PickMe’s big vision

Jiffry Zulfer, PickMe’s founder and chief executive

There is much more than meets the eye when it comes to this ride-hailing and food delivery company; Covid-19 proved it can create a better-connected economy.

PickMe is both a pioneering and popular mobility solutions app.

Jiffry Zulfer, PickMe’s founder and chief executive, has every reason to be proud of the app’s success. However, he is quick to remind anyone that PickMe is primarily a tech company with a loftier objective. The best minds in software engineering at PickMe’s Advanced Technology Centre in Colombo are building homegrown tech-driven mobility solutions that will drive the economy towards prosperity. “Mobility is the key to driving growth. A thriving economy needs a transport system that seamlessly connects people and businesses, and this is what we are setting out to build, ” Zulfer says. PickMe is a means to that end.

Modes of public and private transportation have inherent limitations and are beyond reach. However, there are tremendous opportunities in the shared transport space. This is where PickMe can have the greatest impact on the country’s fortunes, as demonstrated by IFC’s 2018 equity investment of $2.5 million in PickMe to help the company expand across the island and increase access to affordable, safe, and efficient transportation. Apart from ride-hailing and food delivery, the company launched PickMe Flash, a B2B & B2C delivery service, and a truck-hiring service targeting small businesses connecting vehicle owners with millions of users country-wide from Point Pedro to Dondra Head.

The Covid-19 impact

The global pandemic caught everyone by surprise. The prolonged lockdown to contain the Coronavirus’ spread in Sri Lanka disrupted livelihoods and businesses at an unprecedented scale. The harsh economic conditions prevail still, months after the lockdown’s lifting. For PickMe, the crisis proved beyond doubt its business model’s potential for good and the power of the technology behind it. On the very same evening Sri Lanka reported its first Coronavirus case, Zulfer gathered the management team for a brainstorm. Even before anyone else was talking about lockdowns and social distancing, the team devised health and safety protocols according to WHO guidelines to protect its over 100,000-strong network of riders and drivers and 3 million registered users of PickMe.

PickMe issued driver-partners with health packs containing face masks, hand sanitizers, gloves and a screen separating drivers from passengers. Each day, a WHO educational video on preventing the spread of Covid-19 played on the app as drivers and riders powered the app. When the lockdown came, the company realised the significance of its role in the economy.

“We had a duty to preserve livelihoods of thousands of people whether they are partner drivers and their families, or the millions of people who depend on us for connectivity,” Zulfer said.

It arranged for drivers to obtain official health clearance after testing and obtained special permits to operate during curfews and lockdown. The insurance cover provided by the company to all its riders and drivers, and their families, extended to cover Covid-19. Many people with critical roles in the economy were able to travel to work because of this: for instance, if health workers make up the frontline infantry in the war against Covid-19, PickMe became its mobile division. It also launched a hotline for emergency travel. This hotline helped several thousands of otherwise stranded tourists from the remotest corners of the country reach the airport and return to their homes before it was completely shut.

While the lockdown forced restaurants to shutdown, PickMe deployed its delivery partners to take groceries and essentials to people locked in their homes. The company entered into agreements with Litro Gas and Sathosa, a government-owned retail chain for fresh groceries and essentials. It soon expanded its range of producers and manufacturers providing fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. The company partnered with Sampath Bank to deliver cash to people’s home: a customer had to initiate the transaction and share a code which a PickMe driver would then use to withdraw cash from an ATM and deliver to the customer’s doorstep.

“Despite some early hesitation, people trusted our drivers with their cash because of the fool-proof system we built,” Zulfer says.

Driving forward

PickMe is continuing to invest in technology so it can continue to drive its shared mobility agenda forward. PickMe Flash began as a delivery service during the lockdown. But it is much more than that, positioned as a safe, fast and smart way to maintain physical connectivity for businesses opting for distance working. The company’s truck hiring service is 2-3 times less costly a boon to small businesses struggling to cope with a sedated economy.

It also allows businesses to track their goods which is an added indispensable bonus. These initiatives aim to give the economy a much-needed boost. However, PickMe is uplifting economic freedoms, and this could be its more profound impact. Consumers have better choices, they can travel on the pillion of a bike, ride a tuk, chauffered downtown like a boss in a luxury sedan, or even order food from a high-end restaurant or a corner shop boutique that offers that unbeatable kottu fair.

Riders and drivers can choose if they want to give people a ride, take food to people’s doorsteps, deliver important stuff for offices or transport goods cross country.

Either way, PickMe is keeping the economy more open.