Where the Streets Have No Name: How Africa Could Leapfrog the Humble Address and Lead the World in GPS-Based Shipping

Here is my address in Kampala, Uganda (with place names changed for security):

“We’re in Ntinda on Mobutu Road, near Fancy Supermarket – most of the boda drivers know Mobutu Road.  Two ways to get there.  (1) Go on Jinja Road to the Shell station just past the Airtel roundabout. Turn left on Mobutu road at Shell, and go 3.5km. If you get to Fancy supermarket you’ve gone about 50m too far.  (2) If you can get to Kabira Country Club you can also find the house.  From Kabira, go back on Ntinda-Bukoto Road toward Airtel roundabout, but turn left (“go down”) on the first tarmac road, at the busy intersection with 2 petrol stations, God Cares Supermarket, and lots of bars. Turn left again at Mobutu Road and go 3km. Again, if you reach Fancy supermarket you’ve gone 50m too far.  The house is very nondescript: it’s in a compound behind a big dirt parking lot.  Call once you’re close and I’ll come out to find you.”

I got a real kick out of entering that in the “address” field in my response to my 5-year reunion invitation.

Here is my address in Rwanda (again, with place names changed):

Me: “KG 335, house #23, Kimironko”

Delivery person: “where is that?”

Me: “Ok, it’s the same street as Rosty Club – new Rosty, not its old location.  House #23.  It’s 3 houses down from Rosty.”

Delivery person: “Ok”

[10 minutes later]

Delivery person: “I’m at Rosty.  Where are you?”

Me: “Let me come outside and find you.”

The key phrase in both of those addresses was “I’ll come outside and find you.”  At least in Rwanda the government has made nominal progress by implementing a system of street names and house numbers, but no one really uses them.

But thanks to Google, developing countries like Uganda and Rwanda may end up never needing to: they could skip the address and go straight to GPS.

Here’s what Google Maps shows me if I type in “Casablanca Pub and Restaurant, Bukoto, Kampala”:

Check out all the information on this map: multiple landmarks are labelled, and streets have names that don't have signs in the physical world

Check out all the information on this map: multiple landmarks are labelled, and streets that don’t have street signs in the physical world have names on Google Maps

There’s the exact location on the map.  There’s a picture of my destination so I know when I’ve arrived.  Google Navigation works most of the time in getting me there, even when the route takes me down nameless, unpaved back roads.  Google even knows that the place is permanently closed.

Hell, there’s even Street View now in Kampala!

They have the internet on computers now?  Street View is live in Kampala!

They have the internet on computers now? Street View is live in Kampala!

Now this may not seem revolutionary to those of you reading this article on your smart phone in San Francisco or London.  You use Google Maps every day to navigate where you need to go.

But there’s a key difference between Kampala and San Francisco: almost no one in Kampala has an address.  Few buildings have house numbers, and many streets have no name.  Of the named streets, most are not well-marked, and even when they are, most people don’t know those names except for the biggest of main roads.

But Google does.

And if both you and the person you’re trying to meet both have smart phones, you don’t need to tell them your address for them to be able to find you.  All you have to do is click “share my location” and Google will plan a route there, even in a place where the streets have no name.

Again, this may not sound revolutionary: you’re used to typing in “Best Buy” or “Costa Coffee” and having your phone take you there, even without an address.

But think about the last time you ordered something: food delivery or Amazon?  When have you ever delivered something without an address?  The answer is: you haven’t.

Now you see where I’m going.  Logistics is one of the biggest challenges of doing business in Africa, and a big part of this challenge is the lack of addresses.  For example, motorcycle courier services promising to deliver everything from food to furniture are popping up in capitals all over Africa—but their drivers all struggle with finding the delivery locations.  Without an address, the best you can tell someone is, “get to [this nearby place], then call me when you get lost again.”

And on a region where the price of telephone airtime is expensive relative to the cost of most other things, those repeated calls for directions can become costly for small deliveries.  If you spend 40 cents asking for directions to deliver a $7 pizza, there goes 6% of your revenue, and probably 10% or more of your profit.

Most companies don’t even try.  I once had to have a credit card shipped from the States.  It got from Omaha to the Kampala DHL office in 2.5 days, and I was able to track it online at every step of its journey.  But after traveling 8,000 miles from Omaha to Kampala, the credit card couldn’t travel the final 3 miles from the DHL office to my house—because my house didn’t have an address.  I had to go to the office and pick it up.

And this is in the capital city.  Now imagine trying to do logistics in the village, where a typical address is “turn left at the mango tree.”  It’s certainly possible—at BBOXX we do it 60 times a day, delivering solar systems to rural customers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda—but it’s not easy.  Our technicians often spend more time just finding a customer’s house than it takes them to actually install the solar system.  It’s even affected our HR structure: we were considering a specialized role to repossess systems from defaulted customers, until we realized that only the person who installed the system actually knows where the customer lives.   In a place without addresses, just knowing the way to a customer’s house becomes a competitive advantage!

