As the lion’s share of JoBike services are based in universities, their revenues disappeared immediately after the countrywide shutdown began in March. And yet, they launched new services in Gulshan and Banani areas
Head of Retail Partnership of Grameenphone, Sayma Rahman, who is also a prominent angel investor of Bangladesh, is a fitness enthusiast. She loves riding bicycles to remain fit.
"Riding a bicycle is something I have been doing for a very long time."
But to her dismay, Sayma added, "Riding bicycles for girls is very difficult here."
Liton Chandra Shaha is a video editor of a prominent television channel. A year back, he used to work at an advertising agency in Baridhara DOHS.
"Every day, when I worked there, I needed to take a long walk from road one to Ananya Shopping Complex for lunch. If I had a bicycle, it could save both my time and money as taking a rickshaw during lunch was an overkill for the salary I got," Liton said.
Sayma or Liton are not isolated when it comes to the need for bicycles.
From high end to low end professionals in Dhaka, many have realised the undeniable appeal of riding a bicycle from both the environmental and cost effectiveness perspective.
But availing bicycles for everyday activities, or finding ones in tourist spots, and taking care of it every day is something not many can afford.
To make a difference in this regard, Mehedi Reza, a budding entrepreneur of the country, introduced JoBike - a bicycle ride sharing venture in 2018.
Since the beginning of its journey, JoBike has been operating primarily in some universities including the University of Dhaka and the University of Chittagong - with around 40 to 100 bicycles in each university area, depending on the number of the students.
They are also operating in Cox's Bazar. JoBike has around 50 bicycles there.
But during the lockdown in this pandemic, they had to shut down all their services as universities were closed and the Cox's Bazar sea beach, too, was closed to the tourists.
As the lion's share of JoBike services are based in universities, their revenues disappeared immediately after the countrywide shutdown began in March. And there are no clear signs when these universities will resume their classes again.
How does JoBikes operate?
JoBike is simple.
All you need is to download the JoBike app from PlayStore, register with your phone number, refill, and ride.
Their refill system was manual before. For example, in Banani, they had 22 agents and some JoBike umbrellas. The rider needed to go and refill from those particular spots.
But at the beginning of October, they digitised their services and incorporated payment methods like Bkash to make refills flexible.
Once the app is downloaded, the users can know about the whereabouts of the bike stations through the app.
They have multiple parking stations in the designated areas. In Gulshan, for example, they have some 22 parking stations.
How much does it cost?
The cost of riding JoBikes varies. In Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara, and Cox's Bazaar areas, the cost is Tk1 per minute.
In universities, however, the cost is Tk3 every five minutes to allow students cost effective transport.
What do you do after reaching the destination?
The user does not have to park the bike at designated parking stations.
"You can park the bike outside your office or home, from where someone else can ride it through the app. If the bicycle remains idle for more than half an hour somewhere, we will bring it to the nearest parking station," Reza said.
So, doesn't it sound like a risky business as the bicycles are left alone to the riders?
JoBike's CEO admits to the risks. But he is not very concerned about it.
So far, they have lost around 16 bicycles of which nine bicycles have been recovered. But they are still on the hunt for the remaining seven.
"Our bicycles are branded. You will recognise these bikes if you see them on the streets," Reza said.
Besides, they use GPS in their bikes. So, whenever someone takes the bike out of the designated location, JoBike can trace it.
"We can track and monitor each bicycle through GEO fencing technology," Reza said, sounding confident.
"A blessing in disguise"
Coronavirus has been a huge blow for many start-ups, except the e-commerce industry.
Since JoBikes services were shut down in the university areas and Cox's Bazaar, the blow it suffered is understandable.
But Reza has a different opinion. To him, Covid-19 was a "blessing in disguise".
Reza said they partnered with the DNCC and ICT division during the lockdown and launched their services in the Gulshan, Banani, and Baridhara areas on June 24.
JoBike is functioning with some 150 bicycles in this area and they are surviving.
Besides, since public transport is not safe anymore, bicycles have turned out as the safest mode of transportation now. The use of bicycles is being encouraged globally.
"In terms of revenues, yes it has dipped. But I would like to focus on the bright side that we launched our services in open spaces in Dhaka, which I take as an achievement. Covid-19 claimed our revenues but opened a new window for us," Reza added.
New investment breeds hope
After the Covid shutdown and following new operations in the heart of Dhaka, JoBike now dreams of spreading its wings, as it recently found an investor in Sayma Rahman.
Angel investor Sayma Rahman took an interest in JoBike from three perspectives - environment friendly, cost-effective and it keeps you fit.
"When JoBike's CEO reached out to me, detailed their idea, objective and future plans, what interested me more about investing in JoBike is that it is an environment friendly initiative. They are promoting riding bicycles. I am a fitness enthusiast myself. I used to ride bicycles since my childhood," Sayma said.
Inspired by the new investments, Reza now plans to launch JoBike in some other parts of the city including Uttara, Hatirjheel Mohammadpur, and Agargaon.
"This bicycle sharing venture is capital intensive. We need capital to buy bicycles. The more capital we have, the more bicycles we will be able to buy. We need investment from the public and private sectors, or we cannot do this alone," Reza voiced.
In February, before the pandemic hit, JoBike announced that they had around one lakh registered users and claimed to have surpassed one million rides.
But later this year, the pandemic caused the picture to change. So, was this the right time for Sayma to invest in JoBike?
Sayma replied, "Investment in a startup is always risky. You may never have the return here. But even if I initiate a business, I don't know if this business would become sustainable in a year."
"I invested here keeping those risk factors in mind."
"Perhaps its growth will be slow for a while due to the pandemic. But going forward, if we get adequate support from the government, I believe it will grow."
As an investor, Sayma does not want any immediate return on her investment.
Reza, however, sounded more poised as he concluded, "If God wills, we will make profit within a year."