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Pakistani startup Airlift raises $2.2M as investors flock to transit-hailing apps

Traffic congestion in the developing world is driving a flourishing on-demand bus market.

Lahore, Pakistan (Image: Shutterstock)

Urban gridlock is fueling a bumper crop of on-demand bus startups that seek to get drivers out of their single occupancy vehicles and into more efficient mass transit options.

Airlift, based in Lahore, Pakistan, is the latest enterprise to attract interest from investors, who have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into private transit startups in India, the Middle East and Africa.

Founded by Usman Gul, a former DoorDash employee, Airlift allows bus owners to operate their vehicles on fixed routes in Lahore and Karachi. Passengers use a mobile app to reserve and purchase tickets, and to track the buses in real-time. Users can also pay in cash while boarding.

In less than five months of operations, Airlift reports 50,000 riders in Lahore and has raised seed financing of over $2.2 million, according to Menabytes, a publication that covers technology and startups in the Middle East and Africa.

Fatima Gobi Ventures, a $20 million joint-fund recently established by the Fatima Group and China’s Gobi Partners, co-led the round with Indus Valley Capital, a Pakistan-focused VC founded by former LinkedIn executive Aatif Awan.

Several prominent angel investors, including Tony Xu, DoorDash founder and CEO,  participated in earlier funding rounds. Pritesh Gupta, one of the co-founders of Mumbai-based ZipGo, another bus app, joined Airlift as an official advisor.

The Airlift raise comes as ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem are attracting criticism for putting more cars on traffic-clogged roads. The problem is especially acute in emerging market megacities, where local transportation options are limited and traffic operates at a virtual standstill.

Gul told Menabytes that  Airlift wants to solve the congestion challenge by building out “the mass transit infrastructure of the developing world.”

Airlift joins an increasingly crowded on-demand bus market. Cairo-headquartered Swvl recently expanded to Lahore and has plans to expand to Karachi. Uber launched a bus program in Cairo and Monterrey, Mexico last year.

Several of the ride-hailing giants have reached out with acquisition offers, Gul told Menabytes, but Airlift is not interested in a quick exit, he said.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected].