Sri Lankan Start-Up Offers a Lifeline During Crisis

April 7, 2020
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – DECEMBER 14: A customer is seen while being driven inside a Pick-Me "three wheeler" on the outskirts of the Sri Lankan capital on December 14, 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Pick-Me's future plans includes expanding the business into the food delivery services, and gradually incorporating electrical "three wheelers" to help minimize pollution in the country in an effort to reshape the transportation industry in Sri Lanka. Photo by Omar Havana / IFC

By John Narayan Parajuli and Savani Jayasooriya

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—When the Sri Lankan government announced on March 20 an immediate lockdown and curfews as a measure to limit COVID-19 transmission, Roy Kevin Alosiyus was worried about losing his job.

"My entire family depends on me,” said Alosiyus, who works as a driver for PickMe, Sri Lanka’s first ride-hailing smartphone app. The service connects cab drivers and passengers in real time. “But within a few days, I was informed by the head office that PickMe was looking for driver partners for the emergency delivery fleet to take essential goods to households,” he said.

The curfew meant the usual demand by PickMe’s regular customers for ride hailing and food delivery came to an end. But drivers like Alosiyus were fortunate not to lose their jobs: He and others were enlisted for an emergency delivery fleet.

PickMe became one of the first companies in Sri Lanka to agree to deliver essential items for many under lockdown, and it trained drivers on adopting proper distancing and preventive measures.

During the first week, the company mobilized more than 1,000 drivers to make more than 7,000 delivery runs—with items ranging from cooking gas cylinders to grocery packs. And by quickly setting up an emergency hotline, PickMe has also been able to meet the needs of medical staff who needed to get to hospitals.

PickMe mobilized more than 1,000 drivers to make over 7,000 delivery runs in the first week of lockdown.
PickMe mobilized more than 1,000 drivers to make over 7,000 delivery runs in the first week of lockdown.

PickMe’s business model and the use of technology enabled the company to virtually pivot overnight from a ride-hailing into a delivery company. Its services—which were initially limited to Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo—have now expanded to several other regions across the country.

PickMe, founded in 2015 by entrepreneur Zulfer Jiffry, was the first start-up IFC has backed in Sri Lanka. Stop-Winlock’s $2.5 million investment has helped make travel in Sri Lanka safer. It has also increased revenues for the company’s drivers and supported the growth of Sri Lanka’s start-up ecosystem.

Jiffry, Chief Executive Officer of PickMe, said when concerns about COVID-19 first emerged in Sri Lanka, the company took “all measures possible to educate passengers, drivers, riders, customers, and merchants.”

With health and safety of the customers and drivers being paramount, the company also took immediate action to implement numerous preventive measures such as introducing contactless payment options and equipping drivers with hand sanitizers and face masks.

“We rallied our entire organization around the theme of #safetyfirst, where we undertook strict adherence to protocols and measures given by authorities in safeguarding our employees, drivers, and customers,” Jiffry said.

Emergency Deliveries—at Any Time

PickMe also worked to make the delivery system available during curfew hours. 

“With our technology and infrastructure in place, we knew we could provide the country with a better solution of getting goods to customers as opposed to customers going out. And with the assistance of the government we could ensure essential goods were delivered to customers on a daily basis,” he said.

Driving during curfew carries risks. But PickMe worked with the local police stations to get the necessary clearance for their drivers. To provide support during the present situation, the company launched an emergency hotline, staffed by people working from home.

With support from the government, PickMe started offering deliveries during curfew hours.
With support from the government, PickMe started offering deliveries during curfew hours.

In its short history, PickMe has built a track record of agility in responding to crises. During the 2017 floods, they also used their technology to assist the military in rescue efforts by mobilizing boats.

“Our current priority is to ease the economic and social hardship of our countrymen by delivering essential goods at a reasonable price, while ensuring the health and safety of our fellow drivers and riders who have come forward to help the country in this dire situation,” Jiffry said.

Jiffry founded PickMe after he exited his previous venture, an online shopping portal that was acquired by Sri Lanka’s largest telecom service provider. PickMe launched with Rs. 2 million from both his savings and from a few other investors. “I had an itch to get into a business which would involve technology,” he said. “Five years ago, there was no technology in the taxi business, so it seemed there was a big opportunity.”

Now he marvels at the importance of technology in dealing with a world impacted by COVID-19.

“We’re seeing how not only our country, but the entire world has been affected by the virus, and how day-to-day life has come to a halt, and I am amazed at how technology is contributing in bringing people some hope and helping meet their needs and wants at these difficult times,” Jiffry said.

“It is possible,” he said, “that the world may see a new economy emerging, and it is technology and the spirit of humans to survive and push boundaries that will enable a new economy and a new way of life to emerge.”

Published in April 2020