The Bajanda app is created by a small start-up that came on the scene to solve one of Cuba’s biggest challenges — transportation.
Despite its slow start, once Cuba started adding WiFi hotspots around 2014, and then mobile data a few years later, the Internet in Cuba exploded. In under a year, mobile data went from 3G coverage to 4G coverage, one of the quickest transitions to 4G in the world. Like the rest of the world, the Internet has had profound changes on Cuban life.
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At the beginning, communication was the primary usage. With Cuba’s large diaspora community, communicating with family abroad became a lot easier with the Internet. It is common to see families huddled around a smartphone using WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or any number of messaging apps to video call with family abroad. Cuba is also a large country, 740 miles long, and with fifteen provinces. In this way, the Internet has also connected Cubans within Cuba. The Bajanda app currently only operates within Havana, and does not yet have plans to expand to other cities or provinces.
As the Internet has matured, its uses have expanded beyond basic communication to include entertainment, social media, and practical applications like ridesharing, which brings us to today’s story — Bajanda.
Bajanda’s founders, Rancel Ruana and Karla Suárez, had been developing the app in an office next to a WiFi park. So when mobile data launched, their app was one of the first to go live, just two days later. The app looks and feels like Uber or Lyft, and works with private and state taxistas to provide on-demand rides directly from one destination to another. Private taxis may be the norm in the United States, but most Cubans use shared taxis to get around.
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Co-founder Karla Suárez went to live in the United States for two years. While there, she saw how well public transportation worked. “You could catch an Uber and move around. When I returned to Cuba, I saw the lack of that here, and how difficult it is for people to get around the city.” For Rancel and Karla, the Bajanda app started as a dream — to create an application that ran on the Internet, and to solve the major problem of transportation in Havana. Bajanda tried to launch before the Internet became available on mobile phones, but it wasn’t possible.
Bajanda’s headquarters is located on a quiet street in the Playa neighborhood of Havana. The building is made of concrete, clean, white, slightly faded by the strong Havana sun. Half of the building is a cell phone repair store, and around back is the Bajanda office. The Bajanda logo graces the corner, and a sign points to the back door, where drivers come to check in, and all of the business operations happen.
“My dream for Cuba is that it grows, that there are new opportunities for the Internet to be more accessible for all, that we can go to other countries more easily.“Karla Suárez, co-founder of Bajanda
Before the Internet, marketing didn’t exist in Cuba. For brands and individuals alike it wasn’t an option. Social media has opened the door for Cubans to connect with the outside world and for promotion. Besides state propaganda and business, there is hardly any advertising in Cuba. Beyond handing out a flier, or engaging with passersby in the street for concerts or events, the promotion has not been a big part of businesses’ strategies. The Internet has provided this pathway to create and spread businesses and individual’s messages. Today, Bajanda has 30,000 users.
“In private business, like many aspects of Cuban society, Cubans have had to learn how to work with limited resources to obtain great results,” said Karla.
A Bajanda driver, Nomar, explained how Bajanda benefits both drivers and riders. For riders, Bajanda is cheaper than yellow taxis, and the ride is guaranteed by the app, making it secure for the drivers, too.
Cuba underwent a huge change when the private sector was opened up in a series of reforms implemented by Raul Castro. Many people who worked in large state corporations applied for business licenses to start their own business or to join someone else’s private business. Interestingly, both state and private taxi drivers are working with Bajanda, which shows how the Cuban economy overall is becoming increasingly mixed. This diversification, I believe, will lead to more opportunities for new businesses, jobs, and for Cuba to possibly grow its GDP. Recently, Bajanda has released a feature where users can pay with credit cards (from outside the US). A question that remains is who in Cuba will benefit most from these new jobs, services, and income made available by the increased Internet access. Will it help to foster a middle class, or broaden a wealth gap between the haves and have-nots?
Bajanda serves a niche, yet growing, market. For the growing Cuban middle class, it provides a quick and easy way to get to work or go out at night. It is more expensive than the shared taxis that most Cubans use to get around, but it is usually cheaper than the cost of direct taxis. For tourists it provides a safe and affordable way to get around easily. While I’m skeptical about the impact services like Bajanda could have on the cheaper, shared taxis that so many Cubans rely on, I’m optimistic that Bajanda is introducing more options into a marketplace that for so long has been stagnant.
“My dream for Cuba is that it grows, that there are new opportunities for the Internet to be more accessible for all, that we can go to other countries more easily. ” — Karla Suarez
(Today’s article is part of the Re-Evolution series that focuses on the Internet in Cuba. It’s a story about two entrepreneurs, Rancel Ruana and Karla Suárez, who launched one of the first mobile apps to go live in Cuba: Bajanda.)