It is not unusual for overseas visitors on their first visit to Japan to be impressed by the country’s efficient rail network, with its heated seats and computerized message boards providing passengers with information updates.
That was certainly true of James Mmari, 35, a Tanzanian graduate who came to Japan in 2015 to study information systems under a state-sponsored program.
But instead of just being awed, Mmari was inspired to create a smartphone app that would help make the advanced bus system of Tanzania’s most populous city, Dar es Salaam, more passenger-friendly.
“The Tanzanian bus transportation system has features that combine both Japanese bus and train transportation systems — such as nonstep buses with electric card payment systems, which are very similar to ICOCA (payment) cards used in Japan,” said Mmari.
“But there are no signboard displays or announcements providing information at the stations.”
Dar es Salaam, located in east Tanzania, is rapidly growing with a population of over 5 million. The city’s bus system, which is a bus-rapid-transit (BRT) style system, handles an average of 250,000 commuters per day but still lacks any services to provide timely information to passengers, according to Mmari.
While staying in Japan, he managed to develop an app to address this, called Bongo Faster, with the help of Studio Canbe, a small Kansai-based information technology enterprise.
His passion for the app also inspired the company — which has only two workers — to quickly expand its business to Africa.
“I’d never thought of expanding my business to the other side of the world in less than a year,” said Takahiro Kambe, founder and executive director of Studio Canbe. “It would not have even happened if I had not met James.”
Mmari and Kambe launched the app service at the end of March.
The smartphone software, which is the first mobile app for the bus service in Tanzania, provides route maps and timetables for buses that run in public lanes for exclusive use by the bus system on roads in Dar es Salaam. The app also delivers info on current bus operations and allows users to send feedback to the operating company.
In 2016 Dar es Salaam became the first East African city to operate a BRT system, which runs on trunk routes.
Mmari decided to leave his loved ones behind and come to Japan under the African Business Education Initiative for Youth scholarship, or “ABE Initiative,” that has given over 1,000 of Africa’s next generation opportunities to acquire master’s degrees in the fields of their interests in Japan, along with optional six-month internships at Japanese enterprises.
The program is administered by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and is designed to foster young people who can contribute to Africa’s development by building bridges between African and Japanese private enterprises.
Mmari’s interest in Japan was first sparked by a Japanese lecturer he met in Tanzania as an undergraduate. The lecturer’s teaching skills and strong commitment to inspiring students prompted Mmari to learn more about Japan.
He then started work in Tanzania, as a college lecturer in computer engineering and programming. It was through that work that he came to Japan to learn about the nation’s online education system.
But after seeing Japan’s highly developed transportation system, he became increasingly eager to improve such services in his home city, using the teaching and computer programming skills he had developed.
He was able to adjust the objectives of his master’s degree project to include improving the bus-rapid-transit system using a mobile app.
To understand in more depth the way transportation systems worked in Japan, Mmari visited many transport operators that are involved in railway, road and other transportation infrastructure projects. During his visits, he learned how rail signal and traffic information systems worked together.
He also visited a bus terminal in Kobe and learned how it shares bus information with passengers using a mobile and web application called Kobe Transit Search — which has functions similar to those now deployed in the Bongo Faster app.
But after gathering background know ledge and ideas about what he wanted the app to do, Mmari also had to figure out how to actually produce it and introduce it to the market.
He found the solution when he met Kambe at the Kobe Union Church.
“Right after I heard from Kambe’s wife that he owns his own IT company, I approached him and asked him to accept me as an intern,” said Mmari.
Kambe, who attends a Sunday English-learning session at the church with his wife, said he first hesitated to accept Mmari as an intern since he had no clue about the ABE Initiative, and had never thought about expanding his business overseas.
“But I like new challenges; his compassion and ambition left me no choice and I accepted him as an intern,” said Kambe.
With Mmari playing the role of mediator between the Kansai-based software firm and the Tanzanian bus operating company, an agreement was reached for the two to work together.
Kambe and Mmari are now in the final stages of negotiating with the Tanzanian government to equip Dar es Salaam buses with Global Positioning System tracking devices, which would allow the app users to check the current locations of buses in real time.
“Since, unlike Japan, the buses do not perfectly come on time, adding a GPS system to this app is a must for reducing the waiting time for commuters at the bus station,” said Mmari.
JICA has touted the teamwork between Kambe and Mmari as an example of a successful business project initiated under the ABE Initiative internship program.
In January, Kambe made a one-week working visit to Tanzania and Kenya with JICA sponsorship. During that first trip to Africa, he found another similar business opportunity in Kenya — which is currently introducing its own bus-rapid-transit system.
Mmari left Japan at the end of March after finishing his two-year scholarship. While continuing his work on the Bongo Faster app as a local staffer, Mmari also works as a college lecturer at Arusha Technical College, teaching information and communication technologies including the mobile app development skills he learned at Studio Canbe.
“I am now doing my best by teaching and inspiring my students (with) the various technologies and skills that I learned in Japan,” said Mmari.