Imagine the number of trucks and trains you pass on the highway each day. Now, consider that many of those vehicles are empty or only half-filled — what a waste! In South Africa, as in many other countries, between 30% and 40% of all trucks and rail freight cars travel empty, either on the initial run or the “backhaul.” This inefficiency drives up transportation costs and reduces competitiveness. Worse, these empty trucks increase congestion and carbon emissions unnecessarily, while transport providers miss out on potential income.
The age of digital disruption has helped increase coordination and reduce inefficiencies in many industries, but not yet in logistics.
A growing tide of innovative start-ups are working to change this. After working at top-tier management consulting firms and hearing clients complain about transport costs, Benji Coetzee began prototyping a smart, connected platform to lower costs, improve transparency, and increase utilization.
“I had noticed empty trucks and rail wagons running between Johannesburg and Durban. The oversupply and high costs simply didn’t make sense. Excess supply should lead to lower prices, not higher,” Coetzee explains. “This anomaly is what led me to start EmptyTrips.”
After six months of development and bootstrapping the company with her own savings, Coetzee launched EmptyTrips in April 2017. It matches and connects users to fill spare capacity, using algorithms and competitive bidding for the digital marketplace.
EmptyTrips’ business model is similar to Airbnb, eBay, and other platforms that remain asset-less, lean, and scalable, while also offering add-on services to ensure viable revenue streams (e.g. cargo insurance). EmptyTrips is Africa’s first smart transport marketplace to offer access to vetted transporters and carriers by road and rail.
Coetzee told us, “What excites me most is a renaissance in African rail.” EmptyTrips has aligned with rail operators across Africa to launch an independent rail exchange. With this innovation, Africa could move toward scheduled services for freight rail.
However, being first also has its challenges.
“Creating a digital market where none existed before means that we are building two businesses at once. A database of vetted transporters and operators, and a database of cargo owners and brokers. The marketplace does not function without both. But we have to build capacity first, before we can offer competitive rates to attract more brokers and make more matches,” Coetzee said.