Preparing a delivery

Preparing a delivery: we know the general area we’re going, but will need to narrow it down to the exact location once we’re a bit closer

Clearly no addresses out here - there are not even roads!  How do you find the customer?  By calling, moving, calling again, asking the neighbors for directions, and continuing on until you get almost to the place

No roads out here, much less address: how do you find the customer? By calling, moving, calling again, asking the neighbors for directions, and continuing on until you get almost to the place

Once you're close, the client comes down to meet you on the "main" road and leads you to his house

Almost at the place.  Once you’re close, the client comes down to meet you on the “main” road and leads you to his house

Filling out the installation report, but what do you put in the "address" field?  That now becomes "tacit" knowledge: it's trapped in the technician's head

Filling out the installation report, but what do you put in the “address” field? The house’s physical location now becomes “tacit” knowledge: it’s trapped in the technician’s head

Strangely, delivery companies—even ones in address-free parts of Africa—still seem wedded to old-fashioned addresses.  Hello Food, a food delivery company similar to Seamless or Deliveroo, still requires you to enter a house number and street name as mandatory fields in its smart phone app.  Yet by virtue of its being an app, every Hello Food customer must have a smart phone; with the click of a “share my location” button, Google could navigate Hello Food’s drivers directly to almost any location in major African cities.

There are a few companies already working on address-free shipping.  One of them, “Shyp,” I saw on Facebook and immediately thought “this will revolutionize shipping in Africa!”  Alas, it was too good to be true: you still need an address. Shyp just creates a profile for you to link that address to.  Wouldn’t help much in developing countries.

Another company, called What3Words, has developed an interesting alternative system of location coordinates based on unique 3-word combinations.  According to the company, the earth’s surface can be broken down into a grid of 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares, and What3Words’ algorithm assigns each square a unique combination of three words, like “dog.chair.cow” or “house.car.television.”  The main advantage over GPS, the company argues, is that whereas nobody can remember GPS coordinates, anyone can remember three words.

But if you think about it, no one with a smart phone actually has to remember their GPS coordinates.  All you do is click a “share location” button, and the computers talk to each other to figure out where you are and how to get there.  Thus there’s actually nothing wrong with using GPS to navigate, as long as you have a smart phone.

Google seems to have the right approach here.  Instead of creating another layer of location knowledge, Google is capturing the knowledge people already know—landmarks, roads, and place names—and translating it into a format that people can use to find their way: a little blue line to follow, or a map with landmarks listed along the way.  And once you’re close, you even get a little photo that shows you if you’re in the right place.

Such a system could change the way we ship.  Instead of entering an address in Amazon or OLX, you enter a location, either by sharing your current location or by entering a saved location.  A house number still helps, especially if the owner isn’t home, but I can envision a number of workarounds for developing countries.

With such a system, you wouldn’t even need to ship to permanent locations—dynamic shipping could deliver packages to a phone’s location, not a building’s.  If you happen to move during the day, or if a truck’s route happens to pass by your current location, the system could automatically update and get your package to you faster and more conveniently.

In the West, this would make shipping even easier.  But in Africa, this would change everything, bringing scale to a field that currently relies on local knowledge of how to get places, and launching an explosion of logistics and courier activities.

Looking at this as a whole, I’d say there are two main implications:

  1. Smartphones’ development impact becomes even more obvious—especially in rural areas. Governments would be better off investing resources in promoting smartphone adoption than in formalizing traditional systems of addresses.  And donors should promote smartphones as a means of improving physical service delivery at the last mile.  Private sector companies that provide smartphones on loan to poor households will play a key role in these efforts, and should receive the requisite support to scale up.
  1. There’s a huge opportunity for logistics software and software-enabled delivery services that leverage smartphones’ “share location” feature. Imagine: a remote rural family with a child sick from malaria could, with the click of a button, share their location, send a mobile Money payment, and have a dose of Coartem delivered by drone within 30 minutes; British architect Norman Foster already plans to develop a “droneport” in Rwanda.  Urban courier services would no longer struggle to find their customers.  Bodas/taxi motos could quote exact fares before setting off.  Of course smartphone adoption is the key dependency here, but I have little doubt that within 10 years, most families in Africa will have a smartphone–especially if #1 happens in a big way.

So kudos to Google: Maps seems to have laid the foundation for a commercial revolution in Africa.  Now it’s just up to some smart developer to write the software to make it a useful commercial tool in developing countries.  I bet in Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, or Lagos somewhere, there’s already someone working on it…


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by cfp on October 26, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Really enjoy these articles, thanks for keeping the blog going!


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