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Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor Lack Of Address Will Stop These Deliverymen

The drivers for Metro Africa Xpress get a good salary — and a cool uniform. People say the outfits make the drivers look like "RoboCop on the street."

Finding people's homes in Nigeria is a nightmare.

Zip Codes don't exist. House numbers are random. In poorer areas of the city, there's no such thing as urban planning. Houses are built wherever people can find a plot of land, for example. And many parts of the city aren't mapped out on GPS. Then of course, there's the traffic.

So imagine how tough it must be to be a delivery person for one of the country's new e-commerce websites. A customer might order, say, a supply of diapers. Delivery might be promised within three days. Only the diapers arrive a day late — because the couriers simply couldn't locate the house.

That's a story that Adetayo Bamiduro and Chinedu Azodoh, two Nigerian tech entrepreneurs who met at MIT, have heard many times before in a dozen different ways. Like many of their peers in Lagos' booming tech scene, Bamiduro, 32, and Azodoh, 26, wanted to use technology to not only fix the problem, but also address social issues in Nigeria — specifically its high youth unemployment rate.

And that's how Metro Africa Xpress was born. The app connects motorcycle drivers to Nigerian e-commerce companies to deliver goods to customers in less than three hours — a time frame unheard of before then. In the process, they hope to create a skilled, forward-thinking labor force.

Over the past three years, the e-commerce industry in Africa has skyrocketed, thanks to a handful of online retailers like Jumia and Mall for Africa and a growing middle class. But a big bottleneck is getting the product from the transportation hub to a customer's doorstep, a term called "last-mile delivery" in the biz. From the duo's research, they found that a whopping 50 percent of deliveries in Nigeria were late.

"It's very hard to deliver products in the last mile in Africa," says Bamiduro. "It's not like New York City, where it's easy to [find locations]. We don't have that in many cities in Africa."

The MAX app, which Bamiduro and Azodoh developed with a team at MIT, alerts the nearest available driver — called a "MAX Delivery Champion" — to a customer order on demand, much like Uber. This helps ensure the drivers find and fulfill delivery jobs quickly and efficiently.

They combine Google Maps data with the street smarts of their local drivers. When a champion delivers a package to a new place, they tag it in MAX's customized mapping software for future reference.

"The first time to a new place is always difficult," says Azodoh. "But after they put it in the system, the second and third deliveries will be much easier."

Currently, the app serves small- to medium-size online retailers in Lagos. Large e-commerce companies have their own delivery system, explains Bamiduro.

To appeal to investors, they framed MAX as a commercial enterprise, not a social impact company — even though that's how they see themselves. Bamiduro, who is currently fundraising for MAX in New York City, believes that's how they were able to raise "seven figures" from venture capitalists. Azodoh holds down the fort in Lagos.

As of March, the six-month-old company's 23 drivers are delivering an average of 150 packages a day in Lagos. They work with more than 300 online retailers to serve as a cheaper alternative to global delivery services like UPS or DHL. They've dropped off passports, jewelry, letters, dress shoes, and $200 in cash.

Unlike many Nigerian companies, Bamiduro and Azodoh put workers at the heart of their business.

They pay their "champions" twice the salary of any motorcycle dispatch service in town, about $200 a month or more. They offer health insurance, safety training and workshops on how to save money. For many of their drivers, it's the first time they've received money directly into a bank account.

Some of their drivers are married with kids. Others are migrants who have fled from northeast Nigeria, a region threatened by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

"The only way to eliminate poverty is to give people an opportunity to earn their money, not get handouts or freebies," says Bamiduro, who cites the Grameen Bank, which gives small loans to the poor, as an inspiration.

"We want to change the mindset for Africans and have them think about the future — not living day by day," says Bamiduro. "We want our drivers to know: It's OK to be a MAX champion for now, but we want you to save money and say, in two years, get a college degree or a certification that allows you to get a white collar job."

"We're a stepping stone for a brighter future," he adds.

To help them along the way, they let drivers pay a monthly installment to purchase a motorcycle if they don't already have one. The drivers can use it for other jobs after their time with MAX or for personal use to help cut transportation costs, which can take up to 30 percent of the average worker's monthly salary of about $75, says Bamiduro.

Over the next few months, the partners hope to expand to two other cities in Nigeria, adding 1,500 employees to their network. In the next five years, they aim to be in Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Senegal, creating a total of 20,000 more jobs.

Perhaps one of the biggest perks of working for MAX, drivers say, is the cool outfits: futuristic body armor made of silver and gray padding and molded plastic over a black mesh shirt. A bright red helmet and leather cutoff gloves complete the look.

"The first time they come back from a delivery," says Azodoh, "Drivers tell us, 'People love how we look and want to take pictures with us. They tell us we look like RoboCop on the street.' "

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