Africa's bittersweet ride-hailing story

Africa's collective economics has been a difficult hurdle for ride-hailing in Africa. There has been several reports of drivers attacking passengers and vice versa.

An Uber taxi driver sits in his car in Nairobi March 9, 2016.    REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Once upon a time in Nigeria, if you wanted a cab, you either had to go to the taxi park or wait by the roadside to get one. Most times, you often had to go through three or four different cabs before you found one that agreed with your pocket and looked decent enough to take you to where you needed to be. This was the case across many African countries.

Fast forward to 2016 and it's a very different time. Now, you can simply open an app on your smartphone and request for a cab. There is no longer a need for haggling as your charge is deducted directly from your account balance and your journey is enjoyable complete with control over what plays in the car and how high you want the AC.

Because Internet penetration is not where it should be yet in Africa, ride-hailing is still something kind of reserved for people who know about these things.

In 2012, the biggest ride-hailing platforms in the world, Uber, announced it was setting up shop in Johannesburg, South Africa. Shortly after that, in 2013, Rocket Internet-backed EasyTaxi also announced it was setting up shop in Africa - starting with Lagos, Nigeria. OgaTaxi, MondoRide and many other homegrown ride-hailing companies soon followed.


While the homegrown players have to be commended for rising to the occasion (they have tried to remain competitive with each platform offering some sort of 'advantage' over the other), so to speak, the ride-hailing space has still been mainly dominated by Western imports (read: Uber).

Companies like Uber, with a $62.5 billion valuation, already operate in numerous countries across the world (over 60 countries, actually) and they have been able to bring that expertise and financial strength to bear on its operations in Africa.

“Since launching in Africa, the uptake has been incredible in all cities we are currently present. In a short space of time, we’re are doing thousands of trips per week, with hundreds of drivers on our system,” Uber said, back in 2012.

Brazil-born EasyTaxi on the other hand has not had it so good compared to its contemporaries. Initially, EasyTaxi looked like the only company in the space who had the means to step up to Uber but quiet exits from major markets like Kenya and Nigeria has told a different story.


That is not to say the journey has been, or is, easy for any of the other ride-hailing companies either. Uber, though claiming a large share of the market, has had to deal with protests from traditional cab drivers in Kenya and South Africa, while it is currently dealing with some tax 'issues' with Nigerian authorities.

Africa's collective economics has also been a difficult hurdle for ride-hailing in Africa. Most of the citizens do not own bank accounts or ATM cards, and the rest of them do not own smartphones to access these apps in the first place.

There is also the issue of safety. There has been several reports of drivers attacking passengers and vice versa (Uber is currently testing a panic button feature and Kenya's Little has a separate service just for women).

“A first in Kenya and Africa, Little Cab has introduced a lady friendly category, ‘Lady Bug’ with professional lady drivers to ensure women’s safety on the road,” says Kamal Budhabhatti, CEO of Craft Silicon, the company behind Little (alongside Safaricom).

Seeing as Africa is largely malnourished in terms of infrastructure, bad road network infrastructure has been something else ride-hailing companies have had to deal with over the years.


Still, this has not stopped more ride-hailing companies from popping up (and have both launched in East Africa over the past month or so) just as many others have folded up (remember EasyTaxi?). It has also paved the way for the adoption of ride-sharing, a sector that is rapidly growing.

On the other hand, other big players in the US such as Lyft are yet to establish a presence in Africa - you have to win one war first before starting another. Africa's problems are unique and tackling them is not something to take lightly - and I am guessing these companies know this.

The future does look quite good for ride-hailing in Africa though. Internet penetration keeps growing (Nigeria is the most mobile-friendly country in the world), mid-range smartphones are now more concentrated more in Africa than anywhere else in the world, and local players are stepping up to the plate.

Someday, in the not too distant future, ride-hailing is definitely going to go mainstream and more people will find themselves using technology for more than just getting to the office or meetings.


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