A few decades ago the late Baila maestro MS Fernando tried to raise the self-esteem of the ‘Taxi Karaya’ with his lilting song of the same title but his efforts did not meet with all that much success. Today, Jiffry Zulfer is trying the same feat, not by making a song and dance about it, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Taken for a ride by ‘Taxi Karaya’ Zulfer


Jiffrey Zulfer in the driving seat.

A few decades ago the late Baila maestro MS Fernando tried to raise the self-esteem of the ‘Taxi Karaya’ with his lilting song of the same title but his efforts did not meet with all that much success. Today, Jiffry Zulfer is trying the same feat, not by making a song and dance about it, rather providing the itinerant band with a livelihood they can be proud of.  “I wanted to take away the stigma attached to the taxi karaya and the three-wheeler karaya, and give our drivers some respect by giving them a worthwhile career,” says Zulfer, chief executive of PickMe, the popular taxi hailing service.

The jury is still out on whether Zulfer has been successful. People still rant that PickMe, which was supposed to end all your hassles, can still cause you to pull your hair out especially when you need conveyance urgently – on rainy days or during peak hours it is still hard to get a vehicle – bringing censure raining down on the drivers.  But by and large, the mobile service application undoubtedly does make life easier much to the delight of Zulfer who has seen his start-up mushroom since it began last July.

“We celebrate our one year anniversary next month and I’m very pleased with what we have achieved. We started with 50 drivers but today we have more than 4,000 drivers registered with PickMe. We have exceeded all expectations,” is the delightful summation from the big boss of the taxi karayas.  The idea was born a few years ago when Zulfer following trends in the US realised that a taxi-hailing App on a smartphone could help alleviate the problem of finding three-wheelers as well as haggling and arguing with drivers over the fare.

Resolving ‘lost mileage’
“The biggest problem three-wheelers (drivers) faced in the past was lost mileage. They would get a hire and after dropping the passenger, more often than not they would have to return all the way to their stand before they got another hire,” explains Zulfer.  “What PickMe has done is to eliminate this lost mileage and reducing time waste. We have raised productivity by introducing the driver App which locates where the three-wheeler or taxi is and making it easier for him to go to the closest customer.”

“Our drivers now make a lot of money having eliminated the time loss and mileage lost. They are not stuck in traffic without passengers and it cuts down unproductivity. It is a win-win situation for everyone, the driver as well as the customer.”  PickMe began with a pilot project of 50 drivers and one of the first things Zulfer discovered was how quickly the technology was lapped up by his motley crew.  “I was pleasantly surprised at how our three-wheeler guys adapted to technology.

Each of them was given a smart phone, which cost us 20,000 rupees each, and they were very comfortable with the equipment. On top of that I was also amazed at how the market reacted.” “We are supposed to be a developing country but the people here are more developed (in technology) than in most other countries. There are still some customers who call our call centre and ask for taxis but we don’t encourage that. Mostly they book on the mobile app, however.”  Zulfer self-funded his dream at the inception pumping in Rs.4 million to get the prototype rolling.

Today he has a bunch of investors backing him. Apart from three-wheelers – the bulk of PickMe with more than 2,000 drivers – other services offered are mini-cars, saloon cars and vans. And the income is good. “On average our three-wheeler drivers make around 100,000 rupees a month,” says Zulfer. PickMe gets a commission from each journey.  Not everyone can join PickMe with drivers having to undergo a strict vetting process. Applicants have to produce a letter from the Grama Sevaka as well as a police report. They must also show proof of a physical address.

Training programme
“We vet them and if they are successful they have to go through an eight-hour training programme where they have to learn traffic laws as well as taught how to handle customers.”  The beauty of this Start-up is that Zulfer does not have to own any of the rolling stock. All the vehicles are owned by the drivers who are connected to the system by the umbilical mobile app.  “We are not a taxi company,” Zulfer takes pains to point out. “We are just a service provider with a platform to facilitate an ease with which you can get a vehicle.”

PickMe lived up to its tenets of being a service provider during the recent floods when they provided marooned communities with a lifeline to safety. Drivers reported that rising waters were threatening people in the low-lying areas of the city and PickMe was quick to realise that their App could be a beacon for help.  Government services including the Police, Navy and Airforce relied on PickMe to pinpoint people in distress and pluck them to safety. The community at large also began to donate food and clothing through the App.

“We were able to rescue over 300 families by giving the Forces the coordinates. We didn’t realise what this technology could do until we were confronted with this crisis. But I’m very happy to say everyone at PickMe reacted admirably and helped the community,” praised Zulfer.
In one-year PickMe has come a long way but Zulfer is the first to admit a lot remains to be done. “We need to address issues like getting our service to the customer on time. We know there are problems especially during rush hour and on rainy days.

We are looking at ways to try and incentivize them.”  One year down the line, Zulfer is a happy man. To stay in touch with issues facing the community and understand the problems facing his fleet of drivers, Zulfer sometimes takes his in-laws’s vehicle (“my wife has a car but I don’t own one”) and goes for a drive at night as a PickMe driver. He is comfortable being a ‘taxi karaya’.

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