As a student, Karim Sokhn used to cycle to Université Saint-Joseph, frequently returning late at night. “Beirut is charming at night. It is small, everything’s close and it’s fascinating to experience the contrasts between old and new areas.”
An intense love for cycling and strong environmental concerns motivated him and Matt Saunders to set up Deghri Messengers – the first bicycle messenger company in the Arab world – as a project run by CyclingCircle s.a.r.l . As of next month, Beirutis will be able to send goods by bike.
“Bike messengers are found all over the world in congested cities with large economies, particularly service-based ones,” Saunders explains. “It was a logical step to apply this idea to Beirut.”
As co-owner and manager of CyclineCircle, Sokhn has successfully been organizing bicycle rides and bike-related activities, including night rides, around Beirut since its inception a year ago. Saunders, who worked three years as a bike messenger in Zurich, Switzerland, has been sharing his logistical know-how, training local cyclists and teaching them about being safe on the road and how to best and safely deliver letters and parcels of up to 10 kilograms that must fit into the giant, waterproof messenger bags the crew will don.
He says they have only carried out limited tests on the market, but are confident their service will succeed. “Market research has involved extensive opinion-gauging but stopping short of commissioning surveys and finding out about the strengths and weaknesses of existing delivery services.”
Sokhn adds, “some people argue that motorcycle companies are faster and charge the same price. That’s some of the feedback we get but by and large we get mostly positive responses — also from members of the cycling community. Many of them are business owners or managers.”
Deghri has had a fair bit of exposure from major national and international news organizations wanting to profile Deghri Messengers as a service, CyclingCircle as a movement and the Beiruti cycling scene in general. “Our promotion strategy relies on a combination of word-of-mouth promotion, social media activity and traditional advertising,” according to Saunders.
The two young entrepreneurs bank on the messengers' ability to speedily and reliably zip through all kinds of traffic and deliver on time. Customers will ultimately choose Deghri for their professionalism, competitive edge and for something motorized delivery services can’t offer: environmental benefits of a carbon-neutral service.
The $6,600 start-up capital needed to establish Deghri was fundraised. With this amount secured, the money has been invested in branded shirts, messenger bags and phones as well as locks, comprehensive insurance and corporate identity and advertising material.
The eight messengers who will ride on their own bicycles include two women. But in a city where few cycle, the danger to cyclists is clear. All the messengers are experienced cyclists and the messengers have to undergo a thorough training course during which a very strong emphasis is placed on safe cycling practices, minimizing risks and proper safety equipment. “It is also worth noting that all messengers are privately insured,” Saunders, who runs the training sessions, added. Deghri hopes to be increasing the team in early 2014 to 15.
While bike messengering has declined somewhat in Europe and North America, Sokhn points out that in Lebanon, electricity and reliable Internet are not a given. “There is still a value here of personally written and stamped documents,” Saunders adds. “We’re hoping private people will use our services, which generally is for everybody who needs to send or receive something urgently.” Anything can be couriered by bike messenger, including hard drives, fabrics, proofs, brochures, blood samples and promotional materials. Every item to be dispatched will be checked.
Bike ‘messengering’ does not constitute a hugely lucrative business, but Deghri pursues different aims. “We want the messengers to get a good pay,” Saunders explains. Sokhn, who runs CyclingCircle on the side of his full-time job, concurs: “Money is not a priority. Dispatchers and messengers will be earning based on a generous commission system, with the messengers earning most of the delivery fees.”
A regular delivery request within Beirut City (delivery within two hours of a request placed) costs LL9,000 ($6), while express service (within one hour) costs an additional LL3,000 ($2). Operations will run in line with office hours during the week and half-days Saturdays. Customers must pay in cash.
Deghri will cover the city of Beirut as well as greater Beirut, including Bouchrieh, Dekwaneh, Mkalles and Hazmieh in the East, and Hadath, Mreijeh and Bourj al Brajneh in the South.
Customers thus far include companies and NGOs. Saunders expects the customer base in Beirut to mirror Europe’s, and include hospitals, labs and clinics for medical deliveries. “We expect a similar customer profile and we want to prove our reliability.”
“Beirut is small and very compact,” Saunders points out. “Beirut city is only 6-7km across, distances are so cycle-able, and the heavy traffic makes it even more sensible, and more secure to ride.”