayment and reducing our cost by about 10% or more. Besides, it will release to us better working capital that will enhance our services and personal welfare.
As regards public perception, that has been up and down like a yo-yo. I say this because when we started, there was a lot of jubilation and excitement. I’m being honest with this. We lost some passengers because of waiting time which some of the passengers didn’t like. But this was not our fault. The service was new and the corridors were still undergoing minor reconstruction here and there apart from the fact that other road users didn’t understand that the BRT lanes were exclusively for the buses. We didn’t also have enough buses on the road as a new starter. But we have increased the fleet, and currently have 250 buses on the roads even as we are expecting that by April, a minimum of 350 buses will ply the corridors. We expect this to reduce the waiting time, too, to a maximum of say between 10 to 15 minutes for all passengers. I think if we must tell the truth, there has been a dramatic leap from where we started 3 years ago to where we are now even as we are not resting on our oars to bring Lagosians the best that BRT can give anywhere in the world.
We observe that many of your drivers are graduates and such other degree and diploma certificates holders. Considering that your service is first of its kind here, how have you been able to ensure a supportive staff strength in these hard times?
Our decision to engage graduates as drivers was deliberate. We couldn’t leave passengers to the mercy of a typical “danfo drivers” who are used to fighting with passengers. We decided on having highly educated and cerebral people to work with us so that we can deliver a first class service to Lagosian. So we are actually encouraging more graduate to join as we are providing a growth pattern for them. They can come in as a driver and rise on the job to major administrative levels. Just last week, I told my workers that we are disposed to allowing whoever is willing to further their education to do as Primero will assist with part payment of their tuition. These are all part of our strategy to have a fully informed and cerebral staff strength that can adequately drive the dream we have for BRT in Lagos. Our drivers are probably the best-paid workers in that category of workers and they work very moderate hours daily that will enable them to rest well for the next day. So we are disposed to ensuring that we redevelop the staff strength as often as necessary. I keep telling people and my staff that Fola Tinubu is not Primero and Primero is not Fola Tinubu. Primero is a combination of all of us who work for the company and even the passenger who has a stake by offering constant advice here and there on how we can improve our services.
There have been concern and requests that Primero should have an expansive car park where middle-class and upper-class commuters can safely park their vehicles, use your services and return at the end of the day to pick up the vehicles for onward movement to their homes. Are you considering this option at your major termini like Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS), Mile 12 and Moshalashi?
We have that in our blueprint. In fact, commuters from Ibese, Agbowa, Ijede and other neighbouring communities of Ikorodu were the ones that approached us requesting that they needed a place to park their cars and use our services. We did it for them. However, as I said earlier, the challenge of funding has been a big drawback but since we are now considering a bond, I can assure you that by the middle of next year, we’ll start constructing car parks in most of the major shelters, not just at the Ikorodu, axis but others along the corridors. Don’t forget that the idea of BRT is to reduce the number of vehicular traffic on the roads and we are working tirelessly on that.
In a report which we published on your third anniversary, you reportedly say that you’re introducing the card system scheme to Lagos. The public will want to know (1) how this will operate, (2) what sensitization exercises have you adopted to apprise the public with this innovation and (3) considering that from our observations, the present payment system is still being manually done, do you think that commuters are ready for the card system?
You see, when we started, we had the ticketing system that comes with so much problem. We dropped it immediately for the current system you’re talking about. Honestly, it’s one of the best payment systems in the world. However, when we introduced it last year, we discovered that there’s a connectivity problem associated with it. The system uses the same algorithm as your handheld phone and you know there’s this issue of call drop and poor signals here and there. We observed that this affects the system so that when for instance, when you want to “tap out” at a particular destination, the system rather than debit only the cost of your present destination, taps you out as having exhausted your ticket. Of course, the passenger will complain of Primero short-changing them by say 50 naira or more. When we observed this problem, we modified it to ensure that the passenger is not made to pay for what they have not incurred. This is what you observed as a manual in the system. However we have adopted another process to ensure that it works by partnering with Swift to install Wi-Fi in all our shelters, corridors and buses and we are getting about 98% of success with the new experiment and hopefully by next week or so, we are embarking on a massive media blitz to sensitized the public on the new system. So, at least by early June or July, we should have done away with what obtains now and gone totally into electronic ticketing for all our passengers.
Although there seem to be a lot of ovation than complaints from the public and commuters since you began your services, where would you wish that there was better performance now than yours currently doing?
Some few areas! First I wish we have gotten our bus purchases better so that our passengers didn’t wait longer than we anticipated even though our logistics is getting better by the days. Two, the other is that I wished that we structured our financing better than the way we started as that would have made our service delivery a lot easier and a better guarantee for the comfort of the passenger. Luckily, with the bond issue we talked about, take it from me that thing must just get better with BRT in Lagos.
Recently, we called your attention to a situation where commuters wait longer than necessary, especially along the Mile 12/TBS corridor especially from noon-time. Reasons given by some commuters range from; It’s the change-over time for drivers, the drivers have gone for their lunch and the tendency for drivers to want to run shorter routes to avoid traffic jams that lower their daily set delivery. (1) how do you react to this as for instance, hangover by drivers to the next driver, (2) do your drivers take time off for lunch, (3) the challenge of meeting a set delivery of sales by drivers?
First, let me clear the wrong impression that the driver has a set amount to deliver. No target is set because even the drivers as you know don’t handle ticketing. Two, as for the drivers changing over, the first works from 5:00 am to 2:00 pm and the idea was that they have to close and handover at Mile 12 to the next driver. But take it from me, its human nature that when you get to Ikorodu at say 1:00 pm and you have to go to say TBS which may take more than one hour, the tendency is to find such a driver wasting time because he has less than an hour to handover. So we came up with an arrangement whereby we have biometric along the corridors which allows the drivers to handover to the next person at any of our bus shelters. So if for instance, a driver is along Ikorodu road, the next driver taking over from him is able to determine that at such a time, he can catch him on such and such shelter and take over from him.
We’ve observed that anytime there are riots involving commuters and other agencies especially the police and ‘agberos’, your buses are targeted as in the latest case of at Mile 12 which prompted temporary withdrawal from the roads. Is there no plan to ensure that these buses and officers are not molested during such instance by you or LAMATA?
First, I don’t see why any right-thinking person will want to disrupt or destroy private or public property whenever there is a grievance on highways. There are many ways of expressing your grievances beyond damaging bus and public properties. Unfortunately, there is this misconception that Primero is Lagos State property. This is false; a total fallacy because Lagos state does not own a single share in Primero. We are totally a private company. In fact, God willing by 2021, we’ll be going public by enrolling on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSC). So the state does not have any share in the company. When people attack our buses, it’s because they falsely believe that we are owned by Lagos State. Having said that, we need to tell ourselves some truth; all over the world, countries and cities are competing for people to come and invest in their environments. That’s the only way to create jobs. Governments do not create jobs but have the duty to create conducive and enabling environments for investments. Sadly, whenever anything happens in this country, we go out and destroy, we post them on the net making it news all over the world and this is scaring to investors. We need to understand this as inappropriate. We must tell our youths that rioting is not a solution to any grievances. It chases the investors away from your cities and country. Unfortunately, those involved in these are also the direct beneficiaries of the BRT project. So, we must remind them that if they destroy what’s on the ground, what alternative do they have? How do they encourage investors when they are scared of your environment? To set up a BRT busing project like we are doing, you need a minimum of 50million dollars. It can be as high as 100million dollars. So it’s not a child’s play. If we want to create a job, the youths must refrain from destroying existing infrastructure. It does not make sense to do so because it hurts every one of us. So I don’t see why anyone must target us. We are private and not a property of Lagos state government.
You’re one of the largest consumers of Youtong Buses in Nigeria, let’s talk about maintenance and the possibility, like some quarters are suggesting, that Primero needs to assemble it buses right here in Lagos.
We’re actually setting up an assembly plant called YP Industries with Youtong and the next set of buses we’ll be using in Abule Egba and Oshodi will be assembled here in the plant which is based in Epe. It follows that all the buses to be used by Primero will be assembled here.
Are we looking at your assemble buses as of the same spec and standards we have now or a “Nigerian standard”?
No! Same standard and specs. In fact, they will be of a higher model because the set we are using now is Euro2 while the next models that will begin with the assembly will be Euro3 and what’s more they will be gas powered rather than the normal diesel engines.
To round off, what will you want to tell the public that I have not asked during this interview for lack of time?
Basically, I will want the public to know that Primero had initial teething problems when we started and that we are overcoming these and that our services are getting better every day. I want the commuters that left us because of our initial problems to come back and savour the new innovations we have brought in. I want them to know that we are responsive to their demands and suggestions. Personally, I go out daily to commuters to at bus stops to find out their views on our services and where they think we can improve or add value to existing services. I urge them to come back because we are introducing more buses soon that will cut short the waiting time. With our Wi-Fi innovations in the buses and shelters, our commuters can browse the internet for a free while on the move. With the Intelligence Traffic System (ITS) we recently deploy that monitors and schedule buses’ movement, we have greater control over the movement of passengers, handing-over time and prompt arrival and take-off from shelters and major terminals. So in a nutshell, I’m giving our commuters my word that they ain’t seen anything yet. Just stay with us or if you left, come back because the least we can be is to get better and better from now on. I also want them to know that BRT is new to Africa and we are a pioneer in the project. Consequently, we are bound to have initial glitches even as the public needed time to get used to the system. As I said earlier, we are setting up car parks in our major termini and shelters along the corridors that will allow even the upper class to benefit from our transport system.
Have you considered having a car park for commuters at the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBC)?
It’s difficult to find a space on the Island and that’s a big challenge. However, the state government has recently completed a car park very close to the Yoruba Tennis Club which I think is an added advantage to our services because of its proximity to our major terminus at TBS. We have started with the Ikorodu axes and I can tell you that when it comes to making our services better for the commuters, we are very bullish and this will continue as we are not unaware that transportation is the bedrock of development, especially here in Lagos.
Finally, where is the connecting point between your services and the Lagos State Lite Rail System?
Well, the lite rail is still under construction and I think there are about 4 routes in the plan. All over the world, the bus complement the services of the rail system and vice-versa. We stand apart but we offer complementary services in that at every rail terminus, we are going to provide buses that will take people into the hinterland where the rail service cannot run.
Source: Pegasus Reporters